Exceed expectations: Diane Bicknese

Mar 16, 2020

President of Schaefer Engineering, Inc. (Wentzville, MO), a firm founded on integrity with a commitment to provide quality professional forensic consulting services nationwide.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Bicknese first learned about the company when her husband, Randy, vice president, started working there in 2004. Bicknese then followed suit and took a job with Schaefer as an engineer. In 2017, the couple became Schaefer’s owners. Together, they’re actively involved in project work and client development on a daily basis.

“Schaefer Engineering, Inc. is certified as a Women’s Business Enterprise through the Women’ Business Enterprise National Council,” Bicknese says. “We sincerely value and support our entire team and facilitate a work atmosphere where everyone is respected and welcomed.”

A conversation with Diane Bicknese.

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?

Diane Bicknese: The key business performance indicators that I watch most carefully are billable hours, project count, and accounts receivable. I regularly share the performance indicators with my staff because it is important for the entire team to be cognizant of the state of the firm and the industry. It’s important that they see the results of their actions and commitments – good or bad.

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

DB: My husband and I worked together at the firm for 11 years before we purchased it when the original owner retired. As a result, significant overlap between work and family life occurs.

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

DB: We work to differentiate the firm by offering unique solutions, so there is always a demand for our expertise and services. We use new technology, tools, and software to be efficient and accurate with data collection. We produce a work product that is easy to understand and communicate which is needed for breaking down and explaining complex incidents to non-technical people such as members of a jury. Technology includes 3D laser scanning equipment, drones and a variety of powerful analytical software packages. Another unique solution is making sure that there is constant collaboration within our expert team in order to provide consistent and thorough investigative services.

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

DB: No. We do not meet the eligibility requirements.

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?

DB: As a manager, I try to listen to all sides of a story and fully investigate a situation before jumping to conclusions. No one can fault you when the result is truly fair for all parties. We do not offer any formal training because we don’t have any other managers in our small firm outside of Randy and I. We do not have an organizational chart. Those who have good organizational skills are asked to lead certain projects or groups. Simple.

TZL: When you identify a part of your business that is not pulling its weight in terms of profitability or alignment with the firm’s mission, what steps do you take, and what’s the timeline, to address the issue while minimizing impacts to the rest of the company?

DB: I will have a meeting with the person/group and reiterate that they must drive projects and their clients. Be the one to make the call, not wait to receive it. The focus needs to be on exceeding the clients’ expectations and always finding a solution to ensure we deliver what they request.

TZL: How do you handle a long-term principal who is resting on his or her laurels? What effect does a low-performing, entitled principal or department head have on firm morale?

DB: One negative attitude effects the entire team’s morale. People will begin to question their own dedication to the team and their place on it. It makes people question even if there is no true issue or concern. Meet the problem head on and act quickly as needed.

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?

DB: You must set goals and make plans years in advance. You cannot be over prepared for an ownership transition.

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

DB: When there is a tough decision to be made, you need to make it and not look back. First and foremost, trust your instincts.

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

DB: Manage and organize resources.

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

DB: Schaefer Engineering operates and is structured so that the loss of one person does not cripple it. There is a collaborative effort in every key element and program in our firm.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion is lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

DB: Schaefer Engineering, Inc. is certified as a Women’s Business Enterprise through the Women’ Business Enterprise National Council. We sincerely value and support our entire team and facilitate a work atmosphere where everyone is respected and welcomed. In addition, the firm recognizes the commitment to supplier diversity that is embraced by corporations and government agencies today, and we can add diversity to our clients’ supply chain.

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

DB: We share company profits with every employee so they are financially rewarded for their hard work and management of projects and clients.

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.