Duct tape and baling twine

Jul 06, 2020

With some ingenuity and proper planning, the AEC industry can adapt and thrive in any climate.

In addition to my job at Zweig Group, I’m also a full-time horse farmer. I live on 24 acres in a rural area, surrounded by hay fields, horses, and cows. With summer finally here, and working from home, I’ve never felt more connected to this role. Here are a few things I’ve learned from my time as a farmer that apply to the AEC industry:

Farmers are always prepared for the worst. In my experience, farmers are generally optimistic people, but when dealing with live animals and Mother Nature, we recognize that things will always go wrong. When you have a good hay harvest, you know the next one will not likely be as plentiful. A temperate winter increases the odds of an overly hot summer with insect and pest infestations. There’s a balance of every moment of bounty that will be followed by difficultly and scarcity.

I’m old enough to remember a time in the AEC industry that was difficult. When I graduated from college, the housing market had collapsed. It was near impossible for many people to buy new homes, construction starts in most markets were low, financing was difficult. Jobs in all sectors were hard to find. Low-level entry positions for writing or marketing were filled with people with years of experience and graduate degrees.

Like most things, this recession didn’t last forever. Before COVID-19 we were experiencing another boom time. A time of high harvest for the AEC industry with increasing salaries, revenue, and profitability. The industry’s biggest challenges were finding qualified staff and keeping up with a high demand for work.

When COVID-19 hit the United States in March, it seemed like everything changed overnight. Today, more than 70 percent of firms in the industry have experienced COVID-19 related project cancellations or delays, more than 80 percent feel business development activities will be or have been impacted negatively, and the performance of the U.S. economy is the top ranked concern for AEC firm leaders (according to the latest results of a Zweig Group survey).

When faced with a crisis, the first reaction is to turn to austerity. AEC leaders have had to ask themselves what they can cut? Salaries? Programs? Marketing? Can we patch in technology we have to get working from home? This initial reaction is necessary. When a farmer wakes up to a fence that is down, a broken tractor, and a freak snow storm that’s iced in everything, they can’t just go back in the house to sit down and wait out what might happen next.

A farmer’s first response is to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Most things can be fixed (at least temporarily) with duct tape or baling twine. I go through a big roll of duct tape every week. Just like tying the fence back together with baling twine is only a temporary solution, short-term patches for your AEC firm’s operations won’t last forever.

A farmer’s second (or sometimes first) response is to call his/her neighbors! I can’t tell you the number of times my neighbor Pete, who is a legit farmer, complete with overalls and a can of Busch in hand, has lent us a tractor, pulled a vehicle out of the mud, sold us hay, cut/baled our fields, etc. He’s taught us so much, from how to build a feeder to what kind of fertilizer to use. I don’t think people in the AEC industry do this enough. Now is a great time to call on an outside expert or even your neighboring firms to find out how you can help each other. There’s most likely more to learn and efficiencies/partnerships to be gained, than there is to lose right now.

We know the vast majority of AEC firm leaders see a revenue reduction over the next year. I challenge you to ask yourself how profitability can be maintained with that reduction, or how you can mitigate those effects with something new. Can you shift your offerings? Can you change the way services are delivered? What types of projects and markets seem more resilient? If you aren’t trying to learn how to enter those markets, this is the time.

We’ve emerged from the first part of the storm, and as a leader of an AEC firm, it’s time to ask yourself, “What do I need to do to not only survive, but also plant seeds for my firm’s future harvest? What will grow in a drought?” I’m confident that with some ingenuity and proper planning, the AEC industry can adapt and thrive in any climate.

Christina Zweig Niehues is director of marketing and media at Zweig Group. Contact her at czweig@zweiggroup.com.

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.