President and CEO of Barton & Loguidice, a full-service consulting firm headquartered in Syracuse, New York.
By Liisa Andreassen
Brusa became president and CEO of Barton & Loguidice in 2017 following his years as leader of the firm’s Solid Waste Practice Area. As a licensed professional engineer in six states, Brusa has led engineering teams on many permitting, design, and construction projects throughout the eastern U.S. and he continues to stay engaged with the firm’s solid waste practice area in his corporate leadership role.
“Our technical and professional reputation, coupled with our growth, draw people to us,” Brusa says. “Growth shows prospective employees that the company is active and is doing things right. Growth provides opportunity, and opportunity is what people are looking for.”
A conversation with John Brusa.
The Zweig Letter: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cash flow?
John Brusa: The industry is currently in an exciting time with many sectors across the country being quite busy. While accurate forecasts are always difficult, B&L’s outlook is strong and our backlog continues to grow. At this time, our workload can be predicted out over 12-14 months in most practice areas. We’ve also seen some strong movement in receivables outstanding which has had a positive impact on cashflow.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
JB: My faith and my family come first in my life. Work is certainly linked to my personal life since it provides for my family. My family keeps me focused on the importance of delivering on my career goals. I do my best not to bring my work home with me in a way that may negatively affect my family. Yes, there are times when I need to open my laptop at the kitchen table and work alongside my children as they study for school. I think that shows my children the importance of dedication and a strong work ethic. However, I definitely try not to bring work related problems home. I can’t forget the importance of my wife in all of this. It’s our teamwork in raising our family that helps contribute to our overall success.
There are also times when meetings and work commitments may overlap with family commitments. When conflicts occur, many times my partners will step up and cover for me and vice versa. B&L has a strong family culture and we feel it’s important to maintain this culture, even as we continue to grow. At the end of the day I have two families and I do my best to manage the obligations for both.
TZL: What, if anything, are you doing to protect your firm from a potential economic slowdown in the future?
JB: While the industry is currently experiencing a period of prosperity, it’s inevitable that things will slow down in the future. One of B&L’s strengths is its diversity in services which helps greatly in periods of economic recession. Sometimes a particular practice area may be strong due to funding or other economic/regulatory factors while another might be in a period of transition. B&L’s diversity has certainly been a significant factor in managing this risk during its 58-year history.
We continue to expand our service offerings by investing in our people and examining merger and acquisition opportunities where they make sense. Besides growing service offerings, B&L has expanded its geographic footprint, both organically and through mergers and acquisitions. Recessions don’t always hit every geographic area the same way. Because of this, we believe geographic growth will help us be more resilient to an economic slowdown and allow us to provide services in various areas of the country.
It’s also important to continue to invest in your people and infrastructure during a time of prosperity. You always need to strive to lead the way with technological advancements and invest in business infrastructure upgrades. When a downturn hits, you can focus your resources into your clients and projects instead of worrying about the expense of upgrades when cashflow may be constricted.
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?
JB: For some managers, effectively managing people comes naturally. For others, not so much. Leadership is something that can be learned and B&L has made significant investments in various leadership training programs for our staff to manage people more effectively. Some training programs have been internal, while others have been multi-month external trainings offered by industry organizations. The core of these trainings comes down to emotional intelligence which we feel is critical in any organization, but especially in a firm with our size and diversity.
B&L also has strong family core values: teamwork, trust and integrity, inspiration and motivation. We look to invest in managers who embrace and implement these core values in their day-to-day work. People will want to follow these managers, not leave them.
TZL: What novel approaches are you bringing to recruitment, and how are your brand and differentiators performing in the talent wars?
JB: Recruiting continues to be a strong focus. With steady growth in project backlog, we need to continue to add staff to support our overall expansion as well as to provide for transition. This can be increasingly difficult as the baby boomers are retiring from practice in both the public and private sectors, creating a wealth of opportunities for talented design professionals. Recognizing this trend, B&L has put various recruiting initiatives in place including an enhanced employee referral bonus program and investing in our HR and talent acquisition staff.
Our brand, core values, and our diverse family of practice areas has been key not only to filling open positions but in retaining staff. In addition, our technical and professional reputation, coupled with our growth, draw people to us. Growth shows prospective employees that the company is active and is doing things right. Growth provides opportunity, and opportunity is what people are looking for.
TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.
JB: Change management is definitely a topic we address at B&L – especially in today’s dynamic business environment. It’s also something we explore in great depth in our leadership trainings. Positive change is important to an organization and, when done properly, can inspire and motivate. To properly manage and implement change, you need to roll out the change in stages starting with a small group, then to a larger group and eventually to the company overall. Using this method, you build consensus, allow for potential problems to be identified and corrected, and build a team of support to help implement and explain the change throughout the organization.
Over the last three years, our employees have seen a significant amount of change at B&L including leadership transition, mergers and acquisitions, and policy and benefits changes. I think we have been successful in positively managing change in a way that is consistent with our family and business core values by providing motivation and inspiration.
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?
JB: As part of our firm’s continuing transfer of ownership plan (CTO plan), B&L is valued on an annual basis as required by our shareholders agreement. The key financial metrics that are incorporated into the overall valuation include growth in book value, adjusted earnings, financial performance ratios, and transactional multiples of similar consulting engineering firms. Our annual valuation is prepared internally and reviewed by our outside CPA/consulting firm.
TZL: What financial metrics do you monitor to gauge the health of your firm?
JB: There are a variety of metrics used to monitor the health and wealth of a professional service firm. First of all, working with our CFO, controller, and practice area leaders, I find it’s important to develop a firm-wide budget that provides a roadmap for the firm’s expected financial performance that can be monitored monthly. We budget staffing, utilization, and revenue factor by practice area which is then rolled-up to a corporate-wide budget which includes overhead and projected pre-discretionary profit. On a monthly basis, we track our performance to budget on a month-to-date and year-to-date basis looking closely at staff utilization, gross profit, revenue factor, overhead rate, and pre-discretionary net income. We also closely monitor billings and cash collections while keeping a keen eye on the pipeline of work coming in the door through project backlog.
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?
JB: Certainly, having a comprehensive ownership transition plan is critical to managing ownership and leadership transition. A solid, comprehensive plan will provide for all of the key components of effective ownership transition including valuation, funding, and a clear definition of the events leading to a required ownership transfer. We have also found that having a predictable transition model is key as this will provide opportunity to up-and-coming design professionals to assume key leadership roles. Like anything, the most important element to ensuring a smooth transition is communication and B&L has provided the appropriate level of transparency with regard to the operation of the CTO plan and the firm’s current and historical financial performance.
The biggest pitfall to avoid in ownership transition is complacency – a firm’s ownership transition model needs to be continuously evaluated and examined to ensure that all of the necessary resources in terms of human and financial capital are available to make the plan viable for the long-term.
TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?
JB: B&L has developed B&L University, also known as “B&L U.” B&L U is a training program designed for the professional and personal development of our employees. The program is structured with a tiered curriculum and specific courses are targeted for all levels of staff, from entry-level to management. Each curriculum includes mandatory and elective courses taught by a combination of internal experts and industry leaders outside the firm. The courses cover everything from software basics to leadership training. We recognize the importance of investing in our people and there is no better way than thoughtful and relevant training.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
JB: Conductor. As CEO, you have to control the tempo of many things in a company. Some strategic items need to be expedited while others need to be modified or held back until ready for the proper timing for release. The CEO is always looking to see what pieces to add or subtract to the ensemble to benefit the firm as a whole. You need to communicate and provide guidance to the firm leaders to help set the course and tempo for where the company needs to be in the future.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
JB: We feel that our diversity in practice areas, our culture, core values, and personal and professional growth opportunities provide our employees with all of the key ingredients for a long-term and rewarding career. We continue to invest in our people and our long-term strategic plan by way of competitive compensation and benefits packages as well as technology, infrastructure, and growth initiatives where they make sense. We work hard to stay “ahead of the curve” in these areas and hope that our employees recognize these key differentiators.