Conference call: Matt Burns

Apr 16, 2018

President of Burns Engineering (Hot Firm #88 for 2015), a 220-person firm based in Philadelphia.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

“The downside of the seller/doer model is that staff often likes the doing more than the selling,” Burns says.


The Zweig Letter: The list of responsibilities for project managers is seemingly endless. How do you keep your PMs from burning out? And if they crash, how do you get them back out on the road, so to speak?

Matt Burns: Project managers have the toughest jobs in the company. They are juggling a lot of things at all times. They’re the quarterback on every project. We try not to overload and to communicate as much as possible to make sure all is on track. We also have three levels of project managers. The first group works on legacy accounts – those that practically run themselves. The second group is mid-level project managers and the third group are upper level and these folks have the greatest sales goals. There’s no secret formula. We just do our best to understand their workload, have weekly/monthly meetings about workload planning and share resources as needed. Our culture is one that encourages working across department lines. We have a strong team culture and keep backbiting at bay.

TZL: 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?

MB: The talent pool is somewhat limited right now and we’re focused on not losing anyone. The responsibility of the management team is to identify high potential employees and then help them to create an individual career plan for the future. We look to see who is ready to step up. It’s like building a farm team. We’re always working on our pipeline and try to have conversations about the future as often as possible. We also have a matrix planning grid. We’re good at it – not great.

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

MB: We could easily grow 20 percent in the coming year. Right now we have about 30 requisitions out there. Mid-level engineers with about 10 years’ experience are the most difficult to recruit. We have to convince them that working here is better than anywhere else. We’re also looking for project managers with client-facing skills and people who can help us to grow geographically – regional leaders.

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

MB: Today’s workforce is very talented and we have some great talent at Burns. They desire flexibility and need a lot of communication. They need to be engaged and to know that we are working with them to develop a career for the future. They challenge management to do what we should do. They want to be part of a high performance team – that’s the most important thing. And of course, we have those other perks like happy hours and such. Most recently, we had an office Olympics – curling specifically – and awarded bronze, silver, and gold medals.

TZL: Zweig Group research shows there has been a shift in business development strategies. More and more, technical staff, not marketing staff, are responsible for BD. What’s the BD formula in your firm?

MB: We have a seller/doer model. The advantage of that is that the person in front of the client understands the technical needs and this can be reassuring to the client. They understand their concerns. We’re organized by market sector so thought leadership in the different areas is also key. We work to educate the client on how to solve problems. The downside of the seller/doer model is that staff often likes the doing more than the selling.

TZL: Diversifying the portfolio is never a bad thing. What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?

MB: It’s very important to be diversified. We’re diversified by market sector and geographic region. Right now, we’re working to grow geographically in Florida, California, and the New York metro area. Every few years we also look at new market sectors to offset any decline in other areas. Currently, we’re doing a lot of work in the micro-grid and niche energy markets.

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

MB: It’s very important to our business. We always seek new offerings and need people with entrepreneurial skills to help us grow and meet our goals as opposed to helping us to maintain and establish. We are thought leaders.

TZL: In the next couple of years, what A/E segments will heat up, and which ones will cool down?

MB: I see infrastructure and transportation heating up. I’m not so sure about cooling down – perhaps commercial retail. A lot of work has been deferred over the past few years and it’s all finally catching up.

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?

MB: The ultimate metric is, “Do we meet our sales goals?” Like many firms, we keep track of opportunities and look at hit rates. How much of those opportunities convert to sales? We also do customer follow up and have a third party call to find out how we’re doing. It’s back-end marketing. We want to know how we compare to the competition. It helps with people building and brand building, too.

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?

MB: Not really. We follow GDP growth and things are looking pretty strong for the next few years.

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

MB: Hold people accountable and make changes quickly. Also, part of moving ahead is having some failure.

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?

MB: Our strategic plan is 50/50. It’s a mature industry so organic growth often means capturing business from competitors.

TZL: Do you use historical performance data or metrics to establish project billable hours and how does the type of contract play into determining the project budget?

MB: We have different types of contracts. Each project has a budget. We use Deltek accounting software and work with the client to negotiate a reasonable plan. It’s the project manager’s job to deliver on budget and on time. Most projects are cost or fixed fee. Some are lump sum, but we still break projects down internally for our records.

TZL: What’s your prediction for 2018?

MB: All the signs are strong. Clients have projects they want to advance and we have a terrific backlog. It’s shaping up to be a great year. 2017 was also strong. We’re anticipating 15 to 20 percent growth – that’s right where we want to be.

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