I’ve been consulting with architecture and engineering firms for nearly 30 years, through up times and down times and everything in between. For much of our industry these are great times: Firms involved in infrastructure have benefitted from the injection of federal funds from the IIJA (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act). One of my clients recently remarked “this is the greatest time to be an engineer in my career!” For many architecture and building engineering firms these are also good times (in most markets), even though they may not be buoyed up as much by federal funding.
But what does it take to succeed in the long run? And what, specifically, can your firm do now to prepare for the future?
Markets and services. If you’ve been in this business a while, you understand the cyclicality of markets driven by economic, demographic, political, regulatory, and other megatrends and forces beyond our control. Positioning your firm through select, strategic diversification in independently driven markets is critical to the long term stability and sustainability of your firm, and many clients have told me “we were saved by balancing our markets during the last downturn.”
Marketing and business development. Why focus on marketing and BD now when there is so much available work? Investing to further strengthen your firm’s position as a market leader (in the right markets) even when—and especially when—there’s plenty of work is exactly the right time. Build your market leadership position and develop deep client relationships now to help keep the pipelines full in your target markets when the flow diminishes, as it inevitably will.
Be open to new approaches. Every firm today is struggling to find qualified and sufficient talent to produce the work already in their backlog. Even in the face of this ongoing dilemma, I’m still surprised at how resistant some firms are to changing their traditional approaches to attracting, engaging, and developing their staff. It’s a brave new world—especially considering the profound and yet to be determined long term impact of remote work—and firms have to go to previously unforeseen lengths, sometimes beyond the comfort zones of principals and owners, to demonstrate how much they care for and about their people.
Project delivery. Efficient and effective project delivery has always been imperative, after all it’s how firms earn a profit. But today’s hyper-competitive environment combined with the scarcity of resources and the advent of emerging technologies like AI demands that your firm have crackerjack project managers and well-trained and coordinated project teams.
L There are still firms led by aging boomers (sorry…) that have made insufficient preparations for the next—and the next—generations of leaders. Too many firms still have a large gap between a few principals who run the firm and project managers who only run projects. No firm can succeed in the long run unless and until it bridges that gap by investing in developing its future leaders.
The same “boomer” factor affecting leadership succession also impacts ownership transition: too many firms still have too much concentrated ownership in the hands of principals approaching the ends of their careers. Our strong economy and firms’ high performance have boosted the value of many firms beyond the affordability of a small group of internal buyers. Primary stockholders have to begin selling down (soon!) to a broader group of buyers in order to be able to transition internally (vs. selling to another firm or even to private equity investors).
Any or all of the bulleted items above are common topics that firms address in their strategic plans, which shouldn’t surprise anyone reading this. Basic stuff? Of course. The foundations of a long-term successful firm? Absolutely!
Ray Kogan has more than 30 years of experience in the practice, management, and marketing of architecture, engineering, and construction services. He has worked with more than 150 architecture, engineering, and construction firms to develop their strategic plans.