A successful string of mergers

May 06, 2019

Find your ‘why’ and ‘how,’ make a plan, and – with the help of a few strong mergers – achieve astronomical growth.

Salas O’Brien’s history could almost be summarized as a string of successful mergers. When I share our story with industry colleagues, they marvel at how we can keep it up. So friends, colleagues, and anyone else who’s interested, here’s how we do it.

  • Why? If you’re looking to grow your firm and increase your people’s passion and focus, you need to answer this question first. At Salas O’Brien, we do mergers because growth is in our DNA. Our “ownership values,” which define what it means to be an employee-owner of Salas O’Brien, state that we “encourage the growth of our owners” and “provide positive energy, passion, and commitment to everything we do.” We could not be true to our identity without pursuing aggressive growth. Growth will look different for your organization than it will for Salas O’Brien. My advice is to take a hard look at your values and long-term plans, and design your growth around those. That said, we know that growth cannot simply be an artificial conglomeration of unrelated firms, which is why we strive for a balance of organic growth and M&A growth. Growing organically through sharing clients and pursuing bigger clients is where you create opportunities that couldn’t come through more informal means of collaboration. Whatever the “why” behind your strategy, growth also brings new ideas, innovation, and best practices into your company, which in turn serves clients better and builds value for your firm.
  • How? Our approach with mergers can be summed up as: Build national strength with local action. We don’t want to create a top-down, highly centralized organization, although we strive for efficiency wherever we can get it and have a unified brand and values. Instead, we look for healthy organizations that already fit our values and have strong leadership in place, and then integrate these organizations into the larger structure of Salas O’Brien. Do merger candidates believe me when I say Salas O’Brien isn’t coming in to run the show? Most probably don’t. But it’s true: No one from Salas O’Brien comes in to run the newly merged business. We just want to integrate everyone into the life and fabric of the organization, so we can all grow in an organic, collaborative manner. Your “how” may be different from ours, just as your “why” might be. Maybe your strategy is to find value in turning around companies. But whatever your strategy, if growth is your aim, you as a leader need to get clear on your approach, and communicate that approach clearly in your existing company as well as in those you intend to merge with or acquire.
  • The results. Does it really work? History will be our ultimate judge, but so far, all I can tell you is that we have grown 2,000 percent since 2006, from a single office in San Jose, California, to (at this writing) 19 offices around the country. For the past six years we have been on the Inc. 5000 list of our country’s fastest-growing private firms, and we continue climbing the ranks of the ENR and MEP Giants lists as well. But more importantly, in an industry with historically low unemployment and an almost unlimited number of options for talented people, our retention rate since beginning our M&A strategy is 98 percent for mid- and senior-level leaders and more than 90 percent for the entire team. People appreciate that our values come first and are lived out in everyday life, and most want to stick around for the long term because their values are our values.

My industry colleagues look at our growth and see something astronomical and unsustainable (though they’re usually polite enough not to say it). But we’ve really been quite deliberate and steady with our strategy, focusing on the “why” and “how” and building a team of people who are committed to Salas O’Brien and our shared values (including growth). Find your “why” and “how,” and I think you’ll also achieve growth that no one else thought was possible.

Darin Anderson is CEO of Salas O’Brien. Contact him at darin.anderson@salasobrien.com.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.