President of Lawrence Group (St. Louis, MO), an integrated design, development, and construction firm using the power of people with great ideas to bring clients’ dreams to life.
By Liisa Andreassen
Collectively, Lawrence Group believes in the power of design to bring people together. And, Schnaare knows that good design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes people with a broad range of talents and perspectives to create something beautiful and effective. Schnaare also co-leads the firm’s healthcare studio and under his leadership, the healthcare team has managed more than $350 million in healthcare construction over the last five years. He has multiple years of experience in managing award-winning healthcare projects and designing creative, yet practical healing environments and wellness facilities.
“It’s also important to connect with clients on a personal level beyond business – asking about their families, interests, challenges they may be facing – to show we value them as an individual, not just a business partner,” Schnaare says. “If you’re doing it right, your clients should feel like they are the only client you have because you’re so focused on them.”
A conversation with Mike Schnaare.
The Zweig Letter: Your website says that Lawrence Group culture is about “finding new ways to bring people together.” Can you provide a recent example of this?
Mike Schnaare: From the beginning, we’ve built our culture around ideas, inspiration, and working together to provide meaningful solutions. A great example of this is City Foundry STL which is an urban redevelopment project led by Lawrence Group and located in the heart of St. Louis.
This project started as an idea for an abandoned foundry complex that had been vacant for nearly a decade. Inspired by the foundry’s history and popular public markets, the vision was to reimagine the 15-acre industrial site into a destination that celebrates creative concepts in food, commerce, and entrepreneurship.
Through this project, we’ve been able to bring local consultants, tradesmen, and contractors together to create an environment that, we believe, will ultimately bring every part of the community together to celebrate innovation and encourage people from all walks of life to interact through unique, shared experiences.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
MS: Two years prior, we started to become more flexible with schedules and working remotely. We recognized the importance of establishing a work-life balance, and this allowed our employees to do that while still producing the same, high-quality results.
When COVID-19 began to impact the workforce back in March, we were in the final stages of a technology upgrade that involved moving everyone over to virtual desktops to support a flexible work environment. With the help of a consultant, our internal IT team was able to fast-track the final stages of the project and get us all up and running from home in less than 48 hours.
Prior to COVID-19, we had never operated as a fully remote organization. For now, we are using this time as an opportunity to embrace virtual meetings and establish new ways to stay connected while continuing to serve our clients at the same high level they’ve come to expect.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
MS: Historically, we approached project team diversity as a matter of meeting our clients’ requirements. But that’s not good enough. Our project teams need to be a reflection of our communities if we’re going to provide the best solutions.
Two years ago, we invested in an existing M/WBE design firm in our community. We had worked with this firm on multiple projects in the past and had cultivated a collaborative working relationship that proved to be beneficial to our clients and the community.
The goal of this initiative is to allow that firm to continue to operate as an independent M/WBE organization while providing additional resources such as IT, marketing, business development, and mentorship. Our hope is that these additional resources will help them grow into a multi-generational firm, build upon their knowledge from generation to generation, and continue to serve the community for many years to come.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as president?
MS: Providing leadership through serving others.
TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?
MS: We predict workload at two levels: macro and micro. At a macro level, we track backlog on an 18-month sliding scale. At the micro level, we’re able to predict our workload and cashflow around three to six months out – three months when work is soft, six months when work is strong.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
MS: It fluctuates. Sometimes it makes sense to focus on what’s happening in the business, such as bringing on a new account, starting a large project or maintaining a client relationship. Other times, it makes more sense to focus on the business and where we’re headed. Having a really good team gives you the flexibility to move back and forth, and I’m fortunate to have that on both sides.
TZL: The firm was started in 1983. What’s one of the most important outside events that has affected the firm’s performance – positive or negative? Please explain.
MS: Of course, Lawrence Group has encountered some challenging times such as the 9/11 tragedy, overcoming the Great Recession, and navigating the current pandemic. One particular event that will have a lasting impact on the firm’s future was our first transition of leadership.
Since its founding, our goal has always been to become a multi-generational organization. When the first of the firm’s original four founders retired in 2016, it marked the beginning of a new era. The last five years has been a critical time for our company to achieve that goal. The transition created opportunity for new leadership at many levels within the organization and, as with any change, came with risks – both business and cultural.
Over the past five years, we’ve successfully made that transition, allowing Lawrence Group to continue its unique culture and service to clients. As we completed the transition to the second generation of leadership, we’ve also begun providing training and opportunities for the third generation to continue the organization into the future.
TZL: Trust is crucial. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
MS: Each client is different and has their own individual needs, goals, and aspirations. We earn each client’s trust by listening to their challenges, providing great solutions, fulfilling our commitments, and following through.
It’s also important to connect on a personal level beyond business – asking about their families, interests, challenges they may be facing – to show we value them as an individual, not just a business partner. If you’re doing it right, your clients should feel like they are the only client you have because you’re so focused on them.
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?
MS: Employee career growth is an investment for both our employees and the future of our organization. Research shows that employee development programs increase job satisfaction, internal promotion opportunities and retention. At Lawrence Group, our leaders influence, motivate, communicate, and energize our employees to bring out the strengths of each individual. They are mentors and people to turn to when you have questions about your career path.
We recognize that the investment put toward leadership training will return tenfold. Leaders are trained on a variety of topics from our talent development department and our PEO, Insperity. Through this, we’re able to build great leaders while also retaining top talent.
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?
MS: One of the greatest traits of a leader is the ability to identify their replacement. During the early stages of an ownership transition, it’s important to identify and mentor the new leadership to put them in the best position to succeed. Communicating frequently, repeatedly, and as transparently as possible will make sure everyone is on the same page and working toward the same goals. Finding a way to align the interests of the new incoming leadership with those of the outgoing leadership will also ensure the organization is in a position to grow and succeed into the future while still maintaining its original values.
TZL: I see that “fun” is a core value. Can you tell me about a recent fun activity that celebrated an individual or team success?
MS: One company event that supports this is our annual retreat. Each year, we take a day to bring everyone together to celebrate anniversaries, promotions, and individual accomplishments. We still cover the traditional business updates, but the primary goal of these retreats is to further our culture by celebrating each other and sharing a day of fun. One of our recent retreats was a circus-themed celebration held under the Big Top in St. Louis. The day included employee recognitions, a keynote speaker, a dunking booth, and assembling bikes for the local Boys & Girls Club.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
MS: I’ve learned so many things the hard way it’s hard to choose one, but I’ve learned the ability to see the world through different perspectives other than my own. It can be challenging at times, but it’s rewarding to embrace those perspectives.