President and CEO of Stonebrooke Engineering (Best Firm Civil #41 for 2017), based in Burnsville, Minnesota.
By Liisa Andreassen
“We have found that ‘growing’ our employees has been much more successful than bringing in more experienced talent,” Arvidson says.
A CONVERSATION WITH BRENDA ARVIDSON.
The Zweig Letter: In the event of failure, how does your firm react?
Brenda Arvidson: We approach any failure as a learning experience and an opportunity to connect with a future client or contact. We reach out directly to the stakeholder, meet with them face to face if possible, and find out from them exactly how we can improve in the future. Continual improvement is a crucial element of our company and is a catapult for growth.
TZL: Monthly happy hours and dog friendly offices. What do today’s CEOs need to know about today’s workforce?
BA: Engaging our employees with fun outings and an open work environment is very important to all of our employees, but especially to our younger engineers. In most cases they come to us directly from college and are looking for more than a job. They are looking for extra activities to enhance their lives and to make a stronger connection to their work environment. When I talk to interns or high school students I always tell them to make sure that the career they choose is filled with colleagues they enjoy as they will be spending about one third of each day with them. We feel that if they enjoy the company of each other, they make a much stronger and united team.
TZL: The talent war in the A/E industry is here. What steps do you take to create the leadership pipeline needed to retain your top people and not lose them to other firms?
BA: In our company, every employee’s opinion is valued. We talk to each employee about their goals and we integrate them with our goals as a company. We also check in frequently to make sure that we are giving them what they need to achieve their career goals. As a small and growing company, we encourage growth and entrepreneurship. We have also found that “growing” our employees has been much more successful than bringing in more experienced talent.
TZL: The A/E market is great right now. What are you doing to cushion your firm in the event of a downturn?
BA: We do not hire to fill chairs. Each hire is a painstaking process to ensure that we get only the employees who fit well into and enhance our organization. We are very clear up-front that we want employees who are willing to explore areas outside of their specialty because as a small company, we strive to have cross functionality.
As an example, during the winter season, many of our surveyors are in the office working as technicians. This offers us extra technicians during the crucial design season, and allows them to work year-round in a profession that generally has a downturn in the winter months. We also listen to our employees and are willing to add service areas that they see as up-and-coming, such as video production and the utilization of drones in surveying.
TZL: How do you deal with underperforming employees? What are your steps for removal after they have proven to be ineffective, or even counterproductive, to your firm?
BA: Underperformance is addressed swiftly and with a 360 degree review. We consider what motivates an employee and realize that underperformance can have many causes from job dissatisfaction to lack of training or even to personal issues outside of the work environment. As we make a significant investment in the hiring of each employee, we feel that it is in both the employee’s and our best interest to find the root of the problem and to give us a chance to fix the situation and improve. We provide deadlines for improvement and if that is not met, unfortunately we will terminate the employee knowing that their underperformance affects every other employee in our company.
TZL: Firms that have principals and firm owners that lower their compensation and invest back into the firm perform better, grow quicker, and have higher valuations. How do you balance owner compensation with investment in the firm?
BA: Our focus has always been on smart growth, and as principal in the firm our growth and success is more important than direct compensation. Our salaries are consistent with the industry and bonuses are applied only after bonuses are determined for the staff. We always keep in mind that our staff is our most important asset.
TZL: How does marketing contribute to your success rate? Are you content with your marketing efforts, or do you think you should increase/decrease marketing?
BA: In the earlier years of our company, marketing was the most important thing that we did to get our name out there in the industry. Now that we are more established, everything that we do is marketing for our next job. Repeat clients are our biggest success and nothing markets like a successful project and a happy client.
TZL: If there was one program, course, or degree program that you could take or recommend before becoming a principal or owner, what would it be?
TZL: What’s the greatest challenge presented by growth?
BA: Growth presents us with what I call the “chicken or the egg dilemma.” As a consulting business, our success depends on the utilization of an employee so we are in a constant balance of amount of work versus number of employees. It is a constant battle of proposing for work which will require new employees, or hiring first, then proposing.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
BA: We encourage entrepreneurship at every level of our organization. Employees are continually encouraged to bring new ideas and to take ownership in the project they are working on. I tell prospective employees that if you’re looking for a job we probably aren’t a great fit, if you’re looking for a career this is where you need to be.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2017 and for the next five years?
BA: Continued growth of around 20 percent per year – our focus is on finding the right people not on how quickly we can grow.