Early lessons from the past

Jun 17, 2019

“Years ago, I worked for an A/E firm in Memphis by the name of Pickering, Wooten, Smith and Weiss. My boss was Don Smith and my mentor was Irving Weiss. Both of them taught me a lot about this business.”

Years ago – back in the early ‘80s – I worked for an A/E firm in Memphis by the name of Pickering, Wooten, Smith and Weiss. My boss was Don Smith and my mentor was Irving Weiss. Both of them taught me a lot about this business.

Don – then chairman and president – taught me a lot about selling work, and Irv – who was executive vice president and COO – taught me a lot about management and business. They were an interesting pair that didn’t always agree on everything but complemented each other and worked well together! Don was a Baptist deacon from Mississippi, and Irv was a leader in his local synagogue who grew up in Memphis. They are each still alive – or at least they were a year ago when I spoke with Irv on his 80th birthday.

I first met Irv as a client of mine when I worked for a recruitment and management consulting firm in St. Louis in 1980. He was going through his executive MBA program at Memphis State at the time and wondered what would happen if we applied modern management techniques in an A/E firm. So, he dedicated himself to that task.

Here’s some of what I learned from this pair:

  • Just because you are an owner you don’t get a free pass. These two were relentless in clearing out dead weight principals and moved nearly half of their owners out during the few years I worked there because they wouldn’t do what needed to be done to be successful.
  • Age doesn’t mean anything. Several of us – myself included – got promoted into jobs that we were weren’t ostensibly qualified for – and were given the chance to buy stock in the company as well, all in our 20s.
  • Just because you are an owner doesn’t mean you get consulted on everything. We had a very strict separation of ownership and management, and, as owners, we got to vote shares on who was on the BOD, a share of profits in accordance with our share of ownership, and stock appreciation if the firm did well. And that was it.
  • You don’t have to make people wait all year for a raise if they are doing a good job. One year, Don gave me three or four raises. Irv then warned me that I would really have to perform or be out of a job quickly!
  • The best way to teach people is to show them. Don took me on his BD calls and meetings. He told me not to speak unless I was spoken to. I observed and learned. He taught me personal sales skills for this business.
  • Price has nothing to do with cost. It instead should be based on what the market will bear. We charged six times raw labor for asbestos consulting because we had the expertise no one else had at that time. On the other hand, we were lucky to get a 2.6 multiple on structural engineering then because no one needed it.
  • Celebrate your success. We had a cache of cheap cigars above the visor of every company car – Swisher Sweets and AC Grenadiers. And we fired one up every time we won a job.
  • Have good financial information and share it. We were early advocates of open-book management and graphic financial performance reports showing how the company was doing.
  • Make a bad decision? Make a new decision. We once bought an architecture firm in Nashville and it turned out there were significant cultural differences between our primary owners and theirs. We divested that firm less than six months later.

I’m sure there were many more lessons I learned from these two gentlemen. The fact is they were a large part of why I dedicated my entire career to this industry. They were great people with honorable intentions who worked hard to build a business and cared about other people selflessly. I will be forever indebted to them!

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at mzweig@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.