Making life better: Kevin Grigg

Mar 14, 2021

President and CEO of Fuss & O’Neill (Manchester, CT), a company that – since its founding in 1924 – has grown to include 10 regional offices, one LLC, and more than 320 employees.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

In 2012, Grigg joined Fuss & O’Neill as COO and brought with him a fresh perspective on how to manage the company. In 2018, he was named president and CEO.

Over the past few years, he’s worked closely with senior leaders, project managers, and corporate services to help ensure healthy and sustainable profitability and cash-flow. He’s also worked to reconfigure Fuss & O’Neill’s business development program to help the company position itself more effectively externally, understanding that building client relationships is essential to long-term success.

“Making life better is inherent in all that we do,” Grigg says. “Whether it’s the water we drink or the roads and bridges on which we drive or the environmental safety of the many public and private properties that we help clean up, our engineers and scientists are the doctors and nurses of the built and natural environments.”

A conversation with Kevin Grigg.

The Zweig Letter: You became CEO of Fuss & O’Neill in 2018. Prior to that, you worked at the firm for about five years. What’s the most important accomplishment you’ve achieved since being CEO?

Kevin Grigg: Shepherding the firm through these unprecedented times. Close “seconds” would be improving the environment around employee, shareholder, and board relations and the work of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee.

TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?

KG: We have always allowed telecommuting subject to the approval of one’s supervisor. The pandemic has resulted in our actively encouraging employees to do so for their health and safety as well as for the health and safety of their fellow employees and loved ones. Going forward it is highly likely that a substantial portion, if not the majority of our employees, will be working remotely on both intermittent and permanent bases.

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

KG: Our cash flow model – which we refer to as our “headlights” – is able to estimate our cash position as far out as we’re willing to make corresponding assumptions related to cash receipts, billings, and net backlog. Generally, the reach of our “headlights” is about one fiscal year, though, as alluded to above, we have five-year strategic and financial plans that serve as a framework for annual budgets or “plans.”

Workload predictability is something that we’re working on, complicated by laissez faire project triage – particularly the hesitancy of some of our project managers to close their projects out in a timely manner – and the predominance of small T&M projects that make up our net backlog. Consistency in approach related to workload balancing firm-wide has also been an issue. That said, we actively monitor net backlog and net backlog per FTE and are significantly improving hygiene as it pertains to validating near-term or “burnable” backlog (backlog aging).

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

KG: Collaborative, transparent, and empowering, as well as stubborn and focused – perhaps to a fault. Like Lombardi, I aim for perfection – knowing full well that I and we will never attain it – but that, along the way, we will encounter excellence if we remain willing to take calculated risks and support one another. It’s about building and maintaining trust at, and among, all levels of our organization. It’s also about knowing and acting on the fact that comfort is the death knell of progress.

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

KG: Yes, we are. It has resulted or produced marginal financial gain that has nonetheless exceeded the cost of internal research and external support.

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?

KG: We place high priority on recruiting and promoting “people people” over “process people,” as well as on providing training – both structured, formal classroom training and active OJT. We recently developed a “P&L Manager’s Desk Reference Guide” that is heavily oriented to “people management” that will serve as both a framework for even more structured training as well as the basis for greater uniformity and efficiency in employee supervision and management practices throughout the firm. We are also in the process of revising our leadership training program and dove-tailing these various tools with our emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

TZL: The firm has been around for nearly 100 years. That’s impressive. What do you hope to achieve in the next five years in the way of growth/evolution?

KG: Our five-year strategic and financial plans envision an overall growth rate of between 15-20 percent through both organic and acquisitive means; our anticipated growth in profitability as a percentage of net revenue is higher. This will mean greater selectivity in the opportunities that we pursue as well as greater internal efficiencies related to project profitability, cash flow, and cost containment.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.

KG: Such investments are driven by our profitability. The more profitable we are, the more we are able to invest in both early- and mid-career professionals and tenured staff. The first thing we do with our FYE Operating Profit is fund our employee bonus pool.

Through a process referred to as open-book management we make all of our employees aware of our profitability (as well as other) targets, consequential goals related to additional compensation, and their respective roles in achieving or exceeding such targets and goals. We understand that we are stronger together and, therefore, that “class divisions” make us weaker. All that said, the issue requires constant attention.

TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.

KG: Constructive change is what we are about, so change management is a big part of what we do – all the time. What got you to where you are is never good enough to get you to where you want and need to go.

TZL: I watched the “We Make Life Better” video on the homepage of the Fuss & O’Neill website. Can you give me a recent example of how the firm has done this?

KG: Making life better is inherent in all that we do. Whether it’s the water we drink or the roads and bridges on which we drive or the environmental safety of the many public and private properties that we help clean up, our engineers and scientists are the doctors and nurses of the built and natural environments. A tangible example would be my role on the Governor’s Council on Climate Change, together with the support of a number of other Fuss & O’Neill employees who have been working with the Governor’s office and affiliated state agencies, utilities, and private employers to help mitigate and adapt to climate change throughout the state.

TZL: How often do you valuate your firm and what key metrics do you use in the process? Do you valuate using in-house staff or is it outsourced?

KG: We use “book value” as the basis for firm valuation, as it is more conservative than, say, market value. Our external accountants assess firm valuation on an annual basis, and it is reviewed by our own internal accounting professionals.

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?

KG: Generally, our incoming shareholders purchase their shares from those who are required to sell due to an age restriction. Share value must always be high enough to continue to attract new employee shareholders. Assuming reasonably strong financial performance, the greatest pitfall to avoid is using the wrong criteria to assess new shareholder candidates.

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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.