Authentic: Jeff Schumaker

Feb 14, 2021

President of Fishbeck (Grand Rapids, MI), a firm of engineers, scientists, architects, and constructors in the business of problem solving, inspiring results, and bringing ideas to life.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Fishbeck is made up of a team of experts on core services including engineering, architecture, environmental sciences, construction management, and more. The company’s newest site is in Indianapolis, but they’ve also grown through acquisition, most recently taking over Ohio’s Northwest Consultants, Inc. Revenue in the past decade has grown by nearly 50 percent, according to Schumaker.

“Leadership must be authentic. It must come from the heart,” Schumaker says. “Only you can lead like you, and I believe that builds trust and respect with those you work with. I make it a point to be available for everyone, reassuring, honest, encouraging, responsive, and a delegator.”

A conversation with Jeff Schumaker.

The Zweig Letter: Your website says, “We are architects of the next generation.” Can you illustrate with an example of how this is put into action?

Jeff Schumaker: Every project provides an opportunity to learn. We use these lessons to look toward the future, designing and implementing solutions for the next generation. Our infrastructure team implemented the first diverging diamond interchanges in the state. Our A/E team is working on a leading-edge, higher education facility. Together, we challenge the status quo, generating new ideas that lead to better outcomes for our clients and end users. Our work must also stand the test of time. The facilities and infrastructure we design have lifespans counted not in years, but in decades.

Sustainability, inclusivity, and agility are core considerations as we begin designing. All of this starts with our team. We don’t just say “All-in-One” as a marketing tagline. With more than 450 staff specializing in many disciplines, Fishbeck is positioned to develop holistic solutions. In helping our clients respond to COVID-19, we established a multidiscipline team including architects, engineers, and industrial hygienists among others, to create comprehensive solutions, emphasizing long-term benefits over short-term gains. The work we do today shapes the world we live in tomorrow.

TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?

JS: Fishbeck has always practiced flexibility. Life happens and, at times, everyone needs the ability to work from home. The last year has proven remote work can be accomplished longer term, and this has been appreciated by our staff. We’re currently evaluating how we can implement additional flexibility in a post-COVID-19 world. There are certain challenges that would need to be overcome. Things like training inexperienced staff, the ability to sketch solutions on a piece of paper, the learning that happens by overhearing senior staff discussing a technical issue, sharing client concerns, and maintaining culture, and all aspects of training and mentoring the next generations. If we are not careful in how we implement and manage remote work, there may be detrimental impact years in the future.

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?

JS: Work and family are separate for the most part, but it’s difficult to stop thinking about the firm. My wife is a great sounding board as I address issues and develop policies.

TZL: Trust is crucial. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

JS: There’s no such thing as a perfect project. As frustrating as it is that issues arise on a project, especially during construction, we use them as opportunities to build trust. Clients want a firm that is willing to help work through an issue. Our approach is to quickly solve the problem with the appropriate stakeholders, then work out the financial implications when the dust settles. We have gained more trust and confidence through these challenges by being proactive rather than building walls.

TZL: Are you seeking any financial assistance during the pandemic?

JS: Like many other firms, we received a PPP loan and anticipate seeking forgiveness. We have a line of credit, but we’re concerned the line would not be sufficient to support us through a severe, long-term economic downturn. The PPP loan gives us confidence to maintain staff levels, particularly in this tight labor market, with the hope of a quick recovery.

TZL: You joined Fishbeck in 1996 as a structural engineer. Since you’ve become president of the firm, what’s the most important decision you’ve made to date? Why?

JS: Shortly after transitioning into the role of president, our executive leadership announced a firm name change. The firm name was Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, Inc. for nearly 30 years. It was spoken and abbreviated in many forms, and there was growing concern that, as we pushed into new markets, we were creating brand confusion. As a result, we rebranded the firm as Fishbeck. The timing for the change was perfect. It allowed us to show broad support for both retiring senior leadership and emerging leaders, as well as helping to unite and integrate staff from a newly-acquired firm.

TZL: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are potential disruptors across all industries. Is your firm exploring how to incorporate these technologies into providing improved services for clients?

JS: Fishbeck has always been an early adopter of technology that benefits our industry. We were early adopters of AutoCAD many years ago, as well as Civil3D, BIM modeling, augmented reality, and drone scanning in more recent years. AI may be the next big disruptor. To understand this disruption potential, we’re researching AI in two different ways:

  1. We’re exploring how clients are beginning to embrace new technologies, including AI, in their environments. The institutions that we’ve surveyed said they foresee an increase in AI technology use over the next two to five years. Of this group, most indicated the projected increase will have some impact, with others indicating it may be substantial. As designers, we need to thoroughly understand how AI is being utilized, and the space and infrastructure necessary for this new technology, in order to provide better services and solutions.
  2. While AI implementation is in the early stages for AEC firms, we foresee AI having multiple benefits within the firm, such as automating redundant tasks, providing predictive analysis, data mining, and trend and pattern recognition. To realize these potential benefits, we’re exploring how to optimize database interfaces with analytical software. As AI technology evolves, the connectivity to large amounts of data will be crucial to its success.

TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?

JS: Fishbeck has used the R&D tax credits as well as the 179D credits since 2010 with the help of a professional service provider. It worked out well for us, but even though we took a conservative approach, a recent audit reduced our credit amount.

TZL: Can you describe a recent project that you’re particularly proud of and tell me why?

JS: I have transitioned away from design and project management as our growth and corporate needs pulled me into firm leadership. Recently, however, we moved our business enterprise system from one that was home-grown to BST-10. As project manager for this effort, I gained great insight into the functioning of our accounting system and developed greater understanding of department and service area needs; this has been a great benefit with my transition to president. Also, it gave me the opportunity to help train and educate our staff on the intricacies of our new system. It was a significant change within the firm, and everything went very well.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

JS: The fact that there are few minorities represented in our industry is evidence of a systemic problem. We’re working with area programs to introduce careers in technology to high school students in underserved communities. Additionally, one of our core values is “concern and respect for people and their personal and professional growth.” True to that core value, we continue to look for ways to ensure all staff members feel respected, heard, and understood. We have stepped up our efforts recently by engaging in an assessment to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion at Fishbeck, in our industry and in our community.

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

JS: I’ve been in this role for a relatively short period of time, but it’s been long enough that I’ve learned an important lesson: to be myself. Fishbeck has a great, long history because of strong leadership. Stepping into the shoes of very successful predecessors added pressure to lead like they did and do what they did. However, leadership must be authentic. It must come from the heart. Only you can lead like you, and I believe that builds trust and respect with those you work with. I make it a point to be available for everyone, reassuring, honest, encouraging, responsive, and a delegator.

TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

JS: In my new role, I’m unable to devote much time to project work. I loved working with clients, discovering their needs, and providing a solution, as well as guiding teams to a final outcome. Now, I work for the Fishbeck staff and provide the support they need to serve our clients and help fulfill their professional goals.

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