Hot Firms!

Nov 06, 2000

I came away from our first-ever Hot Firm conference held last week in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as impressed as I could be. Not only did our conference planning staff do a first-class job in terms of food selection (no “peanut chicken” skewers at the first night’s cocktail party, oh so important!), but the speakers and attendees I met were an exceptional group of people. One of the people I had a little time to get acquainted with was Preston Haskell, founder of 800-person design-build firm The Haskell Company (Jacksonville, FL). As someone who practically invented the modern integrated design-build firm when he started Haskell in the mid-sixties, you’d have to respect him. But as someone who took his company from zero to $700 million in revenue over that time, he should be revered! You’ve never met a nicer fellow either. Haskell, now chairman, attributes his company’s success to many different factors. Some that really stood out to me were the fact that he entirely reorganized his firm in 1991 around market sectors, using standing teams that stay together for more than one job. They tore down disciplinary departments and made different kinds of staff sit next to each other. He credited that change with allowing the firm to grow from $120 million to $700 million because it got everyone focused on what they needed to be thinking about— making the client successful by working toward their success criteria. Another point Haskell made was that the firm is completely integrated. They do it all, if they can. This smooths out relations on the entire team, allowing all members to focus on the client. It also allows for trade-offs of profits, if need be, for a quality product, something that is not always possible for design-build teams made up of lots of different companies. This is not to say that Haskell doesn’t ever team to do a job, they do. But they do all they can do themselves, if it’s possible and if it’s in the best interests of the client. The last point I took from my meeting with Preston Haskell and his presentation to our attendees the next day was that the firm reinvested 100% of profits every year! Not many companies can state that. He says, “Haskell stock is not a dividend producing stock. It’s for long-term gain and retirement.” The firm now has somewhere between 120 to140 shareholders, but up until last year, Preston Haskell himself owned 70% of it. He used an innovative tax-free recapitalization that allowed him to trade a big chunk of his Haskell stock for other securities and allowed his current shareholders to significantly increase their percentage of ownership in the firm at no cost. Neat stuff! Another fellow I met was Ken Brown, the new CEO of the 800-person, old-line, blue-chip architecture firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) (Chicago, IL). He’s already been featured in The Zweig Letter (TZL 365: June 12, 2000), so I won’t give him too much more ink, but I will say that he is one impressive guy who has an incredibly nice and genuine way of interacting with others. He struck me as someone who is not at all stuck on himself— a nice quality for a CEO and a rare one in too many cases! He realizes his challenges as a non-architect CEO of a major design firm, but he also sees the great name that SOM has and the opportunity that exists for a firm that does things just a little bit better than the other guy. In speaking with one of Ken’s people at an intermission, she assured me he is for real and is no doubt not just the nicest CEO she had ever worked with, but probably the nicest person she knows, period! That’s quite an endorsement. I will be looking for spectacular things to happen at SOM in the next few years if Ken lives up to his promise. There were so many other sharp people at this conference that I couldn’t possibly list them all. Bob Brustlin, president and CEO of 625-person engineering firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB) (Watertown, MA), is always an impressive guy. Also among the attendees were Kermit Baker, chief economist with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) (Washington, DC), Jim Congdon, senior vice president at 2,500-person A/E/C firm Carter & Burgess, Inc. (Fort Worth, TX), and David Johnson, that firm’s new CFO, a fellow they brought on from General Electric (the most profitable mega-company) where he used to work with Jack Welch (widely known as a business genius), were there, along with many more. The entire event had an energy level like none I have ever attended in this industry, a level only approached by the Inc. 500 conferences that Fred White and I went to a few years back when we made the list twice. All I can say is, it’s great not to hang with turkeys when you want to soar like an eagle. And this was a group of eagles if there ever was one! Originally published 11/6/2000.

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.