Conference call: Robert Aylward

Mar 20, 2017

President and CEO of Jones|Carter (Best Firm Multidiscipline #17 and Hot Firm #18 for 2016), a 465-person engineering firm based in Houston, Texas.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

“The board must conduct itself as a board and not as a management committee,” Aylward says. “Day-to-day execution has to be left to the organization’s management team.”

A conversation with Robert Aylward.

The Zweig Letter: What is your philosophy on fee/billing and accounts receivable? How do you collect fees from a difficult client?

Robert Aylward: Every business must be focused on cash management. As a technical labor selling business, it’s important that we manage our billing process such that we generate timely and project-appropriate invoices. Issuing those invoices is another step in the client communications protocol and, if done properly, should be well received and understood by the client. Collection matters are more easily managed by setting proper expectations with the client at the beginning of the project. Understanding how the project will be funded, the success criteria used by the client and the key variables that can impact scope, schedule, and fee can go a long way to creating a healthy working relationship that produces smooth collections. If by “difficult client” you mean a client that is not paying their invoice or paying very slowly, we approach those situations by first determining if we are meeting all the client’s project expectations. If problems or miscommunications have arisen, then we must work to resolve those issues before pursuing payments. If the client is experiencing financial stress then we endeavor to work out a payment plan that is consistent with our level of effort and risk appetite.

TZL: What’s the recipe for creating an effective board?

RA: There are two critical roles that the board of directors must play:

  1. The board must reflect the views and objectives of the majority of the shareholders and must work to ensure that the company vision, mission, and performance is consistent with those of the owners.
  2. The board must conduct itself as a board and not as a management committee. In many engineering firms, it’s common for employees to serve on the board of directors. This means that internal directors must be able to distinguish between their roles as line managers and board representative. As a board member, the director needs to focus on strategy, corporate culture, risk management, financial performance and the like. Day-to-day execution has to be left to the organization’s management team.

TZL: Is there a secret to effective ownership transition?

RA: I don’t think there’s a secret, but you definitely have to put a transition plan in place that addresses the risks, timing, and the firm’s ongoing capital needs. As with any important planning document, the concepts need to be socialized with the current ownership and procedures established to ensure that the plan is executed fairly and equitably. It’s also important to scrupulously stick to the plan that’s been established.

TZL: How do you go about winning work?

RA: Winning work is largely about identifying opportunities and overcoming objections. We believe that it’s important to be objective about our prospects for success and focus our business development activities in those areas that hold the greatest potential. This entails creating effective account plans, implementing a robust “go-no go” process, and creating meaningful and measurable milestones to assess progress. In that effort, considerable time is spent on developing relationships with clients and influencers and crafting a message that clearly conveys our unique value proposition, which if done properly, gives us a tremendous advantage before the RFQ is published.

TZL: What is the greatest problem to overcome in the proposal process?

RA: I don’t know if it’s the biggest problem, but a significant problem is ensuring that your BD team is focused on the right proposals. It is important to be disciplined in your pursuits. Everything after that is execution.

TZL: Once you have won a contract, what are the “marching orders” for your PMs?

RA: The external marching orders are to ensure that we fully understand the client’s needs and objectives and that we have the best solutions. From an internal perspective, it’s all about proactively managing scope, fee, and schedule.

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?

RA: Marketing is very important to our firm’s success; it’s foundational to our business development model. It increases market awareness, positions us as a “top-of-mind” solution for clients and prospects and communicates the unique value proposition associated with partnering with Jones|Carter. In terms of our investment in marketing, we closely track our results against objectives for all of our campaigns and regularly adjust our tactics and investments. As such, it’s possible to be simultaneously increasing and decreasing marketing efforts across the firm, depending upon the phase of the individual marketing campaign.

TZL: What has your firm done recently to upgrade its IT systems?

RA: Jones|Carter has made investments in:

  • A global file sharing platform
  • System-wide upgrades to servers and communications/connectivity
  • Implemented a managed care program to replace our previous “break-fix” maintenance model
  • Upgraded our disaster recovery capabilities
  • Implemented more robust cyber security technology

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

RA: You have to create an environment that offers challenging work, clear career paths, meaningful rewards, and an exciting and relevant corporate culture. This combination will create the “it” factor.

TZL: What’s the key benefit you give to your employees? Flex schedule, incentive compensation, 401(k), etc.?

RA: I don’t know that it is so much the benefits you offer as the environment you create. Clearly, you have to offer attractive compensation and benefits packages, without which your firm is at a competitive disadvantage. That said, a company with the right culture and work environment will be more successful than the firm that tries to compensate for deficiencies in those areas by paying above market.

TZL: How do you raise capital?

RA: Our primary source of capital is stock sales. While we have access to certain debt instruments, I’m not aware of any time where we capitalized the firm through debt.

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.

RA: Jones|Carter has used both M&A and organic strategies to grow the firm. Our current focus is to grow organically, but this is largely driven by the nature of the opportunities that we believe have the greatest potential. I could foresee future scenarios where the opportunities we pursue could be better effectuated via M&A, but that is not where we currently stand.

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

RA: To grow means that you are changing; change is never easy to manage. The greatest challenges are:

  1. The ability to scale your systems, processes, and management team to support the growth
  2. Communications

TZL: What’s your prediction for 2017 and for the next five years?

RA: I’m an optimist and I believe that things will be better in the future for firms that understand their clients, markets, and employees. The rate of change we’ve seen in our society over the last few decades has been incredible and every indication is that the pace of change will probably increase at an even faster rate. This will put a premium on agility, being outward facing, and having the courage to change. It’s for these reasons that I believe Jones|Carter will be an innovative leader in our industry.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.