Nine Things to do in 1996

Jan 29, 1996

One of the great things about the A/E/P and environmental consulting business is that it always provides you with a challenge. Right now, many firms are feeling particularly stressed— with a higher than normal workload, lots of new people who have been added in the last several years, and internal systems that are getting stretched to the limit. That’s precisely why it’s never too soon to start thinking about changing anything that will make life easier down the road, help you stay successful, and reduce your stress. Here are a few smart things to do in the coming months that will benefit most firms. Change your internal buy-sell agreement. Make absolutely sure that the method for establishing the value of shares in the company is clearly stated in the agreement. I would also be sure to include a clause that penalizes shareholders who leave the firm to join a competitor or start their own company, by reducing the value of their stock under the buy-back. This is always better than a non-compete agreement, because there’s never any issue of its enforceability. Pay some attention to the first impression your office creates. I wheeled my Ford Taurus rental car into the visitor’s parking space at the front entrance of a new client company a few months ago, and do you know the first thing I noticed? Right next to the front door was a picture window, and inside their office, right behind the picture window, boxes were stacked almost clear to the top of the window! It looked like the company was going out of business! It turned out that the boxes were simply old files that were lying around in an unused mini-conference room Set up a computer software self-learning center. It doesn’t take much more than a good multi-media PC, a TV/VCR combo, and some current video training cassettes to give everyone a chance to learn how to use software such as Windows 95, Microsoft Word, Lotus, or any other software— on their own time. Get a decent switchboard operator. We have one client whose receptionist can’t speak well enough to properly enunciate the company’s name. We have another client that you could call every day for three years, and the receptionist still wouldn’t recognize who you are. We have still another client who has a receptionist that is so rude and abrupt, she could scare the spots off of a cow! I know it’s tough to find somebody good to do this job; it has no status and most firms don’t make up for that with higher-than-expected pay. Find someone who is smart and articulate, then pay that person more than you normally would for someone at that level. Get e-mail and use it. E-mail is great. It is a far more efficient method of communicating than dictating a memo into a recorder, taking the tape to a secretary or word processor to be typed up, correcting it, handing it off to someone else for copying, and then getting someone to take it around and put it into the recipient’s in-box. In the time it takes you to read this article, I could easily write a two paragraph memo, file it electronically, and send it out to 12 different folks— without getting out of my chair. Better yet, I could do the same thing from a hotel room in Phoenix at 11:00 p.m., if need be. Install online timesheets. Once again, online timesheets are vastly better than old-fashioned paper time sheets. People who don’t know any better think that just because employees can record and submit time electronically, there won’t be any paper back-up. Wrong! Our electronic timesheet program— “Timekeeper” by Harper & Shuman (Cambridge, MA)— automatically prints out a hard copy of every timesheet that is submitted electronically, and a timesheet can be printed at any time, even if it is not being submitted. Online timesheets reduce input errors by 80% or more— the fact is, the software won’t allow someone to charge time to a closed or inactive job number, or list an unrecognizable activity code. Not to mention, having people keep their own time on the computer cuts down on the errors that crop up when a data entry person keys in the timesheets each week, the way most firms do it. Get your project filing systems cleaned up. Certainly, there’s no excuse for having a sloppy manual system. Every file should be organized the same way, with the same information located in the same place every time. These files need to be in one place, accessible to all who need them, and cross-referenced a variety of ways to make sure that when somebody needs to find something, he or she can. Electronic files are even easier to let get out of hand. Out of sight, out of mind— that seems to characterize electronic files for most firms we interact with. Develop filing procedures, directories and subdirectories, and file naming conventions, and then check to see that these are being used. Evaluate the quality of your outside advisors and change them, if necessary. I’m talking predominantly about your accountants and attorneys. You may very well have outgrown them. Just because you started out with a one-man accounting firm and a two-person law firm does not mean you are stuck using them forever. You may need a larger, more sophisticated firm at this point in your development. On the other hand, if you are dealing with a Big-6 accounting firm, or mega-law firm that has inaccessible partners or excessive fees, now may be a good time to hook up with a smaller firm that will see you as a big catch. Get an outside board member (or two). Too many privately held firms are being run by people who are not accountable to anyone. These may be majority shareholders or simply the most senior principals. They control the company and the board— the other owners are intimidated by them. In most cases, they are good folks who want to do the right thing, but who may have been with the firm so long that they have too many preconceived notions of what the right thing is. In other cases, they are too conservative, and won’t let the company invest in things that it needs to in order to grow. In still fewer cases, they are killing the firm because their own compensation deals are out of line with what the firm is getting from them. Outside board members, especially those who are successful in their own professions, can be extremely helpful as objective third-party advisors. They tend to have the entire company’s best interests in mind. Not to mention that they may bring entirely new opportunities to the firm. An excellent example of this is the recent acquisition of Whitman & Howard, Inc. (Wellesley, MA) by Tyco International (Exeter, NH), which occurred partly because Tyco’s CEO, Dennis Kozlowski, had been an outside board member of Whitman & Howard for years. A lot of firms have done many of these things. Others that haven’t are probably talking about doing most of them. If you have been talking, perhaps now is the time to start doing. Originally published 1/29/1996

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