Archive for March, 2009

Bridge Engineer Craig Finley offers his Perspective to Aspire magazine

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Craig Finley, the founder and managing principal of Finley Engineering Group, Inc. (FINLEY) is the featured columnist in the Perspectives section of Aspire magazine’s Spring issue. Published by the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI), Aspire is the organization’s bridge-focused magazine.

In his column, the widely published Finley ties the concept of sustainability to efficiency in bridge design and construction. Quoting a long-time goal of the American Segmental Bridge Institute (ASBI), Finley writes that sustainability’s interests are served when the project team “gets in, gets out, and stays out.” Read more at:

Design Consultants, Inc. cover story in MassBuilder on Low-Impact Development

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Read it here from the 4Q issue of MassBuilder Magazine.

Rich Friedman talks branding at A/E Advisors CEO Roundtable

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Posing the question, “What’s so special about your company?”, marketing strategy consultant Richard Friedman challenged the assembled AEC firm leaders to consider how their firms were truly different from competitors during a session at the recent A/E Advisors CEO Roundtable in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The key point in Friedman’s session is that every firm differentiator needs to pass the “So what?” litmus test — as in, if you recite the reasons your firm is better and the client thinks or says, “So What? How does that help me?”, your “differentiator” really isn’t one.

That came clear when Friedman asked the CEOs in the smaller-firm session (150 or fewer employees) what differentiated them from the competition. Many of the answers were the same as their competitors may have offered — great client service, responsiveness, repeat clientele, and so on. While these factors are important, Friedman noted, they are not true differentiators. Consider the comment about repeat clientele; since an estimated 80% of all AEC projects are for repeat clients, the satisfied customer angle doesn’t hold much water as a differentiator.

A few firms did have true differentiators. For example, an engineering firm CEO whose company focuses exclusively on airports explained that a high percentage of people in his firm — himself included — fly planes. So they are not only consultants to airports on runways and facilities, they are primary users!

Friedman cautioned that many firms seeking to communicate a differentiator will mistakenly focus on features of their firm (e.g., size, location, client satisfaction rate), rather than on the benefits they can provide to the customer (e.g., innovative project delivery, streamlined communications, specialized expertise).

A number of participants suggested that client surveys are a great way to learn how customers perceive your firm’s differentiators. A client survey can help a firm identify its “brand” as defined by customers and peers. The consensus was that this approach is most effective and efficient done over the phone by a third party interviewer.

Another technique that the CEOs liked was the strategy of debriefing a prospect after winning a project, not only after losing one. When you’ve won the project, the environment is likely to be much less tense and more amicable than when you’ve lost. You can find out not only what you did well and where you could improve, but also how your competition did in those areas.

Among the action plan items to come out of the session were:

* Recognize that your project delivery process can be a very compelling differentiator in a crowded playing field (e.g., how they communicate with clients, continually asking how they’re doing).

* Brainstorm your firm’s differentiators and value provided (in the context of the client’s needs) before every proposal.

* Structure your marketing and business development plans and implementation around client sectors, if possible.

Rich Friedman is managing principal of Friedman & Partners, a marketing and management consulting firm based in Massachusetts. The firm’s web site is

HR Consultant Barbara Irwin Launches a New Generation of Leaders at A/E Advisors CEO Roundtable

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

Should the primary attribute of a prospective A/E firm CEO be an aversion to the job? That was one participant’s half-joking observation when HR Consultant Barbara Irwin asked participants to list the qualities an A/E firm CEO should possess.

“The first thing I look for (in a future leader) is someone who doesn’t want the job,” said the CEO of a large, growing engineering firm in the Midwest. “If they want it too much, they’re probably not right for the job.”

That moment of levity occurred during Irwin’s session, “The Leadership Pipeline: Launching a New Generation of Leaders,” at the A/E Advisors CEO Roundtable in Scottsdale, Arizona, last week.

Irwin began the 90-minute open discussion by noting that firms needing money can borrow from a bank, but firms with a leadership void face a much more difficult challenge. This is why it is critical for the current upper management group to continually identify and groom the next generation of leaders.

The president of a West Coast firm said he expects his firm’s next generation of top managers to have the same traits he had when he was tapped as a future leader – “a moral compass, strong work ethic, and if something needs to be done, they do it. If I don’t feel these things are there, I won’t recommend them.”

Other qualities identified by the CEOs, all of whom were from firms with more than 150 employees, included:

· Vision
· Problem-solving ability
· Flexibility
· People skills, both internal and external
· Loyalty to the firm’s core principles
· Capacity to learn
· Drive

An East Coast CEO noted that creating a list of desired attributes for the next generation of leaders is a good way to thin the herd and move the transition process forward. “If you look at this list, you can consolidate the pool of candidates to a relatively small group. You can then spend time with the ones you’ve chosen and show them the business.”

The same CEO added that he sees value in letting the candidates know that they are in competition for the top job. “It’s a horse race and they’ve got to run.”

Irwin wrapped up the session with several action items proposed by the group. They included:

· Identify traits for different leaders at different levels within the firm.
· Develop a training program
· Assign individuals to sit on committees and boards.

Irwin led a similar session for CEOs from smaller firms (fewer than 150 employees) on the first day of the three-day conference at the Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale.

A long-time HR executive with A/E firms prior to forming her own company, Irwin is the president of HR Advisors Group, LLC. For more information about HR Advisors Group, A/E Advisors, or the CEO Roundtable, visit

A/E Advisors Keynote a Huge Hit

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

A/E Advisors CEO Roundtable keynote speaker Herb Meyer presented a fascinating, if sometimes chilling outlook on world economics and politics at the group’s three-day summit in Scottsdale, Arizona. Meyer, a former high-level U.S. intelligence official, is a frequent guest of television talk shows and the author of the book Real-World Intelligence.

Demographics played a large role in Meyer’s worldview; he explained that a birth rate of 2.1 is necessary to maintain consistent human population and that many countries are well below that level. Specifically, he offered statistical evidence that large, industrialized countries in Europe and Asia are “on a downward spiral” because their birth rates aren’t sufficient to sustain their economic standing in an increasingly aging society. For example, Meyer said, India will soon outdistance China in terms of economic power and influence because China’s birth rate is unable to keep pace with the population growth necessary to continue moving ahead.

Meyer also compared the conflict between radical Islam and modern Western Civilization as a “clash of competing operating systems.” He added that people could debate whether the Iraq War was executed properly and/or worth the expense, but that it is ultimately a “spectacular success” because it created a democratic state in the Middle East. He was less encouraged about the situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has regained power, and somewhat horrified by recent events in Pakistan, where the Taliban is attempting to wrest control from a government that possesses nuclear weapons.

The connection between Meyer’s assessment of the geopolitical landscape and the challenges facing the A/E business leaders in the room was often thin (which was just fine with the vast majority of the audience, based on their favorable reaction to his speech). However, he did offer a bit of sage business advice relative to the world events he discussed in his speech. Most notably, Meyer said that the middle class is expanding by millions of people worldwide every year and, to meet the needs of this explosion of consumers, companies that can create products and services that are “clever, inexpensive, and green” will take the lead.

Meyer’s keynote was the highlight of a three-day CEO summit sponsored by leading A/E industry consultants, A/E Advisors. The program featured a day dedicated exclusively to CEOs of firms with fewer than 150 employees, a day dedicated exclusively to firms with more than 150 employees, and a middle day where both groups came together to share their thoughts, ideas, and war stories as the industry tries to survive the current economic downturn.

Structural engineer Charles Thornton provided the other keynote presentation, advocating for the use of building information modeling (BIM) as well as for the ACE mentor program that exposes inner-city high school students to the A/E profession. Thornton, a co-founder of Thornton Tomasetti Engineers in New York City, also founded the ACE program.

Highlights from Day One of A/E Advisors CEO Roundtable

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Kathryn Sprankle’s session entitled “Good Governance: What Strong Boards Should Accomplish” was one of two sessions kicking off the first day of A/E Advisors’ Annual CEO Roundtable at the Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. The event, which offers design and construction firm CEOs the opportunity to meet and discuss issues unique to the top leadership spot in their firms, runs from March 10-12.

In her session, veteran A/E industry leadership consultant Sprankle led the assembled CEOs in a discussion of the qualities that define a successful board of directors. Sprankle noted that good governance means strong, clear decision-making, a feature that is lacking among many A/E firm boards. The assembled CEOs also discussed the ideal number of people on a board, the role of outside board members, and the board’s primary responsibilities (e.g., holding the CEO accountable, ensuring that the strategic plan is followed).

Concurrent to Sprankle’s session was strategic planning expert Ray Kogan’s session, entitled “Your Firm’s Future: Painting (and Selling) the Big Picture.” This SRO session focused on the CEO’s role in getting employees to buy into and help execute the firm’s vision.

Colvin Matheson, CFM, discussed firm valuation in turbulent times. This was a wide-ranging session that included input from firms with ESOPs to those whose value is based on convoluted formulas — one firm said their valuation formula is 20 pages long. When the discussion turned to the importance of good financial reporting software, Colvin said: “I’m a finance guy. If I see crummy information, I see risk. If I see risk, I see lower valuation.” Colvin also offered a word about the importance of cash these days: “Cash is no longer king; in this economy, cash is god.”

Other sessions, which we’ll address in future blogs this week, were presented on project delivery, marketing/branding, and the leadership pipeline.

While Tuesday’s program was exclusively for firms with fewer than 150 employees, Wednesday’s program combines the smaller and larger firm CEOs. Highlights include keynotes from engineering legend Charles Thornton and intelligence expert Herb Meyer.

Live Blogging from A/E Advisors CEO Roundtable

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

This week in Scottsdale, A/E Advisors is holding its third annual CEO Roundtable. I’ll be there, chronicling the event for the management consultants of A/E Advisors.

Scheduled for discussion at the roundtable are the following topics:

* Breaking Away from the Pack: What’s So Special About Your Company?
* Exits and Entrances: Ensuring Smooth Leadership Continuity
* Good Governance: What Strong Boards Should Accomplish
* Industry Consolidation: Is the Party Over or Did the Invite List Become More Select?
* P3, DBO, IPD, Etc.: The New Alphabet Soup of Project Delivery
* The Best of Times/The Worst of Times: Firm Valuation in a Turbulent Economy
* The Leadership Pipeline: Launching a New Generation of Leaders
* Workplace of the Future: Build It and They Will Come
* Your Firm’s Future: Painting (and Selling!) the Big Picture

Plus keynote speeches from national intelligence expert Herb Meyer and Thornton Tomasetti co-founder Charles H. Thornton.

Good news on transportation funding

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Announcement of $8.4b in funds from stimulus for transportation projects, a week after Obama includes Infrastructure Bank in his 2010 budget.

Lightspeed Changes in Marketing

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article entitled “Tapping In to the Power of the Press” and sent it in newsletter format to a number of AEC firm principals. This article also served as the basis of a webinar, most recently delivered for the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) last December. Next month, I’m presenting a live version of the topic at ACEC’s Annual Convention in Washington.

It’s amazing how much public relations has changed since I first sat down to write that article less than two years ago. Specifically, how many more opportunities there are to publicize your firm and how different those opportunities are. This is due, in great part, to the growth of networking sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn.

More than ever, if you have an interesting viewpoint that can raise your firm’s profile with your target audience, you don’t need to win the approval of a writer or editor for one of the industry trade magazines to get it into a reader’s hands. You can “self-publish” this information in a blog or through some other online resource (on LinkedIn, say, linking it back to your web site).

You could always go directly to the audience, of course, by sending personalized letters or hard-copy newsletters. A few years back, e-mail newsletters became a trend to accomplish the goal of getting your thoughts directly to your target audience. In both these approaches, you risk having your hard work dumped in the trash without it being read.

Hard-copy trade publications are still a powerful medium through which to market an AEC firm’s services…one that I believe will outlive a lot of other so-called “traditional media.” The principles from the “Tapping In…” article still hold true.

But the ease with which I’m seeing firms draw attention to themselves through the “Web 2.0” phenomenon hints of a future where most of our writing, marketing, and publicizing will go straight from the writer’s hard drive to the reader’s computer screen with no filter and no middle man. This is revolutionary for marketing in our (and any) industry.

Granted, the current audience for material on blogs and social networks is relatively small. But it’s an audience that is growing exponentially; for example, Web tracker comScore says Twitter attracted 6.1 million global visitors in January, an increase of 40%.

The attention being paid (and time being spent) on these networking sites means it’s only good business sense to know as much as you can about these potential marketing tools. How else can you decide where your firm should be on the growth curve?

As for my presentation next month, any thoughts of making a few minor tweaks to the previously delivered material are gone. I updated my material to incorporate the online networking trend in the context of gaining press coverage for AEC firms. Otherwise, my presentation about tapping into the power of the press would be old news.