How Sweet It Is

Jul 23, 2001

“God, it smells good out here,” Bob Trunkwater thought to himself as he started out on his early evening walk around the neighborhood. Trunkwater had just recently made the decision to start his own company. He’d had it with OFE, a.k.a. “Old Fart Engineers,” the energy-sapping company he’d worked for over the last dozen years. The last straw had broken a couple of weeks before, when John Firk finally announced that he was stepping down as CEO and the board of directors appointed Jerry Broccoli as his successor. Broccoli, who’d been there since the dawn of time, had no personality whatsoever and was undoubtedly selected as the person least likely to rock the boat. And that was exactly the type of person OFE didn’t need at this time— someone who was afraid to rock the boat. In Trunkwater’s opinion, the firm desperately needed some boat rocking— and needed it fast— or it was going to sink! But that wasn’t going to be Trunkwater’s problem anymore. He had decided that his time and his spirit were just too precious to waste, and a steady paycheck was not worth his soul. How sweet it was! He hadn’t even packed up his office at OFE yet, didn’t know where his first client would come from, and didn’t care. He was on his own. He would do things his way, period. And he would make it or break it based on his own abilities, not on the situation he landed in. Success or failure would be of his own creation. The whole OFE situation was such a shame. Trunkwater was mad at himself for wasting 12 prime years of his life there. What the heck was the matter with him? During his first week at the firm, he could have predicted that things would turn out exactly as they had! Since Day One, John Firk had acted as if anyone competent was a threat to him. And the board was nothing but a bunch of “yes men” who got more out of the golf games at the ACEC meetings than they ever got out of the speakers (you have to attend the sessions to learn something!). Firk got exactly what he wanted in Jerry Broccoli: a nice guy who would do nothing. He had no business education or interest, and no ability to sell. But he was a damned good structural engineer! Trunkwater knew that he was always too aggressive and business-oriented to suit Firk. Whenever he proposed a more aggressive recruiting or marketing program, Firk started talking about ethics. Whenever the need for better information technology to improve firm-wide communication came up, Firk said the money was better spent on “technical training.” It didn’t matter that Trunkwater sold more work and that his group made more money and grew faster than any other group in the firm. It was hopeless! He was never going to change Firk and his cronies. But he could change his own situation. So he did. As he moved his arms and legs in an attempt to get his heart rate where it needed to be, Trunkwater worked out his plan. He would enter every single business card and name and address he’d ever collected into an Outlook database. He’d immediately hire Emily Johnson since he knew that the two of them were of like mind on what it took to make money in this business. They’d get a little office above the local coffee shop. So what if they were near the fire station and didn’t have central air— they’d have windows that opened. Every month, he’d send out a letter to each contact in his database about a lesson he’d learned the month before. They’d get the best computers money can buy, work together in one big room, and pick and choose clients who were fun to work for and treated them well. Maybe there wouldn’t be a 401(k) plan or a company-provided Cadillac Escalade with a rear-mounted TV/VCR. But you never know. Those things and more might be there if they were successful. Who cared anyway? He who dies with the most toys is not necessarily the winner! The story above is not based on any one individual’s situation. But I can tell you, this is how new firms get started every day. Old-line companies run off their best people when there is complacency at the top and an inability to change. And the principals of these stodgy firms feel it’s unavoidable to spawn their future competitors. If your firm sounds more like OFE than you’d care to admit, what are you doing to change it? Originally published 7/23/2001.

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.