Living firm values: Don Manhard

Oct 02, 2022

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President and CEO of Manhard Consulting (Lincolnshire, IL), a civil engineering and surveying firm serving public and private clients nationwide.

By Liisa Andreassen

2022 marks 50 years of business for Manhard Consulting, and Don Manhard has been there in one way or another since the beginning. His father started the business in 1972 and it was initially an “all hands-on deck” situation.

“Anyone who could help, did,” Manhard says. “For example, at a young age, well before I graduated from the University of Illinois, my brother and I went up in planes to take photos, climbed into sewers to measure inverts, ran blueprints, and served as rodmen in the field – basically, whatever tasks were needed.”

So, by the time he graduated with an engineering degree and started as a staff engineer, Don had been exposed to every part of the land development business. Early on, his father included him in decisions regarding business development, recruiting and hiring, reviewing expenses, negotiating, billing, utilization, and understanding financial statements.

Over the years, he’s been fortunate to be connected to other entrepreneurs and business owners who have given him advice and mentorship. And while he thinks it’s very important to understand the ins and outs of designing and managing a project by working as an engineer, he’s discovered that he really enjoys the challenges of managing and growing a business.

“After 40 years, I’m still excited about going to work each day,” he says.

COVID-19 and culture. The COVID-19 pandemic provided the perfect opportunity for Don and his team to start a new practice that’s called “30 @ 30.” The entire management team across the U.S. meets for 30 minutes on the half hour to reconnect, discuss matters of importance, and feel connected as one team. Sharing the updates with their offices following the meeting helps alleviate any isolation people might feel. And, to encourage employee engagement, each office has fun events that bring teams together.

“In the end, what really matters more than anything, is actually living our values by example,” Don says. “Culture and core values should not be static and never-changing. We’ve made it a practice to review how we communicate and how we can better live our values.”

Through trial and error, they’ve learned that maintaining a strong company culture and consistent values as you grow takes work and dedication. Communication and embracing transparency are key and they feel that they’ve done a better job of that by sharing core values at onboarding, on their website, posting in each office, and adding it to their internal conversations. In addition, they’ve made it a practice to share how teams are performing in a monthly internal newsletter and quarterly company meetings.

Here are some other practices that have helped maintain culture consistency:

  • When possible, new offices are managed by leaders or have associates who have spent five or more years at corporate headquarters. They have had time to live company values, so they’re better able to share it with a new office and new staff.
  • In support of each office, senior leadership makes it a practice to spend time in each office and sit down with all associates to understand their concerns.
  • Regional offices spend time with the entire corporate team every year. These leaders shape the culture in their office, so it’s important to bring them together to reinforce the culture and values.

Like most firms, Manhard adjusted and redefined its workplace during COVID-19. The firm adopted a hybrid work schedule that worked for everyone.

“While my preference is for all staff to return to the office, we’re being thoughtful not to slide back to pre-pandemic practices,” he says. “Our associates want the flexibility that allows them to align work with a healthy and satisfying lifestyle. We’ve responded to that need with flexible schedules, improved communications, and upgraded technology – all while remaining productive.”

In addition to a flexible workplace and strong company culture, staff also get excited about programs that allow them to share in the growth and profits of the company. They receive unlimited PTO and there’s an enhanced corporate social responsibility program that seems to resonate with the teams.

“My primary responsibility is to keep our associates engaged, challenged, and fulfilled,” he says.

A growing proposition. Today, Manhard has 13 offices and the growth continues. Don says that when he first started with the company, the business world was very different.

“The web as we know it today was in its infancy and people did most of their growth research by talking to the people who understood it the best – their clients,” he says.

As a result, Manhard started out by expanding to all counties in metro Chicago to attract talent and to be closer to its clients’ projects. Then, the firm tested the waters by following a client to the Denver metro area. It was a logical expansion for them because the area was growing quickly and they were fortunate to have associates willing to make the move to open and manage a new office.

Don plans to continue national growth with offices in high growth markets and sharing resources from team to team. Having been through recessions and a pandemic, he’s learned the importance of diversification in markets and services offered.

“I’ve worked with our teams to grow the company while working to be certain that we have enough diversification to weather any economic (or other) storms that may challenge our business,” he says.

That growth is also due to a company belief that it’s crucial to be early adopters of the latest technology because it allows teams to provide the highest level of service. Together with that, it’s important to give those teams the bandwidth to use that technology to make the most informed decisions on projects.

For example, on a project in Chicago, the team there noticed that the neighboring building was not plumb and was crossing the line in areas that could potentially impact construction as it went vertical. With the latest LIDAR and software technology, their field and tech manager were able to create a 3D-model of the existing building and create a map with dimensions showing areas that were crossing the line. With this information, they were able to take a closer look and make necessary changes beforehand to keep production moving.

Don shares that it’s also key to hire the right people, particularly leaders or partners, when growing a company.

“One wrong decision can take a toll on your existing team and what you’ve built together,” he cautions. “I’ve learned that it’s critical to be more strategic in our business decisions, perform better due diligence, and really get to know someone before you get into business together. Our firm has its roots as a family business and family was and is instrumental in making this all work.

So, starting with Don’s father, his brother, wife, son, and nephews all work in the business – they’re all engaged and driven to make their clients, fellow associates, and the company a success.

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.