Conference call: Mick Gronewold

Sep 18, 2017

Mick Gronewold, Principal, Fehr Graham

Principal at Fehr Graham (Hot Firm #72 for 2016), a 170-person engineering and environmental firm based in Rockford, Illinois.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

If you ain’t falling down, you aren’t really skiing!” Gronewold says.


The Zweig Letter: You are a proponent of open-book management. What is the advantage of showing the firm’s financials to everyone on staff?

Mick Gronewold: Sharing key stats and including our financial information with the team builds trust and encourages ownership of what we do each day. I’ve found that most of our employees appreciate that we’re transparent. Often, it creates dialogue that shows me how engaged members of our team are with what we do. They also have a deeper understanding of how everything we do affects the bottom line and how that translates into rewards for them.

TZL: How do you go about winning work?

MG: We sell trust. Trust that our team will make our clients look great, ensure they get exactly what they want – or more – and that they get it economically. How do we build trust? It’s rather simple. We develop strong relationships with our clients and prospective clients and then we deliver time and time again. We do this in many ways:

  • We really listen to our clients’ goals and objectives to ensure they are cornerstone to our efforts.
  • We leverage our experience as well as cutting-edge technology to provide relevant solutions.
  • Our clients are part of the team throughout the project, not simply people we engage to sign a contract and don’t see again until we hand them the final product.
  • We follow up to ensure we met product goals and our clients’ expectations. It is important to us that they had a good experience.

We must be proactive, intentional, and thoughtful in our approaches as well as highly communicative as even the best-laid plans and projects experience bumps. When setbacks or complications arise, we effectively communicate with our clients and work with them to find resolutions. This approach allows us to maintain – and oftentimes build – trust.

TZL: What’s the best way to recruit and retain top talent in a tight labor market?

MG: We must offer more than just a job. There must be opportunities for creativity, professional advancement, and fun. We know our best resources are our people. We make sure they know it, too. We develop and maintain relationships with our staff and show we value them in diverse ways such as:

  • Providing a realistic work schedule. I’m not saying our people don’t put in the hours to meet client demands, but we work hard to communicate that achieving work-life balance is a Fehr Graham priority that helps everyone perform at a higher level.
  • Giving our team more than tools of the trade, which are an expected minimum these days. No one is willing to find a way to make due with a typewriter or Mylar and a LEROY set. We must put current technology in the hands of our people and make sure we give them access to the training they need to use it.
  • Relationships are key. Relationships with college campuses, relationships with high school guidance counselors, relationships with professional societies, and most importantly, relationships with our staff. Word of mouth to fill a position is much more effective than a job posting on a website.

We also invest in young people who live within our markets with the hope they may come to work with us after they earn their degrees. We offer several internships for future engineers (civil and structural), landscape architects, geologists, and more.

TZL: What’s your preferred strategy for growth, M&A or organic? Give us a synopsis of how your firm effected growth in the recent past.

MG: It’s organic as well as via acquisition. Being from an agricultural background, I preach that anything that lives must grow. We have a robust growth strategy that challenges our existing locations year in and year out to expand and stretch. We also have a focused M&A strategy to increase our geographic footprint, add a service area we see that our client base needs, or strengthen our position in a current location or market share. Being methodical as well as persistent in our efforts toward growth while standing fast in the principals of our strategy is key. Getting lost in the idea of growth and deciding to grow for the sake of growing can potentially do more harm than good.

TZL: What’s the greatest challenge presented by growth?

MG: Much of our growth has come from acquisitions. We focus on integrating new team members into Fehr Graham so that there’s consistency in how we do business at all locations. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but culture is everything. Ensuring compatibility of the cultures and integrating the two entities to form one requires focus and attention.

TZL: When hiring, what is the most important thing you look for?

MG: The key tenets when hiring obviously change depending on the experience level you’re hiring. However, in all cases, the ability to communicate orally and in writing, solve problems, and demonstrate a high level of empathy/emotional intelligence is key. Leadership potential and professionalism are also attributes we seek.

TZL: When firing, what’s your guiding philosophy?

MG: Treat everyone with the highest level of respect. No one gets fired because he or she is a bad person or because he or she made a mistake. A separation occurs simply because behaviors don’t align, and the lack of alignment is hurting the team.

TZL: Great company culture is a cornerstone of any great firm. With a growing business with multiple offices, how is the firm’s culture maintained? What are the inevitable changes caused by growth?

MG: We continue to work on culture as we add firm offices. More and more, we learn how important it is to have consistent culture across the firm. We now have 10 offices in three states, and integrating and ensuring the “Fehr Graham Way” across all locations takes time. It defines how we treat clients, how we complete our work, and how we support each other. Also important is patience and having an open mind. When new people join the firm through acquisitions, they often bring great ideas as well as a strong hold on how they approached things before. They also bring new talents that we find ways to use. You must take the time to listen and learn so the whole team gets better. From there, we can communicate to the entire team why certain decisions were made and how we will work together moving forward. Our all-for-one and one-for-all approach to business as opposed to profit centers encourages cross-office support in securing as well as executing work. This is a big change for some, and it takes adjustment. Once you see the benefits of our process, you never want to go back to those other means that often create silos.

TZL: In the event of failure, how does your firm react?

MG: Failure is a necessary experience to grow at the pace Fehr Graham wants to grow. We work hard to create an environment in which failure is a positive – an opportunity to learn or solve another problem. A lot of effort goes into making sure that our failures are exposed internally and fixed before the deliverable leaves our office out of respect to our clients. In the end, this is very much a human business and, as such, mistakes and missteps will happen no matter how good our process is or gets. My colleagues are confident enough in their abilities to come together and deliver when we experience a failure with one of our initiatives. The team quickly regroups, formulates a strategy to address it and moves forward. When that failure involves a client, we own it and work diligently to make it right. If you spend time in our office, I know you will hear this phrase, “If you ain’t falling down, you aren’t really skiing!”

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