President and CEO of Milhouse Engineering & Construction (Hot Firm #50 for 2017), a 180-person firm based in Chicago.
By Liisa Andreassen
“Engineers aren’t usually braggadocios,” Milhouse says. “We’re just not good at it. We tend to play down our victories, successes, and accomplishments.”
A conversation with Wilbur Milhouse III.
The Zweig Letter: What’s your philosophy on fee/billing and accounts receivable? How do you collect fees from a difficult client?
Wilbur Milhouse: Collection problems and business seem to go hand in hand, I guess. We invoice every month unless the client prefers another system. The key is really consistency. If we run into problems, we call first. We follow-up after 30, 60, and 90 days. The resolution depends on the client.
TZL: What’s the recipe for creating an effective board?
WM: We have two types of boards. One is strictly internal. These people fulfill license requirements and focus on business lines. The other is an advisory board. We solicit people from other entities such as financial, legal, marketing, and business development. We also seek people from emerging markets such as gas and power.
TZL: Is there a secret to effective ownership transition?
WM: We are looking into an ESOP-related option. I like to keep things close to home. One of my children is going to be involved.
TZL: How do you go about winning work?
WM: We not only respond to the RFQ, but we track the project. It’s very important to really understand the nuts and bolts of the project so we know whether or not we have the right skill set to handle it.
TZL: What’s the greatest problem to overcome in the proposal process?
WM: Really getting to know the client. You have to ensure that you understand their needs and wants as closely as possible. We have to know that we can deliver.
TZL: Once you’ve won a contract, what are the “marching orders” for your PMs?
WM: Deliver what we said we would.
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?
WM: Engineers aren’t usually braggadocios. We’re just not good at it. We tend to play down our victories, successes, and accomplishments. Marketing knows how to bring that to light. Our marketing is always changing. We also don’t call it marketing; we call it project development. We have four silos for project development. They include:
- Individual who prepares the proposal
- Business development
- Marketing communications – brand awareness, white papers, ads, publications, social media, etc.
- Analytics group – this group researches service lines or geographical regions we’re considering moving into.
I’m always looking at how this group works together. Is it robust enough? It’s a work in progress.
TZL: What has your firm done recently to upgrade its IT system?
WM: Most recently, we’ve started moving many documents to the cloud. We have multiple offices and we’re running out of space on our servers. We’re constantly evaluating how quickly our information can move. We’re also working on upgrading our servers.
TZL: What’s the best way to recruit and retain top talent in a tight labor market?
WM: Word-of-mouth is one of our best recruitment tools. We also have a strong employee referral program with a $5,000 incentive. It’s less money than we’d have to spend on a head hunter. We also have internal and external recruiters. It’s an ongoing process. Right now we have about 40 posted positions. You have to stay ahead of the curve. Currently, our time to fill is 30 days. We provide a wide array of benefits and often ask employees what they want via an employee survey.
TZL: What’s the key benefit you give to your employees? Flexible schedule, incentive compensation, 401(k), etc.?
WM: There’s no key benefit. We have a matching 401(k); very affordable individual and family health insurance (average of about $30 per month); employee socials and holiday parties; community philanthropy; sports teams; wellness program; and a training program through Red Vector. Sixteen hours of training is required per year.
TZL: How do you raise capital?
WM: Most has come from me. We also have a credit line with the bank for growth spurts.
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.
WM: Organic. We’ve had one acquisition – a firm of eight people. The transition was practically seamless and happened about two and a half years ago. We did it to increase our skill set in our structural line. We have about 10 to 20 percent growth per year.
TZL: What’s the greatest challenge presented by growth?
WM: Financing it all. Also, getting people to buy into the culture. We do great work, impress clients, and offer a very upbeat environment. We want to create a firm where people want to work.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
WM: I used to call myself a serial entrepreneur. I’m always asking: “How can we do it better? What can we do differently? What’s the next thing?” I encourage others to bring ideas to the table and foster that type of thinking. We often have open forum meetings. It’s important to discuss and cultivate ideas all the time.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2017 and for the next five years?
WM: This year we anticipate a great deal of work in the infrastructure area. The country needs new water lines, gas lines, and roadways. For the next few years, I anticipate a focus on city building. It’s a good time to be in engineering.