President of Fleis & VandenBrink Engineering, Inc. (Hot Firm #30 for 2017), a 200-person civil engineering firm based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
By Liisa Andreassen
“Marketing is very important,” Galdes says. “We actually increased marketing during the recession and when the recession was over, business skyrocketed.”
In addition to being president of Fleis & VandenBrink Engineering, Galdes is also senior vice-president of affiliated companies F&V Construction, and F&V Operations and Resources Management.
A CONVERSATION WITH PAUL GALDES.
The Zweig Letter: The A/E market is great right now. What are you doing to cushion your firm in the event of a downturn?
Paul Galdes: We’ve been blessed. The last three to four years have been tremendous for us as a firm. But, we have to remember to be realistic. Here are some things we are doing to prepare for a downturn:
- Pay down any debt.
- Put offices in places where we know clients will need us.
- Invest in technology – upgrades to IT, phones, and security.
- Continue to be aggressive with our marketing.
TZL: What’s the greatest challenge presented by growth?
PG: Maintaining culture and communication between staff. We have a goal to improve these things. We have a culture committee that works with marketing. They just completed a video that illustrates what it’s like to work here. We had a culture video release party in November. We’ve also invested in new video conferencing technology. It’s easy to use and requires one click. It’s this technology that makes it easy for people to connect face to face and get to know each other a little better.
TZL: In the event of failure, how does your firm react?
PG: We teach our project and group managers to take a breath, pause, and not panic. Internally, we discuss what happened, try to fix what went wrong and don’t place blame. We’ll likely use it down the line as a “lesson learned” subject. We air it all out, tell the story and do our best to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
TZL: Monthly happy hours and dog friendly offices. What do today’s CEOs need to know about today’s workforce?
PG: We’ve hired a lot in the past four years and most of those hires are right out of college. During the recession, we weren’t hiring so we were aging as a workforce. With these new hires, we had to take a good, hard look at how to engage the younger workforce. Like anyone else, they need to feel valued as employees. They also want to know that they are doing work that benefits society as a whole. We work to communicate how our projects are doing that. We also do fun stuff on a regular basis like trivia nights at a local restaurant and every year, on our work anniversary, managers make breakfast for employees at all nine of our offices. Football season is also pretty big around here. We have tailgate parties in the offices for Michigan State games and hold chili cook-offs, too. Space wise, we are working to tear walls down. The younger workforce wants collaborative spaces. We’re doing some renovations that include:
- Adjustable workstations where people can stand or sit
- Three-foot versus six-foot high cubicle walls
- More collaborative areas (living-room type areas) where people can connect
TZL: The talent war in the A/E 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?
PG: We try to identify leaders early on. We challenge them to grow and to take on projects where they can be champions. We’ve always chosen to be a growth company – 10 to 15 percent per year – so we can present opportunities for leadership. It’s the key to keeping future leaders engaged.
TZL: How do you deal with underperforming employees? What are your steps for removal after they have proven to be ineffective, or even counterproductive, to your firm?
PG: We’ve always veered on the compassionate side and try to fix it. We identify problems early and are honest with people. If there’s a problem, we’ll work on a correction plan together. That usually works. As a result, the employee typically becomes dedicated moving forward. If it does not work, we will help them to find something else that better suits them.
TZL: How does marketing contribute to your success rate? Are you content with your marketing efforts, or do you think you should increase/decrease marketing?
PG: It’s very important. We look at firm surveys every year to see how we compare. Each year, we typically allot about 10-12 percent of our budget to marketing. We actually increased marketing during the recession and when the recession was over, business skyrocketed.
TZL: If there was one program, course, or degree program that you could take or recommend before becoming a principal or owner, what would it be?
PG: Basic business skills. Running a firm is a lot different than running a project. There are things like HR and leases to handle.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
PG: Entrepreneurial thinking is a quality we always look for. It’s this type of thinking that helps a firm to improve, grow, and move forward with more efficiency. We encourage our leaders to take reasonable risk. Engineers tend to be risk adverse, so it’s something that needs to be nurtured.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2017 and for the next five years?
PG: We’re right on track for our 2017 expectations. Our growth is about 12 to 15 percent. For the next five years, we want to maintain a growth between 10 and 15 percent. We’re also planning to branch out into a few new business areas. Four years ago, we started an operations company to help wastewater system companies. We’ve had a difficult time staffing for that but hope to find people to assist with those management efforts. We’re going to start marketing that soon.
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