President of Infrastructure, RPS (Best Firm Civil #36 for 2017), a 500-person firm based in Houston.
By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent
“Our limitations are people,” Abbott says. “We could do more if we could find more qualified people.”
A CONVERSATION WITH BILL ABBOTT.
The Zweig Letter: 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?
Bill Abbott: Recruitment is a dog-eat-dog world right now. We’re feeding on ourselves. We try to ensure that every employee has a path to move up and create a reason for them to stay. We provide growth opportunities and have no set guidelines for who moves up (i.e., after every two-and-a-half years, a person is promoted). If you prove yourself, you move up. We also stay competitive with salary and benefits.
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 are invested heavily on the public side – state, county agencies – in public works and transportation. We try to diversify within those categories. We have positive business relationships and work to maintain a strong track record with clients so they will keep coming back to us again and again. Repeat business is key.
TZL: Monthly happy hours and dog friendly offices. What do today’s CEOs need to know about today’s workforce?
BA: Today’s workforce is so diverse. We have a combination of baby boomers, millennials, X and Y generations, and more. It’s difficult to keep everyone happy. Our philosophy is to try to be open and accepting of all. We slow down long enough to tap into people’s individual skills and really get to know them. We find out what they need as far as a response goes and then work to give it to them. We don’t have the “Google” types so a lot of those trendy perks don’t really apply.
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: First, we find out why they are underperforming. Is it personal? Do they not have the correct skills for the job at hand? Next, we provide a plan for getting back on track. Our discovery approach is three-pronged:
- Can’t: Why can’t they do the job?
- Won’t: Do they simply want out to do something else?
- Don’t know how: Do they need more training?
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: Our marketing is constantly changing. We’re never content with the status quo. Marketing is a huge part of our success. Every year we create a marketing budget and a plan of pursuit. At the end of the year, we revisit what was spent and what worked. Typically, we allot about 5 to 8 percent of the overall budget to marketing – it depends on the year.
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?
BA: How to solve tech problems and simple accounting. I never thought about accounting as an engineer. Also, anything legal.
TZL: What’s the greatest challenge presented by growth?
BA: Assimilation – whether companies are acquired organically or through acquisition, it’s important to keep things moving and to get people to acclimate quickly.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
BA: It’s encouraged. When we were privately owned, we had a bit of a different mindset than being publicly owned, but we still want to be innovative and think outside the box. Ultimately, I’ll decide if we move forward with an idea and whether we give it a try or not.
TZL: What’s your prediction for the next five years?
BA: Texas is booming. We have about 1,000 people moving here per day. The outlook for transportation is strong. Our limitations are people. We could do more if we could find more qualified people. More and more, we’re looking outside the area for staff. For the next five years, we’re focused on manageable growth – about 10 percent per year.
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