Co-founder and executive vice president of Patel, Greene and Assoc. (Temple Terrace, FL), a firm with a mission to elevate their families, communities, and profession.
By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent
In 2011, Patel, Greene and Assoc. was co-founded by Hiren Patel, president, and Gordon Greene, executive vice president, as a three-person firm. Since then, it’s grown to a staff of more than 70 people. Greene says he attributes the growth to creating and maintaining a culture where people want to work.
A conversation with Gordon Greene.
The Zweig Letter: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
Gordon Greene: We were already considering and planning for a broader teleworking policy, so COVID-19 simply accelerated that plan. We have always embraced technology, so many of the pieces were already in place, including laptop computers for all staff, high-speed VPN connections and a dedicated director of technology to help oversee the transition. We have recently adopted a three-phase plan for re-opening, similar to what many states are doing, including our home state of Florida. Our Phases 1 and 2 aren’t really different, but Phase 3 will be full reopening. However, our full reopening will include a broader teleworking policy, now that we have proven its effectiveness for us.
TZL: PGA was founded in 2011 and has grown significantly since then. What’s been the greatest challenge you’ve had to deal with as a direct result of growth? How did you handle it?
GG: Staying ahead of recruiting to enable the growth and maintaining our culture of openness, teamwork, and appreciation. As a leadership group, in 2018 we identified culture as a main focus in our five-year strategic plan. Our objectives are to build the company out in a way that enables us to maintain the culture in a scalable way.
TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?
GG: Not as far as we would like. We can project cashflow a month out “very” reliably, based on historical payment patterns from our clients and regular budgeted expenses. We strive to improve this area of our business significantly. We’re currently building an internal database program that will allow project managers to enter a payout curve for each project, which can then be paired with payment expectations, resulting in a fairly reliable cashflow that can be extended out. The program will project cashflow for two years, but I would say that only the nearest three to four months could be considered very reliable. This same program will also function to guide our resource workload needs, so it should be a multi-purpose tool. The program will connect directly to our Deltek Ajera database, so there will be no redundancy in project entry; only minor data entry for each project. We are still in the development and testing stages of this work, so hopefully it’s as effective as we intend it to be.
TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?
GG: Yes, we are. It’s working great. It has literally saved us tens of thousands of dollars in taxes. Any AEC firm doing design work should take advantage.
TZL: Since founding the firm in 2011, what is one of your proudest moments?
GG: Winning a Zweig Group award, of course! While those are very fun to win, and are certainly a matter of pride for us, one moment that will always stick with me as a source of pride in our folks happened at about 2:30 a.m. one night, trying to get a submittal out. I was the project manager and engineer of record, working in our Tampa office for the day/night with the rest of the team. The project team was primarily myself and a project engineer, but we had all-hands-on deck this night to get it done. The pride came when I found myself in the corner (somewhat useless at this point) and the whole team was cranking along, having fun and constantly checking with each other on what they needed help on. At one point, someone realized something had been calculated or drawn incorrectly. Without hesitation, at probably around midnight, they set out to make the corrections. No blame was laid, no frustration – just a cohesive team working together to get to the finish line. All I had to do was buy dinner and answer a few questions here and there. This sort of thing has happened time and again at PGA. It fills me with pride.
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
GG: The first thing we do is vet personality at the hiring stage. We adhere to a strict “no jerk” policy for hiring, which means I don’t care how much work you might bring in with whatever relationships you may have, we don’t want you. If a jerk does slip through screening, we take care of that swiftly, but our screening process has performed very well so far. We typically put candidates in front of several PGAers during an interview process, mainly for the jerk test. Our culture hinges on teamwork, kindness, and working well together – no room for jerks.
Beyond that, we have invested in personality tests (we use Peoplemap) that give us insight into our folks. We continually look for ways to incorporate that knowledge into how we specialize our interactions with each other. We also seek opportunities to send our leaders to trainings to learn from other leaders on how best to lead and manage people. We participate in the Florida Engineering Leadership Institute (FELI), which is a six-session, year-long program that focuses on leadership strategies for engineers.
Most importantly, we communicate with each other. We hold regular leadership meetings, which includes all people managers. We take these times to communicate the latest news from the company, but also to illicit feedback from folks and communicate expectations in terms of how we handle certain situations.
TZL: What measures are you taking to protect your employees during the COVID-19 crisis?
GG: The main thing we have done is extend our teleworking policy. We sent everyone home on March 17. We have since implemented a “Phase 1” reopening, but did not require anyone to return to the office. Only those who were comfortable doing so returned. For those now working in the office, we increased our office cleaning frequency to nightly, and managed to find hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks for each of our three offices.
TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.
GG: We recently opened up ownership of the company to new owners. This initial sell was the beginning of a larger transition plan that will allow more of our key tenured staff to see rewards for their efforts. This reward is in addition to an already robust benefits package that helps all PGA employees feel very rewarded for their work.
TZL: How often do you valuate your firm and what key metrics do you use in the process? Do you valuate using in-house staff or is it outsourced?
GG: We only recently had our firm valuated, in preparation for our initial selling of ownership units at the end of 2019. We used a valuation group within the outside accounting firm that we use, since this was our first one and we wanted a benchmark for how we stack up against the multiples provided in Zweig Group’s Valuation Survey. We used these benchmarks to develop our own Z-Formula, averaging Zweig multiples for full-time equivalent employees, net service revenue, EBITDA and profit. We plan to move ahead by valuating the company yearly according to this formula, periodically having a full valuation done when the company experiences any major changes, or whenever we feel like springing for one.
TZL: On the PGA website, it says that your firm is passionate about saving clients’ money. What are some ways in which you do that?
GG: We are civil engineers, by-and-large, and our primary clients are government clients. That means we partner with them to be good stewards of taxpayer money. We continually look for ways throughout the design process to be innovative, even if that means some redesign later in the schedule than we would like. Integrity is one of our core values, so we might also have opportunities to explain to a client why some aspect of the scope they’ve assigned to us isn’t necessary, or how we might otherwise reduce our own efforts to reduce their design costs, yet still deliver the final deliverable that they need to build their project.
TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?
GG: We are doing our best to hire more PMs. Outside of that, we’ve always looked to grow the next generation. In this case, if a young P.E. shows potential and a PM can delegate some PM duties, then we do it. If that young P.E. is 27 years old, but has clearly demonstrated a knack for managing projects, then she is a new PM.
Now, the more PMs we have, the more loose we tend to get in how we all manage our projects, each with his own best practices. We have set a company goal for 2020 to develop a PGA PM Handbook, which will codify the minimum best practices for how we manage our projects. This tool is intended to simplify things for our experienced PMs and help guide and comfort our new PMs. Our Handbook will be very flexible, allowing PMs to apply their own approach within the framework provided. It will also be a living document, as client expectations are everchanging.
TZL: How has COVID-19 affected your business on a daily basis?
GG: We have remained very busy, so it hasn’t affected us at all in that sense. The business part is getting done – submittals being made and proposals being submitted. It takes a few more messages or emails, but we are getting it done. The lack of daily personal interaction has been the toughest part. A large part of our culture is built on what kind, helpful, and fun people we have. Much of that can be communicated in Teams’ messages and GoTo meetings, but you do miss something. We have several folks who are going above and beyond to create virtual happy hour events and birthday celebrations, which is carrying us through and helping us to maintain that culture. However, we look forward to being able to do those things with one another very soon.
TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?
GG: I was 29 when Hiren Patel and I started PGA, so I come from a different perspective answering a question like this. I understand that experience is important, but setting some threshold on experience or relationships is too arbitrary. When you got it, you got it, and a good leader can see that quickly. I am still in my 30s (37 now), Hiren has only recently entered his 40s, and three of the six new owners are in their 30s. At no point was experience or “book of business” a consideration. We invited these new owners due to their commitment to PGA and to our clients, day in and day out.Click here to view this issue of The Zweig Letter.