COO of Aguirre & Fields, LP (Best Firm Multi-discipline #27 for 2018), a 120-person engineering firm based in Houston.
By Liisa Andreassen
“If you haven’t started planning for ownership transition, you’re behind and you should start today,” Lubitz says. “It’s the most critical issue facing growing firms and especially companies of first and second generations.”
A CONVERSATION WITH DAVE LUBITZ.
The Zweig Letter: The design-build delivery model appears to be trending upward. What are the keys to a successful design-build project? What are the risks?
Dave Lubitz: We’ve been fortunate to work on some of the most impactful projects in Texas through the design-build process. Our delivery model as well as our design-build partners have allowed us the opportunity to work on billion-dollar mega-projects typically not available for mid-sized firms like us.
A unique mindset is imperative to successfully managing all the moving pieces as well as unexpected project changes. Understanding the key driving factors of the owner, contractor, and all disciplines is key to success in both the proposal and design phases.
We have found that primary risks in design-build efforts are design changes and optimization by the owner and contractor. Extensive communication and involvement in early development of alternatives and design procedures allows us to mitigate risks. Establishing quality control protocols as well as holding individuals accountable to following said protocols through regular quality audits, is key to eliminating mistakes. It’s equally important to review plans at each submittal stage with a fresh mindset instead of taking for granted that other disciplines may have remained unchanged.
Change is the only constant in design-build, so we’re always developing more efficient and automated procedures to proactively manage design-build projects.
TZL: There are AEC leaders who say profit centers create corrosive internal competition for firm resources. What’s your opinion on profit centers?
DL: Our goals are guided by consistently allowing fluid workshare across offices with shared responsibility, care, and success. We perceive profit centers to cause the stifling of team cooperation while team-oriented support and integrity equals success for our clients, the public, our employees as well as the company.
TZL: What’s your policy on sharing the firm’s financials with your staff? Weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually? And how far down into the org chart is financial information shared?
DL: The financial health of the company is shared with all on a quarterly basis via top and bottom line revenue as well as annually at our all-hands company meeting. We believe that transparency is empowerment and provides clear feedback on financials as it relates to each area of the company. We encourage all to embrace and educate themselves about business financials and ask questions to grasp the bigger picture of the company’s financial progress.
TZL: The talent war in the AEC industry is here. What steps do you take to create the leadership pipeline needed to retain your top people and not lose them to other firms?
DL: Above all, we focus on finding and retaining professionals whose personal passions align with our collective purpose. We hire people with character, competence, and consistency who want to be part of a purpose-driven organization and operate as a collective team. Our purpose as a collective company is serving for the greater good, providing opportunities and paths to what employees are passionate about, and allowing for autonomy in many roles. We have also recently created a Leadership Academy for our inaugural class of 2018 to help continuously identify and equip our next generation of leaders within the company. To maintain and develop high levels of expertise and professionalism, we encourage professional and educational activities and provide time off with pay for taking E.I.T. or P.E. examinations and other certifications.
TZL: While plenty of firms have an ownership transition plan in place, many do not. What’s your advice for firms that have not taken steps to identify and empower the next generation of owners?
DL: If you haven’t started planning for ownership transition, you’re behind and you should start today. It’s the most critical issue facing growing firms and especially companies of first and second generations. These two steps are imperative:
- Communicate to your next generation of leaders that their future with the company is vital and equip them with tools to learn and grow.
- Fund ownership transitions and the commitment on both sides (sellers and buyers) with significant overlap and handoff. The critical key to this step is maintaining the financial health of the entire company throughout.
TZL: Zweig Group research shows there has been a shift in business development strategies. More and more, technical staff, not marketing staff, are responsible for BD. What’s the BD formula in your firm?
DL: Our company vision calls for us to be entrusted by the communities we serve. To achieve this vision, communities must, without a doubt, know and trust our project managers and project teams to deliver what they expect. Equally important, however, is the leadership our business development staff provides in the community. All in all, both professional and marketing staff are responsible for the positive experience of every client.
TZL: Diversifying the portfolio is never a bad thing. What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?
DL: We’ve been providing a large percentage of our services to Texas Department of Transportation projects. Since TxDOT experienced a near shutdown of projects in 2008 due to funding issues, we diversified our client base and added services to meet city and county civil and transportation needs as well. In 2015, our Construction Engineering & Inspection group blossomed and now accounts for nearly half our revenue. Moving forward, we continue to expand our service base to provide more holistic solutions for our communities.
TZL: The list of responsibilities for project managers is seemingly endless. How do you keep your PMs from burning out? And if they crash, how do you get them back out on the road, so to speak?
DL: We strive to provide balance to PM workloads through defined projections and staff assignments using our own proprietary tools. In line with our character mentality, our staff always works as a team and provides support in and across offices. This type of support is possible through consistent cross training and cross discipline teaming.
Regular lunch-and-learns, cross staff mentoring, training, and technology create efficiency and effectiveness. For example, we are soon to start our own leadership training program to enhance communications and management skills of our PMs. Early in their career/development, we allow PMs to experience the full range of PM responsibilities to build understanding and competence across our services spectrum.
We ensure staff and PMs know they are never an island and are always supported. Should a PM or staff feel overwhelmed, others will jump in without being asked and provide – not just offer – assistance. We are a team across the board through every level, no questions asked.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
DL: The company was founded on entrepreneurship and continues to empower employees to invent and innovate. Oscar Aguirre, our CEO, is a creator who, just a few weeks ago, jumped in his car for five hours for a drone photogrammetry flight on a bridge to continue developing our 3D design and visualization services.
We foster and support community champions and related efforts as this is the foundation for “local entrepreneurship.” Our open opportunity atmosphere encourages all to look for leads, develop relationships, and forge paths in serving clients and communities. Innovation has always been a component of entrepreneurship and is highly encouraged.
TZL: In the next couple of years, what AEC segments will heat up, and which ones will cool down?
DL: The civil and transportation markets in Texas remain strong as the population continues to grow and the state legislature remains committed to funding infrastructure. Equal commitment can be observed at the local level of many municipal entities putting forth large bond propositions. Specifically, we have noticed a renewed commitment in the Houston region to deal with flooding problems on a scale we have never seen before. With population growth in our service regions, we also expect residential, commercial, water, and municipal service demands to continue to increase.
TZL: Measuring the effectiveness of marketing is difficult to do using hard metrics for ROI. How do you evaluate the success/failure of your firm’s marketing efforts when results could take months, or even years, to materialize? Do you track any metrics to guide your marketing plan?
DL: We use a comprehensive and sophisticated CRM system to track our leads and opportunities. Our collected data enables us to gauge our effectiveness with every potential client as well as the success of project manager pairing. Our proposal team tracks short list and win rates to measure against industry averages and to lead to greater success rates. The collected data plays a critical part in our communication strategy and assists in determining which clients to watch and which segments to target.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
DL: Our greatest lesson learned over the past few years is related to growing our company, particularly by opening new office locations and adding service lines. In line with company growth, and hiring talented people, we had to learn to continuously provide information and support to our new team members, so they can live the Aguirre & Fields’ unique way of doing things.
TZL: While M&A is always an option, there’s something to be said about organic growth. What are your thoughts on why and how to grow a firm?
DL: We like to grow organically. This perspective allows us to best live our culture and character focus within each employee. Culture is our true differentiator when it comes to finding and keeping talented employees and we want to keep it that way. We’re committed to an ongoing program of character development and training. Character motivates achievement by enhancing employee character qualities such as punctuality, diligence, initiative, orderliness, and thoroughness. The results are increased efficiency, a decrease in costs, and greater accomplishments. Our view on organic growth is based on encouraging and developing both external and internal relationships and values.