CEO of HLB Lighting Design, Inc. (New York, NY), an internationally recognized design firm focused on architectural lighting for both interior and exterior environments.
By Liisa Andreassen
Hawley first discovered her passion for lighting design while studying architecture at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She joined HLB as a designer, working on a wide range of projects. That was nearly 25 years ago. Today, she’s actively involved in marketing and client development for the firm nationwide, and she thrives on market expansion and new opportunities.
“We are moving into the future at all times,” Hawley says. “This instills trust. We work with clients to be part of the solution even if we did not create the problem. We stick by them.”
A conversation with Carrie Hawley.
The Zweig Letter: I see that you and Barbara Horton, the firm’s founder, are co-CEOs. Tell me a little about how that came to be and the reason behind it. How are the responsibilities split?
Carrie Hawley: Well, by the time this issue is published, Barbara will be retired. She plans to retire in February 2021. When we started the strategic plan transition several years ago, Barbara approached me about my interest in being the new CEO. I’ve been a principal since 2007 and it seemed like a natural next move. We decided a co-CEO transition made a lot of sense and we did that for one year prior. It was so helpful. Barbara has been an incredible cheerleader and mentor. I was given the chance to work with a coach too to truly understand the vision of the firm as well as working to establish best practices.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
CH: We had a telecommuting policy, but it was more geared to senior staff. Prior to the pandemic, we had taken on IT and had cloud-based technology which was ready to go in December 2019. So, when the pandemic hit, we were ready. We no longer have a “policy,” but it’s now more of a guideline. It’s up to the employees to decide how they best work, thrive, and communicate. People want a sense of community too. So, we’re rethinking what’s critical together and what’s not.
TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?
CH: We have weekly projection meetings where the whole team provides projection forecasts. We recently invested in some technology to help with that. I’d say we can predict workload and cash flow very well for three months, good for six months, and decent for one year.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
CH: I work on billable work about 25 percent to 40 percent of the time. The rest is divided between firm oversight and business development. Everyone in the firm works on business development.
TZL: Trust is crucial. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
CH: Our company values earn their trust: artistry, curiosity, integrity, balance, and legacy. Also, we are moving into the future at all times. This instills trust. We work with clients to be part of the solution even if we did not create the problem. We stick by them. As a result, we have 80 percent to 90 percent client retention.
TZL: The last office HLB opened was Austin in 2018. Plans for future geographic expansion? All organic growth? Any acquisitions? If not, why not?
CH: We’re always in a growth mindset. It fuels opportunities for others. Our growth is primarily organic and we have an active group in the firm that looks at geographic expansion. Currently, we have our eyes on several markets and are always open to new ideas. In 2018, we merged with Illumination Arts and that has proved to be a successful venture.
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
CH: We’ve expanded the development and review process. The management team is now better equipped. We invest in resources and training. We also do firmwide emotional intelligence training and have a strong growth plan that sets people up for success. And, there’s HLB University once a month that helps to develop leadership opportunities within the firm. So much of what we are about has to do with communication and transparency. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We never brush stuff under the rug, but deal with it head on.
TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.
CH: Yes. Constantly. It’s part of our strategic planning. We get buy-in and focus on change management from within rather than from the top down. It keeps us fresh, innovative, and moving forward. We have weekly check-ins at town halls and talk about anything that’s changing and everyone is invited. We typically have about 90 percent attendance. We also do a lot of surveys in-house to instill buy-in. We recently started using a new survey system from Spain called TypeForm.
TZL: How often do you valuate your firm and what key metrics do you use in the process? Do you valuate using in-house staff or is it outsourced?
CH: We do an annual valuation in December. It’s a third-party audit. All the usual metrics are used (i.e., revenue, cash, liabilities, and backlog).
TZL: HLB’s website says that clients choose HLB for the “why” and “who.” Can you give me a recent example that illustrates this?
CH: We actively survey our clients and the answers we most get about why they like to work with us has to do with thought leadership and being a good partner. Our clients don’t just view us as a design facilitator. We also have a diverse market sector capability and varied design studios. Our advanced skill set also allows us to embrace controls, not just the design. We address wellness and sustainability simultaneously.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
CH: We began that a long time ago. We have this down to a science. You have to ensure that people recognize their potential and help them to see their future. The greatest pitfall is lack of communication. You have to keep asking the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” It’s also important to hire a good lawyer.
TZL: What unique or innovative pricing strategies have you developed, or are you developing, to combat the commoditization of engineering services?
CH: We have a service fee option strategy to help clients visualize what they need. We provide a three-tier presentation communication tool. The tiers are: limited, optimal, and enhanced. We find that this system puts the client in control. Instead of sending out 7-10 page legal documents that they have to go through, this 1-2 page, bulleted document is easy to digest and understand. It’s graphically pleasing and has transformed how we communicate value.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
CH: Drive trust, sense of purpose, and growth mindset. Future focus.