President and CEO of RLG Consulting Engineers (Best Firm Structural #13 for 2018), a Dallas-based firm in business for 65 years.
By Richard Massey
“As a young staff grows within the company, it is essential that they are given the ability to make decisions,” Markussen says. “There is risk associated with doing this, but with proper supervision and leadership, we have developed quality assurance methods to reduce issues, issues that can be identified and rectified, resulting in a learning opportunity to prevent future problems.”
A CONVERSATION WITH STUART A. MARKUSSEN.
The Zweig Letter: You have a management degree in addition to your engineering degree. How did this benefit your career?
Stuart Markussen: After I received my bachelor’s degree in engineering, I realized that working in a consulting firm is just as much about the business as it is about the engineering. The business aspect was not taught when I was working on my bachelor’s degree. There are very few engineers who have both the technical skills and the business acumen to fully understand how the business works. My education has helped me distinguish myself among my peers and has opened my eyes to other important aspects of the business outside of the technical side of engineering.
TZL: You have a ton of experience in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Tell us about competing in such a dynamic, competitive market.
SM: RLG has been in business for more than 65 years in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We’ve been able to do that by developing relationships and being a part of the community. RLG’s experience, our firm’s relationships, reputation, coupled with our ability to provide the services that best fit our client’s expectations, and at the same time providing services that improve the Dallas-Fort Worth area, has kept us ahead of the competition. We are very fortunate that North Texas has a lot of opportunities that other areas do not have. Many people are moving to the area, creating a higher demand for housing, office space, and much more. It’s a great market for engineering and construction.
TZL: It looks like your firm has had a lot of success working with educational and healthcare institutions. How did you find, develop, and maintain that niche?
SM: The educational and healthcare institutions we work with are a result of developing relationships. We have done work with many of them over the course of decades. We look at those projects as though we are a stakeholder in the project, and by being a part of the team, and part of the campus, and a part of the institution’s goals and desires, we help them get to where they want to go. We are able to provide forward thinking, as well as protect their assets on existing facilities.
TZL: Have you ever closed an under-performing office? If so, tell us about it.
SM: No, we haven’t closed any offices. We are headquartered in Dallas, but we have satellite offices in Fort Worth and Peoria, Illinois. We make a concerted effort to monitor the performances of our satellite offices to ensure they are performing well. There may be times that the satellite offices are not meeting goals and expectations, but we made a commitment to our staff and marketplace when we chose to open the office. We will do everything we can to honor our commitment to our satellite offices, by aiming to improve performance through corporate support.
TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?
SM: We look at our project managers and those that are able to develop a practice within the firm by developing clients, developing project teams, and overseeing employees, and we bring them on as an associate. As their business grows and as their skills in business management grow, they can transition into a corporate leadership role.
TZL: When did you have the most fun running your firm, and what were the hallmarks of that time in your professional life?
SM: The most fun would be now as the CEO and president of the firm. We began the leadership transition planning a few years ago to ensure we were prepared for the firm’s future course of leadership. It was during the leadership transition planning that we realized there needed to be a shift in our culture to address the changing workforce. Leading the charge to readjust our corporate culture and providing the energy that is needed for today’s workforce has been exciting.
TZL: How do you promote young and new leaders as the firm grows?
SM: It starts with developing project engineers into project manager positions. From there we assist our project managers by helping them develop a practice within the firm. You’ve got to outline your expectations. You’ve got to provide them with the ability to be able to do the work and to make mistakes. By the safeguards and quality assurance protocols we have in place we can catch potential mistakes early and use them as an opportunity for our younger staff members to learn and improve upon.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
SM: My number one job responsibility as CEO is to maintain our history and the culture that the firm has developed over the past 65 years, while promoting the changes needed for today’s workforce and economic climate.
TZL: What happens to the firm if you leave tomorrow?
SM: Over the last three years we’ve gone through the plans for our leadership transition. We are now in our third generation of leadership, and we’ve developed a plan to set up our future leaders. Those people are currently in the management roles to grow within the company and take my place.
TZL: There is no substitute for experience, but there is pressure to give responsibility to younger staff. What are you doing to address the risk while pursuing the opportunity to develop your team?
SM: As a young staff grows within the company, it is essential that they are given the ability to make decisions. There is risk associated with doing this, but with proper supervision and leadership, we have developed quality assurance methods to reduce issues, issues that can be identified and rectified, resulting in a learning opportunity to prevent future problems. We want to provide our staff with the opportunity to make decisions, but the responsibility for those decisions is still held by upper management.
TZL: Engineers love being engineers, but what are you doing to instill a business culture in your firm?
SM: As a part of our project manager training program, we are training our project managers to take responsibility for everything from business development, client management, proposal writing, overall project schedules, invoices, and project collections, in addition to the technical responsibility associated with the project. Overall the project managers have a responsibility to the firm to make sure that their projects are successful.
TZL: The seller-doer model is very successful, but with growth you need to adapt to new models. What is your program?
SM: In the last two years we’ve created a new marketing and business development department that goes beyond the seller doer model. We have committed to a rebranding campaign to highlight our 65 years of experience and the work that we currently do. We have seen a lot of success from the seller-doer model, but we want to make sure that we are creating awareness for our company through other avenues like social media to increase our exposure in the marketplace.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
SM: Employee retention is extremely important to our firm. Replacing employees is very expensive and is time-intensive. We are committed to creating enriching careers for our employees. We want our employees to be passionate about the work they do. We have made a concerted effort to create a social environment for our staff. We started as a family-owned business and we want to carry over that foundation with our staff today. We take pride in being named as a Best Firm To Work For by Zweig Group.
TZL: Tell us about the last time you named a new principal from outside the firm.
SM: Several years ago, we met someone that we knew would make a huge contribution to our team. Because of his expertise and set of complementary skills, we felt he was a key player in our profession. We made him an offer and brought him on to our team with the commitment of making him a shareholder. He currently plays a major role in the company’s leadership and has become a member of the firm’s board of directors.
TZL: Are you currently pursuing the R&D tax credit?
SM: We became aware of the R&D tax credits at Zweig’s Hot Firm Conference. We are currently reviewing possibilities of how the R&D tax credit could affect our tax position in future years as well as our historical taxes. We are currently pursuing it, investigating our options and hoping to implement changes later this year.