With the unequivocal success of this year’s Hot Firm & A/E Industry Awards Conference in Dallas, all eyes now turn to Las Vegas in 2019.
By Richard Massey
Chad Clinehens, Zweig Group’s president and CEO, said this year’s Hot Firm conference represented a quantum leap forward for the firm and its signature event. Record attendance of nearly 300, high energy among attendees, and a good mix of fun and education marked the two-day gathering, which unfolded at the palatial Fairmont Hotel.
With Zweig Group’s new mission, Elevate the Industry, undergirding the 19th annual conference, Clinehens was accurate in his assessment that, indeed, Zweig Group has arrived at a new plateau from which to do bigger and better things for the market, people and firms it serves.
He opened the conference with a bang, veering from a humorous story about a misadventure at the 2017 conference in Seattle, to the presentation of industry statistics culled from Zweig Group’s extensive catalogue of AEC research and intelligence.
Clinehens ended his address with a pointed, forward-looking message, one that set the tone for the entire assembly.
“Promote, diversify, educate, change, and celebrate,” Clinehens told the audience. “We can’t do this alone. We must come together and be intentional. Zweig Group is ready to continue our evolution as an advisor and hub of information and resources while leading this movement – one that brings us together to promote and advance the industry.”
Before this year’s event was even over, people were looking west, to Las Vegas, where the 2019 conference will be held October 2-5 at the Green Valley Ranch Resort.
One hundred of the nation’s fastest-growing firms were honored this year, as well dozens of Best Firms to Work For. Awards were also issued for Marketing Excellence and to individual Rising Stars. The 2018 event culminated in a black-tie gala and concert by ‘80s cover band Ultra Suede. As with many engagements hosted by Zweig Group, there was plenty of food and drink.
At the heart of the conference were the breakout sessions, hour-long drill-downs on a variety of topics – presented by conference sponsors and consultants – from marketing and company culture to ownership transition, research and development, mergers and acquisitions, technology, strategy, business development, ESOPS, and an entertaining open mic by none other than firm founder and chairman Mark Zweig.
Looking back on nearly 40 years in the AEC industry, Zweig said the biggest changes he’s seen are that firms have finally embraced marketing, and that increasing value has been placed on business acumen, not just design expertise. Zweig, of course, circled back to the foundation of any good firm – its people.
“You have to treat your folks well or they will leave,” Zweig says. “You can’t be too cheap and you have to be nice.”
This year’s sponsors were Corporate Tax Advisors, Bentley, ProjectBoss, Wintrust Commercial Banking, AEC Business Solutions, Client Savvy, Ames & Gough, KiwiCo, BLK EYE Vodka, Hiball Energy, Menguin, and Civil + Structural Engineer magazine. Keynote speakers included Jay Steinfeld, founder and CEO of Blinds.com, and Christopher Parsons, founder and CEO of Knowledge Architecture.
One of the liveliest breakouts was the one focused on an important topic in the AEC industry – mergers and acquisitions. Hosted by Jamie Claire Kiser, Zweig Group’s CFO and director of consulting, the panel featured Bryan Powell, VP, Land Division, Westwood Professional Services; L. Joe Boyer, CEO, Atlas Technical Consultants; Paul DiDonato, CEO and president, ATI Architects and Engineers; and Lawson & Weitzen attorney George Christodoulo.
“Once you do a deal, the headhunters are on the phone,” said Christodoulo, referring to the ripple effect an acquisition can have on a selling firm’s employees. While staffers who must sign non-competes are important, the selling firm’s employees that really need to be retained, post-deal, are the ones on the next tier down. You lose them, and you could lose the firm.
“What are my people going to think of this?” said Christodoulo, referring to a critical question that all selling CEOs must ask themselves – and appropriately answer.
Boyer, who recently closed on the acquisition of Atlanta-based Piedmont Geotechnical Consultants, had this to say about mergers and acquisitions: “There’s no such thing as a merger. There’s always a buyer and there’s always a seller.”
Dickerson Wright, chairman and CEO of NV5, the No. 1 Hot Firm for 2018 and 2017, during his keynote address spoke to the importance of organic growth and how to keep employees satisfied and engaged. A publicly traded company, NV5 offers stock to all employees.
“Equity, equity, equity,” Wright said, referring to his firm’s approach to inclusion in a company with a flat org chart.
Repeat conference sponsor and long-time management consultant June Jewell, founder of AEC Business Solutions, appeared in front of a packed house during her breakout session, Getting Your Employees to Think (And Act) Like Owners. Having met with countless CEOs to discuss the ills that infect their firms, Jewell has her finger on the pulse of the C-suite and those they lead. Not surprisingly, her comments were consistently met with nods of approval as she moved through her presentation.
Referring to over-delivery on projects, potential leaders that know nothing about business, employees that don’t use company systems, increasing overhead and declining fees, disengaged employees, work silos, and PMs that might be PMs in title only, Jewell looked at her audience and, with a knowing glance, said, “There are things that are happening in your company that you think should be different.”