Conference call: Doug McKeown

Jul 16, 2018

CEO of Woodard & Curran (Hot Firm #69 for 2018), a 1,000-person integrated engineering, science, and operations company based in Portland, ME.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

“Give them that opportunity and watch them soar,” McKeown says. “Help them see that they can have multiple careers without having to leave the firm. Sometimes they want change and assume that the only way to do that is to leave. That’s not the case.”


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?

Doug McKeown: The first thing is to make sure it’s not a secret. Make sure your top performers in the leadership ranks know that you feel that way and are making investments in them. Work with them to create individual development plans that lay out a path to leadership. Lastly, hire for leadership depth. Don’t just hire people to fill specific management or technical roles. Hire and engage leadership talent to add depth to the firm.

TZL: As you look for talent, what position do you most need to fill in the coming year and why?

DM: Project managers and strong seller/doers are crucial.

TZL: While plenty of firms have an ownership transition plan in place, many do not. What’s your advice for firms that have not taken steps to identify and empower the next generation of owners?

DM: Ownership programs need to reflect the ownership goals of the firm. If internal ownership transition is desired, the program should be designed to enable that outcome. Waiting until an owner decides that she or he now wants to sell might result in the inability for the internal leaders to afford to buy down the founders. Decide what you want to accomplish, design the plan to do that, and work with your team to gain the thoughts and support for the program.

TZL: Monthly happy hours and dog friendly offices. What do today’s CEOs need to know about today’s workforce?

DM: They aren’t bashful about telling you, so get out there and talk with them. Today’s workforce cares about having roles that make an impact – in their work and in the community. Give them that opportunity and watch them soar. Help them see that they can have multiple careers without having to leave the firm. Sometimes they want change and assume that the only way to do that is to leave. That’s not the case.

TZL: What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?

DM: Diversification can be good as long as you can develop and/or maintain your competitive advantage. Otherwise you’re just chasing volume and that doesn’t work out in the end. But a diversified portfolio can also include diverse geographies. By building on our strengths in water and environmental consulting, we’ve broadened our reach to the West Coast as we continue to build out the East and Midwest. This gives us access to more markets and also gives us some balance as regional economies ebb and flow.

TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?

DM: We have a director of innovation and new ventures whose job is to look for unique opportunities that can leverage our strengths. Additionally, it’s a vital role to maintain our entrepreneurial roots by engaging folks inside the firm on their innovative ideas. We like to say that we have an entrepreneurial spirit, but it doesn’t just happen – you must nurture it.

TZL: Measuring the effectiveness of marketing is difficult to do using hard metrics for ROI. How do you evaluate the success/failure of your firm’s marketing efforts when results could take months, or even years, to materialize? Do you track any metrics to guide your marketing plan?

DM: It’s difficult to measure marketing impacts on a consistent basis without spending a lot of money and time conducting post-activity research. So, we decided to create a track – a leading indicator which we call NVI or net visibility index. We set and measure goals for various activities that create marketplace visibility. We score the value higher for things that have a national versus local impact. We set specific quantifiable NVI goals for the firm that also cascade to the various business units as part of our balanced scorecard. We also place value on the various industry awards and recognition for the different marketing channels like the website. We track social media hits as another indicator of visibility. But to get valuable data on how your brand is viewed in the market you need to hire a consultant and conduct some analysis.

TZL: The last few years have been good for the A/E industry. Is there a downturn in the forecast, and if so, when and to what severity?

DM: This is so hard to predict with what’s going on in the country. There’s lots of speculation. For example, no one can predict what the impact will be on remediation programs if Washington, D.C. wants to water down regulations. Many companies are going to continue to follow their mission and clean-up sites, or improve their environmental footprint regardless of what happens. Any economic downturn will eventually affect the tax revenue of communities, but there’s a significant lag there. I think we’ll see continued robustness in the market for another 12 to 18 months but there is potential for an upset after that, particularly if Washington does not pass a significant infrastructure bill.

TZL: While M&A is always an option, there’s something to be said about organic growth. What are your thoughts on why and how to grow a firm?

DM: Develop a strategic growth plan and determine whether you need any acquisitions to get there. Don’t develop an acquisition plan and then decide where you want to be five years out. They both provide important aspects to growth, but should be driven by your long-term strategy. Plenty of firms have acquisition strategies to grow. We have a growth strategy that might include some acquisitions.

TZL: What’s your prediction for the rest of 2018?

DM: It’s consistent with 2017, which was a strong year in most of our markets.

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