How Hot Firms keep the heat on

November 2012 » Columns » BEYOND WORDS
Christina Zweig

What actions helped architectural, engineering, planning and environmental firms get on The Zweig Letter 2012 Hot Firm List? Leaders of these successful firms explained recent positive changes that have landed some on the list for the first time, and for others, continued a longstanding tradition.

CTL Engineering Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, has been a successful company for a long time, but the status quo just isn't good enough. "Change is constant at CTL," said C.K. Satyapira, president and CEO of the full-service consulting engineering, testing, inspection, and analytical laboratory services company that has made it to the list for the third year in a row. "We have invested in technology to make it easy for the employees and the clients to communicate and document activity. Further, we continue to invest in educating employees on the best practices while seeking input from the employees themselves to improve. CTL is a majority ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) since 1999 and our employees have achieved this success by incorporating an ownership culture into their regular routine."

Like CTL, Houston-based GATE Inc., a multidiscipline engineering firm, is focused on continuous improvement and employee ownership. "We participate in Hot Firm as a counterpoint to our participation in the Best Firms To Work For awards. We want to demonstrate to our staff, and to the industry in general, that it is possible to retain and develop staff and treat them well while still growing a strong and profitable company," said Lee Jordan, operations manager.

The firm has made the list every year since 2009, and each year, the firm's placing on the list has improved. "In order to ensure that we continue to rate well on the Hot Firm List in the coming years, we have changed our employee ownership strategy to broaden our ownership base among our senior management team," Jordan said. "We are also in the process of implementing an ESOP program to give all our staff an opportunity to take a stake in GATE. Our experience to date is that this approach is energizing our whole team and making our future leaders think more deeply about how they will develop and how they may provide added value to our operations."

ALL4 Inc., Kimberton, Pa., a 36-person environmental consulting firm, has shown consistent revenue growth for the first 10 years of its existence, said William Straub, president/CEO. But, in 2011, they decided to capitalize on the rapidly shifting regulatory climate to exceed their ambitious revenue goal by 10 percent. Though the firm made the Hot Firm List last year, continued improvement has been a priority, landing them on the list again this year.

Straub said, "Developing and implementing a successful and repeatable approach to new business development (or ALL4 Initiatives), driven by regulatory or technology changes in the environmental arena" was a large positive change made by the firm. "The approach entails: 1) identifying the opportunities; 2) developing the regulatory/technical expertise; 3) educating and enrolling our customers; and 4) executing the projects," Straub said. "We completed two different ALL4 Initiatives in 2011, each generating over $500K in new business development."

PDC Inc. Engineers, Anchorage, Alaska, an 80-person multidiscipline firm that specializes in arctic and cold region design and construction, revisited their strategic plan. That's an approach Royce Conlon, president, said helped the firm keep up the heat and stay successful, even in frigid temperatures.

"Through this process we recommitted to our 'Arctic Initiative,' which focuses our staff on what we do best – cold region design serving the uniquely challenging Arctic and other cold region environments," Conlon said. "Knowing our niche and focusing on understanding our client's unique requirements has been instrumental in PDC's success."

Stanley Schultz, owner and principal at Schultz & Summers Engineering, Poplar Bluff, Mo., a 70-person civil engineering firm, has made many changes in the business recently, changes that have undoubtedly earned him a spot on the Hot Firm List for the first time in the company's history. Among them, he hired a part-time CFO. "His influence has given me great confidence about our future," Schultz said.

For other changes, Schultz said he "bought out my business partner so that I once again own 100 percent of the firm; established an office in my hometown so that the firm could maintain its Federal HUBZone status; increased our emphasis on training and professional development of our young staff; [and] started having managers' meetings semi-annually that have served as great team-building events."

Like many of the other firms on the list, Schultz attributes much of his firm's success to employees. "We work in four geographic areas and have three areas of practice (civil engineering, surveying, and materials testing)," he said. "Many years ago we cross-trained many of our employees to accomplish tasks in two or more of our areas of practice, and today are able to shift our talent from one area to another as the workload demands."

This article is abridged from the Aug. 27, 2012 issue of The Zweig Letter. The 2012 Hot Firm rankings will be published in the December issue of CE News, or visit www.zweigwhite.com/events/hotfirm/index.asp

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