Crystallize the vision: Christine Franklin

Aug 12, 2019

President of CEI, a 20-year-old minority-owned engineering and contracting firm based in Miami Lakes, Florida.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Franklin has more than 25 years of experience as a civil and environmental engineer managing a variety of environmental and construction projects. From assisting clients to managing procurement programs and serving as engineer-of-record, Franklin ensures that CEI fulfills its obligations to its stakeholders – its clients, employees, and community.

“It’s extremely easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of day-to-day activities. It takes discipline to work on the ‘important’ as well as the ‘urgent,’” Franklin says. “My philosophy is that we need to hire competent people and train them to work ‘in the business’ so that the executive team can focus ‘on the business’ in areas of strategy and vision.”

A conversation with Christine Franklin.

The Zweig Letter: What are the three to four key business performance indicators that you watch most carefully? Do you share that information with your staff?

Christine Franklin: We check profitability as profit we reinvest into growing the business. Another KPI that we monitor is applied rate – the overall applied rate of the firm is an indicator that we are adequately staffed for our projects. Backlog is a good indicator of leading economic trends for the nation, and globally, as our business is connected to the stability of the economy.

TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?

CF: Generally, we have a good indication for workload 18 months out, and have a good indication of potential workload up to two to three years. Right now, we can project our workload into 2021. Cashflow is a whole different ballgame as the projections are also dependent on factors beyond our control such as the pay cycle of the client, the invoice approval process, timing of releases, and a myriad other factors. We try to predict cash flow as accurately as possible a year or so into the future, but must sometimes depend on our credit line for short-term financing of operations to account for these factors.

TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

CF: It’s extremely easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of day-to-day activities. It takes discipline to work on the “important” as well as the “urgent.” My philosophy is that we need to hire competent people and train them to work “in the business” so that the executive team can focus “on the business” in areas of strategy and vision. Of course, there are situations that arise daily that need your guidance, input, experience, and even your hands-on involvement, but once the “crisis” is averted or the situation is less critical, I return to my focus on the business. Right now we are working on some high-profile projects and our staff is growing so it’s 50/50, but I’d like it to be more 30/70 at this level.

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is their overlap?

CF: My immediate family, who live in the same house, consists of my husband and my dog. My husband is my biggest fan and my dog thinks I’m the cat’s pajamas. They make it so much easier for me to be successful. I try to make it home in time for dinner with them every night, to the extent possible, which forces me to end my day at a certain time. Having them in my life has provided the platform to focus on my career, knowing that they will always be there rooting for me.

TZL: What, if anything, are you doing to protect your firm from a potential economic slowdown in the future?

CF: Economic cycles are not potential; they are real. There will be an economic downturn sometime in the future. We never get ourselves too close to the edge financially, and we exercise fiscal responsibility when making spending decisions. We hire wisely and when we need to fill positions. We monitor the external economic conditions, especially the leading indicators of a downturn. We lived through the last economic downturn by tightening our belts. We kept all of our staff who understood that we all needed to make some sacrifices to ride out the storm. The most important part of being ready for an economic downturn is to be prepared for that eventuality.

TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?

CF: We were not using it as we were unaware that it applied to us until we changed CPA firms and discovered a whole new world. The moral of that story is that there is a limit to loyalty, as we used our last firm for 19 years. We are using a new firm now and are exploring our options under that scenario.

TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?

CF: I’ve heard that said, but I think people leave both managers and companies. A great manager in a toxic culture will not motivate a great employee to stay. Managers should always take good care of the people who work for them, helping them develop both professionally and personally. It’s really important to have an honest and authentic relationship with the people who report to you, and, if you do, you will not be blindsided by a resignation.

TZL: What novel approaches are you bringing to recruitment, and how are your brand and differentiators performing in the talent wars?

CF: Our most successful hires are those who have been referred to the company by current employees, so we have a very robust referral program called “RAP” or Refer Awesome People. Another approach is our “pull” approach of working toward becoming the Best Firm To Work For with a welcoming culture and core values that people can relate to. Our brand is based on our CEI Core Values (community, excellence, and integrity). It’s performing well in an industry where potential employees can relate to the importance of those values for a long-term career.

TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?

CF: The key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton is to have a plan in place long before you intend to pass the baton. It’s important that the overall transition happen over time and that the people who are taking over understand their roles and responsibilities and how they fit into the organization. I think the biggest pitfall is not having a plan in place at least seven to 10 years before you have to do the actual handover of duties.

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

CF: Failure is the greatest teacher. Failure is also a tremendous opportunity disguised as a great loss. There are few instances when I thought I had failed at something and then looked back, and did not realize that it was a stepping stone to a greater success. The greatest lesson I learned might be about failing to sway people to my way of thinking, but I learned that we all have our own paths and perspectives and each of us has our own journey.

TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?

CF: We have started a project manager training program that all of our project managers must complete. It’s about a year long and helps equip them with some of the tools they need to be successful.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?

CF: To crystallize the vision of the firm.

TZL: What happens to the firm if you leave tomorrow?

CF: It will be stronger than ever. Our firm is not one person, but a group of people committed to our overall mission of “Fueling Solutions for a Sustainable World.” There are people in our firm who could do my duties or delegate them, so CEI would not miss a beat. I’m sure they would miss me, but they’d be just fine. It sounds trite, but it’s true. And I would have definitely failed, if that were not the case. “Life flows on within you and without you” – The Beatles.

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

CF: We have implemented an ESOP to reward employees whose contributions add value to our firm. It’s proving to be a good incentive for people to stay on and retire with the firm. We keep improving the benefits and vacation time with longevity which is also an incentive to stick around and we also try to establish the CEI family culture where employees feel like they are part of a unit and are encouraged to remain with us for a long time.

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.