Alignment: Stewart Haney

Aug 10, 2020

CEO of Wendel (Williamsville, NY), an innovative AEC and energy efficiency firm that collaborates with clients for a holistic project approach.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

As CEO of Wendel, Haney focuses his time on the firm’s strategy, growth, and culture. His participation in several professional and community boards are a reflection of his passion for achieving goals through the collaborative efforts of talented people. His favorite quote is by former professional hockey player and head coach, Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

“Failing can actually be a good thing,” Haney says. “We fail small, and often. We like to try a lot of things and have an open mind while keeping our head up without making enormous investments. You can learn a lot from failure, and often something great will emerge from it.”

A conversation with Stewart Haney.

The Zweig Letter: Under your direction, Wendel has increased in size by about 25 percent in the past three years. What do you attribute that to?

Stewart Haney: I largely attribute that to an aggressive growth strategy. We expanded our interior design and architectural presence in the Midwest and southern regions of the United States. We’ve also taken the concept of being a one-stop-shop or multidisciplinary firm to another level. We’ve developed an intense tool called Immersion which helps to develop project scope in greater detail than what is typical. It’s a superior process. It provides a greater project understanding achieved through discovery workshops; buy-in from key stakeholders, achieved through inclusion at the project’s onset; and consensus on budget and project direction, achieved through heightened project understanding. It leads to an accelerated project timeline achieved through a condensed pre-design phase. We also created what’s called “Master Builder” which integrates construction and design.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

SH: A servant leader. I like to say that I have 300 bosses. I strive to be a level five leader – as outlined in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. I try to lead by example, listen generously, and make the difficult decisions when I have to.

TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.

SH: It makes sense economically to continue to shift ownership. We have a living and breathing company and culture and need to realize that. We have 300 employees and 65 owners. Employee ownership hovers at around 25 percent. There are three levels: associates, senior associates, and partners. For the superstars, it takes about eight to nine years to move through the different phases – you have to continue to age out and age in. It’s a constant cycle.

TZL: How do you handle a long-term principal who is resting on his or her laurels? What effect does a low-performing, entitled principal or department head have on firm morale?

SH: This ties to leadership and making those difficult decisions. By and large these people don’t have bad intents. And, our company culture makes it difficult for someone to do this. However, it does – it’s akin to an iceberg. You may only see the tip of it, but the overall effect can be devastating. It can quickly permeate morale and much more. It needs to be tackled quickly. The first step is to confront the person – in a productive manner – and show that you want him/her to succeed. Sometimes, we’ll get outside coaching to get the expectations moving along. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. No one gets a pass.

TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?

SH: The firm has navigated a few in its history. The one in 2013 was a bit tricky because there was a large concentration of ownership in just a few people. As a result, we now have a policy that states no one can own more than 10 percent of the company. We also have a well-defined age out plan. If a person has 10 percent, they need to start aging out at 61 and by the time they are 70, they are completely out. So far, it’s worked well.

TZL: You are a sought-after national presenter. What are some specific topics you enjoy talking about most and why?

SH: I’m passionate about company culture. I also speak a lot on organizational structure, delivery models, and marketing.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

SH: Failing can actually be a good thing. We fail small, and often. We like to try a lot of things and have an open mind while keeping our head up without making enormous investments. You can learn a lot from failure, and often something great will emerge from it (i.e., the Master Builder program). A somewhat recent small fail had to do with compressed natural gas. We made investments and were well positioned when gas prices were high. Now that they have dropped significantly, our model has pivoted to public transportation – so we took lemons and made lemonade. A greater failure had to do with the pursuit of design-build work at risk. We were the designer and did a great deal of work that never panned out. As a result, we’ve banned this approach and learned a lot.

TZL: What are some ways that Wendel provides transparency for its clients?

SH: The Master Builder approach helps in this effort. It’s nonself-performing and shows that we’re completely an open book. We share all information and make decisions together. This approach delivers more value. It’s a professional-led delivery model that leverages our cross-disciplinary proficiencies to execute facility and infrastructure projects from design through build. A proprietary combination of the best of design/build and design-bid-build, Master Builder ensures our clients a single point of contact, consistent team, accelerated schedule, owner oversight, competitive subcontractor pricing, and fully transparent cost controls through all phases of work.

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?

SH: We do a number of things. We really try to take away administrative burdens and have project accountants and project administrative assistants (who can bill out hours). We provide project management offices, and external and internal boot camps. We’re focused on having our PMs push their licenses to the top.

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 and 30s?

SH: We have different tracks to get to principal. We need principals who are project managers with strong client leadership and rainmaking abilities. We also need principals who have technical backgrounds and resource management skills. It’s not just about having a book of business. We don’t currently have any partners in their 20s or 30s, but we do have some senior associates.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?

SH: Alignment. I work to ensure we’re all pulling the rope in the same direction.

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