CEO of HGA (a multiple Hot Firm award winner), a national, 750-person integrated architecture, engineering, and planning firm based in Minneapolis.
By Liisa Andreassen
“Our most successful proposals help the client visualize the journey they will take with us,” Carl says.
A conversation with Tim Carl.
The Zweig Letter: What’s your philosophy on fee/billing and accounts receivable? How do you collect fees from a difficult client?
Tim Carl: It starts with face-to-face communication between the right representatives of both consultant and client to build a clear understanding of contract language, the fee alignments with services, and communication expectations. Clients are billed monthly with payment due upon receipt and based on contract terms.
HGA works hard to build strong, ongoing relationships with our clients – the strength of that relationship is central to successfully navigating fee issues. Project leadership leads the communication with the client, often with the resources and support of firm leadership. Firm leadership gets directly involved with the client when necessary.
TZL: What’s the recipe for creating an effective board?
TC: We look for diversity – of thought, experience, practice area, discipline, geography, gender, ethnicity, etc. We believe our collective intelligence is a key to better decision making, and ultimately, our success. We look for strategic thinkers who know how to collaborate, speak up, and follow through, and value leaders who can best connect what’s happening on the outside with what’s happening on the inside. Additionally, we have an outside board advisor from a different industry who brings fresh perspectives.
TZL: Is there a secret to effective ownership transition?
TC: We’ve been lucky. Our founders wanted to build a culture of collaboration and they backed that sentiment up with their business model. Our firm has experienced broad ownership for most of its history. Granted, the percentages may have morphed a little, but in general, 20 to 25 percent of employees have been shareholders. We collaborate on and integrate practice and business. We are transparent with our financial information and seek to have each shareholder strategically engaged in our success. These efforts have resulted in relatively smooth transitions without voids created by employee departures.
TZL: How do you go about winning work?
TC: We strive to connect with our clients at the deepest level. We work beyond just minimizing risk. We bring added passion, creativity, and insight to each opportunity to make an impact that is measurable and meaningful. Our experience and expertise in a particular project type is often an entry point, however, we win work through our research to understand the client’s needs, through demonstrating how we will listen to them and then creatively applying what we learn to their great benefit.
TZL: What’s the greatest problem to overcome in the proposal process?
TC: Connecting our experience, approach, and culture directly to the clients’ needs. We must balance the time, resources, and the hard work of understanding the client, their culture and the specific challenges of their project, and then tell that story of understanding in a way that they can quickly absorb and relate to. Our most successful proposals help the client visualize the journey they will take with us.
TZL: Once you’ve won a contract, what are the “marching orders” for your PMs?
TC: Project leadership works hard to move the project forward in sync with our proposal. Before work plans and schedules are formed, the team will confirm scope and expectations with the client and then kick off the project with a project initiation meeting. Every project must begin by gathering team members from every discipline to discuss and document collective goals (budget, building performance, design, delivery, other) so that there is diversity in the input and identification of opportunities and a shared vision for how we define success.
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?
TC: Marketing built on the research necessary to strategically differentiate us in each of our markets and as a national firm has proven to dramatically increase our success rate.
We are in the process of amplifying our marketing efforts through more effective and consistent methods of storytelling that make our point of view more transparent and to differentiate us in each of our markets.
TZL: What has your firm done recently to upgrade its IT system?
TC: Our IT team has been working tirelessly to upgrade our systems over the last year, focusing in particular on the following:
- Infrastructure and network upgrades
- Implementing the most recent updates to Windows/Office products
- Incorporating cloud-based solutions to support unified and consistent systems across our eight offices
- Enhancing mobility to support choice in how and where our employees work
- Security, security, security. The protection of our data, as well as that of our clients, is of the utmost importance to us. We have upgraded all of our firewalls, enhanced our network auditing and reporting, and emphasized security awareness on our staff through comprehensive training and education.
TZL: What’s the best way to recruit and retain top talent in a tight labor market?
TC: First, demonstrate a depth and breadth of creative opportunities with measurable impact on the clients and communities we serve. Second, manage our practices through our values: practicing empathy, cultivating curiosity, embracing originality, doing the hard work of truly listening, and leaving a shared legacy.
TZL: What’s the key benefit you give to your employees? Flex schedule, incentive compensation, 401(k), etc.?
TC: Flexibility and variety. There isn’t one benefit that is going to meet the needs of all 750 employees and their families, so we ask what matters to them and then work to incorporate a program that matches their needs. For example: offering the choice between PPO and HSA options for healthcare has resonated with our employees. We’ve added a paid parental leave benefit this year which does not benefit everyone, but is a message to the organization that we value our employees and want to help them in that stage of their life. Retirement planning and financial planning appeal to a segment of our population, but the goodwill generated from matching identified needs with programs positively affects everyone.
TZL: How do you raise capital?
TC: On an annual basis, HGA’s board of directors offers stock to associate vice presidents and vice presidents.
TZL: What’s your preferred strategy for growth, M&A or organic? Give us a synopsis of how your firm effected growth in the recent past.
TC: Organic growth, by far, is the most sustainable path for us. While we have a strong vision for where the firm is going, we empower leadership in each of our offices to collaboratively craft a vision for growth that embraces opportunities unique to their talent and to their region. Through our growth planning process we are able to look collectively at the visions for growth in each of our offices and identify gaps and make connections that help us all move in the same direction. Gaps are addressed through a combination of internal promotions, strategic hires, and acquisitions.
TZL: What’s the greatest challenge presented by growth?
TC: Having each person at HGA feel intimately connected with their teams and communities while still being able to take advantage of the larger HGA experience. We want the best of both worlds – and this requires a lot of intentional, open and honest communication among us all. High level, effective communication across the firm is the greatest challenge.
Organic growth and growth through strategic hires and acquisitions all require the right investments – in research, infrastructure and labor – to be successful.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2017 and for the next five years?
TC: We’ve experienced sustainable growth over the last 20 years. Through our growth planning process we have a comprehensive perspective of how we might grow year-over-year for the next five years. Our intentional planning balances how we drive business success with how we cultivate our practice and elevate the art and science of our work to have the most enduring impact on our clients and communities.