In the trenches: Margaret Robertson

Nov 04, 2019

President and CEO of Falcon Engineering, a woman-owned engineering firm in Cary, North Carolina.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Robertson is a registered licensed engineering geologist by trade and has more than 30 years of experience in the materials testing and geotechnical engineering industry. She oversees the entire operation of Falcon from its AASHTO accredited laboratory, to its engineering services and marketing and business development initiatives.

“We strongly adhere to an open-door policy – from executive leadership down to our project managers,” Robertson says. “We feel a listening ear without harsh pushback is the key to a trusting relationship and understanding the needs of our staff.”

A conversation with Margaret Robertson.

The Zweig Letter: What are three or four key business performance indicators that you watch most carefully? Do you share that information with your staff?

Margaret Robertson: Backlog, gross margin, and AR status. These key performance indicators are shared with senior leadership, project managers, and department managers on a weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly basis.

TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cash flow?

MR: It’s a strong market now and that’s allowed us to look even further into the future with high reliability. Currently, with 90 percent reliability, we can predict our workload and cash flow out for the next eight to 10 months. Beyond that, with 60 percent reliability, we can predict workload 15 to 18 months away, and, with 30 percent reliability, predict 24 months away. In the past, during tougher markets and economic downturns, it’s been difficult to reliably predict our workload and cash flow just four to six months out.

TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

MR: When I hear the phrase working “in” the business rather than “on” the business, one word comes to mind: Synonymous. There is no divvying up the percentage of time spent working “in or on” the business. Running a successful small business requires looking “in” the business before working “on” the business. Seeing inside the business involves an understanding of your service lines and technical expertise. It also requires a commitment to mentoring and a “getting in the trenches” mentality if needed. Taking a hands-on approach has enabled me to better understand how to address the working “on” part of the business.

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

MR: We like to refer to ourselves as the “Falcon Family,” and often use the hashtag #FalconFamily in our social media posts. We also speak to it on the culture page of our website. This is not just a tagline we use for recruiting purposes. We really are a close-knit family of staff who genuinely care about one another. We want to see each other succeed inside and outside the confines of our job. Being a small company, we not only know our staff members’ spouse and children’s names, but we often see them at our events or during an office visit. When the babysitter doesn’t work out or family schedules are derailed, we welcome our staffs’ children to come to the office. Just a few weeks ago, one of our staff members said over a lunch conversation that coming to work everyday is like getting paid to come hang out with their friends. To solidify our whole familial approach, we also put out a quarterly internal newsletter that is very much employee-focused, which we mail home to staff’s families. Any way you look at it, family is important to us.

TZL: It’s often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?

MR: This statement could not be truer, as we have experienced it first-hand. Falcon came to a bump in the road a few years back that warranted some redirection and leadership change. Prior to the transition, morale was low and employee turnover was high. Something needed to change – leadership structure. It’s been more than five years now, and it’s safe to say we have come out on the other side with a fresh perspective and a bright future. Since the change, we’ve had four former Falcon employees return to us and our retention rate is at an all-time high. The redirection has also allowed us to implement some new tools to ensure staff is happy and our management team is well-trained – not only in their technical work, but also in team management. We encourage and pay for our staff to gain the training they need to serve their teams well, one of which was Zweig Group’s Excellence in Project Management seminar. Also, as part of the onboarding process, we gift each employee with Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder book and require them to take the associated StrengthsFinder test. Their results are put into a master spreadsheet, alongside the rest of our employees’, and is shared with leadership and project managers. We have found this to be a great tool to better understand our staff, their individual strengths, and their unique working styles.

TZL: What novel approaches are you bringing to recruitment, and how are your brand and differentiators performing in the talent wars?

MR: Because anyone who comes to Falcon can affirm that we are in fact a family-oriented culture, it has gained us a handful of employees through referrals. Our staff acts as cheerleaders and they often are the ones bringing in new talent. We’ve also partnered with NC Works – a partner of the NC Department of Commerce that provides an online resource for job seekers and employers in North Carolina. They have 94 career centers in the state with more than 4,000 resumes uploaded weekly. So far, we have used their services to hire three employees. We feel that NC Works is an untapped resource for employers of North Carolina. Like other firms, we also attend career fairs. While this may not be a novel approach, it’s a great way to interact with the incoming work-force talent and get a feel for what young jobseekers are looking for in their career.

TZL: What financial metrics do you monitor to gauge the health of your firm?

MR: We primarily monitor backlog, billings, gross margin, bottom line profit, and AR/cash flow. These key metrics are directly compared to our previously established annual budget/projections on monthly financial reports as well as other interim reports. They are also directly compared to some industry standard key financial metrics when applicable. Quarterly, our leadership team gets together to discuss our performance year-to-date, and determines if we need to adjust our budget/projections and/or adjust our operations, such that our annual revenue and profit goals are met or exceeded by year end.

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

MR: Taking calculated risks in business is inherent for success. Sometimes failure happens regardless of how much research, due diligence, or information gathering is performed. The greatest lesson I’ve learned before pulling the trigger is to stay vigilant, have a clear, concise timeline for success, which includes accountability and expectations. Also, get a second opinion on all legally bound contractual agreements, ensuring a path of recourse protecting owners and the company. Finally, if things are heading south, do not prolong the inevitable. Cut your losses.

TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?

MR: I think this question is best answered through direct feedback recently received from one of Falcon’s project managers: “I want to emphasize how well our company is managed and the benefit this brings to our clients. Falcon’s project managers are provided with as much information as possible, and as many tools needed for project pursuits, to manage active projects, measure key project metrics, and to communicate with owners along with project team members. Senior leadership are open to communication with project managers and actively seek feedback from us regarding how problems are resolved and welcome suggestions for new procedures. Inventive ways to scoping and pricing projects are also welcome, and sometimes desired, to set ourselves apart from our competitors. Project managers are not overworked, they are well-trained, and they are kept up to date with changes in our industry. Moreover, project managers at Falcon are kept aware of the company’s financials, potential and active claims, and corporate structure through semi-regular meetings. This transparency provides unity and a sense of ownership between the company and its staff. We understand that if the company does well it is a direct reflection of the performance of all employees, and thus the success of our projects.”

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

MR: Keeping my finger on the pulse.

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

MR: Engineering has historically been a male dominated industry, and still is. Falcon is a woman-owned business that recognizes a great deal of our firm’s strength comes from our staff diversity. Falcon operates heavily within the public market, including contracts with many local municipalities, as well as state and federal government agencies. Many of those public contracts, at a minimum, have diversity goals, while some have diversity requirements. To meet those goals and requirements, we actively recruit our staff from various gender, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds through active relationships with local colleges and universities, local community and technical colleges, and state and county supported employment programs. Falcon can proudly say that 40 percent of its staff is comprised of women and minorities – and we are stronger because of it.

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

MR: We strongly adhere to an open-door policy – from executive leadership down to our project managers. We feel a listening ear without harsh pushback is the key to a trusting relationship and understanding the needs of our staff. We have implemented “Stay Interviews,” which are conducted once a month with one of our staff to ensure they are happy and to discuss anything we may need to change or do better. We also strongly encourage and pay for our staff to get the training required to do their job well. Specifically, we have partnered with a program called Catalyst 20/20, a co-partnership with NC Works, which, through an application process, offers up to a $50,000 lifetime max to eligible businesses in our county. The money can be used for certifications, technical training, leadership development, and other areas deemed important to the employer. This program has been a great asset. We also have a spot bonus program in place for staff as well as an employee minimum guaranteed paid-hours program for our technical and hourly staff.

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.