Motivator: Steve Sproles

Jan 15, 2023

Principal at Derck & Edson (Lititz, PA), a planning and design firm that shapes the natural and built environment in innovative and functional ways.

By Liisa Andreassen

Sproles says his number one responsibility as a firm leader is to be a motivator and mentor, adding that the sooner you know your gifts and your weaknesses instead of trying to be everything to everyone, the better off you are. He’s a big believer in partnerships and says that his business partner, Jim Wenger, and he work really well together. They don’t compete for things in the office; they just understand each other’s talents and limitations.

“The sooner you can embrace that and work together, the better off everyone is,” he says. “It also takes a lot of stress off yourself when you don’t have to be good at everything.”

That’s likely one reason the firm has been around for more than 80 years. Over the decades, Derck & Edson has been lucky to have many strong leaders – those who wanted to teach the next generation and encourage them to transition into leadership over time.

“That’s exactly how I advanced through the firm and was able to experience all aspects of our business,” he shares. “I also think the mindset of listening really well and trying to create solutions that meet clients’ needs as opposed to forcing a solution we want has been one of the many reasons we’ve been successful and have so many repeat clients.”

Over the years, Derck & Edson has expanded its services. In 1940, it started out strictly as a landscape architecture firm, but now it offers nearly all aspects of design, allowing the firm to meet more of its clients’ needs in-house.

And client interactions are not just based on trying to make a sale. Staff are passionate about their market sectors and work hard to understand their client organizations, personalities, and cultures. In fact, sometimes they even offer to connect their clients with others who may be able to help with a current challenge that’s outside their expertise.

Overall firm success is also attributed to having staff with a broad range of skills (landscape architects, planners, architects, interior designers, and engineers).

“This allows us to truly collaborate in finding solutions to client problems,” he says.

Sproles explains that they’ve recently completed several projects across the country that have utilized creative solutions that meet the goal of both form and function. One such project was the new Science and Innovation Center at Rivier University in New Hampshire. It all started as a result of a comprehensive campus master plan. As part of implementing the overall campus plan, Derck & Edson programmed and designed a beautiful building that was functional and met the needs for the nursing and other healthcare and science programs while also providing elegant, creative, and engaging solutions to their challenges and needs. For example, the building was placed at a key intersection to create a new first impression of the campus and addresses stormwater management needs by incorporating attractive rain gardens alongside an outdoor teaching plaza.

“As you might imagine, higher education is a very competitive space as institutions work to maintain or even grow their enrollment,” Sproles says. “Our role as planners and designers who can create long-term plans as well as improve indoor and outdoor spaces is very much in demand.”

Clients are having to make sure their campuses are aesthetically appealing to a young and very demanding clientele, and staff at Derck & Edson enjoy the challenge of understanding that unique culture and designing spaces accordingly. Likewise, within the athletics market – for higher education as well as private entities – physical spaces can bring a competitive advantage.

“Our firm thrives on creating interior and exterior experiences that best align with the institutions they represent,” he says.

Derck & Edson also thrives on moving business and projects forward.

“In essence, if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward,” he says. “We’ve always worked hard to understand that business today cannot stand still. We’re constantly anticipating and embracing new ways of doing things – incorporating technology, and working to stay ahead of the curve – which allows us to be competitive with much larger national firms.”

In addition to understanding where and how they fit into the big picture, Derck & Edson leadership also stay on top of how the firm is doing financially. They established parameters for valuation a few years ago. Now they work with an outside consultant and review the methodology with them periodically and adjust if needed.

“We use these agreed upon formulas to update the value in-house every year,” he says.

And as a firm leader, Sproles says he’s constantly working on balancing the business side of things with the creative. He says he’s always been drawn to the profession because of the variety of directions you can go with the degree.

“Some programs are very focused on plant material, biodiversity, and the natural/environmental aspects of our profession, while others are focused more on broad scale planning aspects,” he says. “Whichever end of the spectrum you choose to focus your career, you have a broad understanding of it all and can use that to inform your designs, no matter how detailed or broad your project might be.”

He believes that most design professional principals are typically first and foremost designers, always wanting to have a hand in creating the solution, but he also understands the need to focus more on the business, growth, strategy, and mentoring.

“I’m getting better, but still like engaging with the design team, hearing the clients’ needs and trying to solve their problems with creative solutions,” he says.

Derck & Edson have clients from all around the country, and while the pandemic did throw a bit of a wrench into overall habits, they had a solid base to build on. Prior to COVID, they were already using web-based meeting tools, so they just had to work to get not just some, but everyone, up to speed on the technology. Eventually, they landed on a hybrid work model. Today, they give staff the choice to work remotely a few days a week if they choose to do so. That said, Sproles does not minimize the importance of collaboration.

“As a firm where designing across the table and collaborating is so important to not only our creative design solutions, but also learning from others, we find that charretting still works best in-person, and we schedule those design sessions when all can be physically present,” he says.

Of course, Sproles says he and the staff have always appreciated the flexibility that Derck & Edson provides.

“There are certainly times where family and work overlap in a deadline-oriented profession like ours, but I was always able to work in off hours to get the job done, working around the family events.”

Sproles and Wenger both believe it’s important to prioritize family as much as possible. They were both very active in their kids’ lives when they were in school and always tried to make their sporting events and even took time out to coach.

They also know time away from the office is a must-do in order to hit the reset button. And while their staff are a very dedicated bunch, they manage to escape as needed. In fact, a recent staff poll revealed that when they do want to get away, this is where some folks differ. Forty-three percent opt for the beach, 40 percent head to the mountains, and 17 percent prefer mixing it up.

It sounds like a healthy and happy staff makes for a healthy and happy business.

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter! 

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.