Nth Generation Founders

Mar 31, 2003

I think a lot of smart, motivated, capable people working in A/E and environmental firms often get the idea that if they don’t start their own companies they have somehow sold themselves short. This is a very unfortunate attitude. It’s bad for these individuals’ current employers and it may be bad for the individuals themselves. In order for these people to start their own firms they have to give up all the collective experience and wisdom and client relationships of their current firm. In some cases they never again have so much to offer and so much to sell their clients. So why do so many good people feel that they cannot accomplish their goals and self actualize, all working under the “big tent?” There are many reasons. Some are valid and some are not. But the point I want to get across to our readers now is that many times, you can be a “founder” of your current firm, even if you weren’t the first one to hang out a shingle and flip the light switch to “on.” These other “founders” could be second generation, third generation, fourth generation or “Nth generation” founders for that matter. How can these people be considered founders? The reason I call them “Nth generation” founders is that they drive the creation of a new company from the old. The late Jerry Allen at Carter & Burgess was just such an individual. Sure, by the time he started working for the firm in the 1960s it was already 25+ years old. Gene Carter and John Burgess (but mostly Carter) were the first generation founders who started the company back in 1939. Others such as Wilton Hammond and several other second generation principals helped get the company along to 250 people or so… much more than Carter and Burgess could do on their own. But by the time Allen became CEO in the late 80s the Texas economy had done its damage on the largely land development- dependent firm… one that had three offices, all of which were in Texas. Allen, like other Nth generation founders, put the company on a new course. He bought other firms, started new offices, and broke out of Texas and later, the Sunbelt. He changed the organization structure, compensation strategies, and more. He worked to change just about everything and in the end, gave everyone a new set of expectations for what was possible. There was a whole new company there when he died, one that he, as much as anyone, could be considered to have “founded.” The same thing happened in many other firms in our business. The Nth generation founders took the best that their current firms had to offer and used that as a springboard to build something all new with an entirely new set of possibilities for it. Leerie Jenkins of RS&H is another one of these people. After leading the charge to buy that company back from its foundering parent in the early 90s the firm has gone on to become much more successful with a whole new set of possibilities for every employee who is a part of it. I love Nth generation founders. I have a tremendous respect for these people who don’t cut and run but instead work systematically and with a plan to effect change in their current companies. It takes tremendous skill and patience. In the process, they usually do pretty well for everyone in the firm and for themselves, also, often faring much better than the typical new firm “founder” who can’t ever get his firm to a level where it does more than just make a living for them. Any first generation founders who can lay the groundwork for successive second, third or Nth generation founders are pretty fantastic, too. They really understand that ultimately, this is what leadership transition is all about. It’s not about finding someone who does things just like you do and keeps the status quo. It’s about finding new people with new ideas and a new sense of optimism and possibility. So where do you stack up? If you are someone who didn’t start your company, are you acting like a founder or an employee? And if you are a first generation founder, are you truly doing what you should to support your next generation of leaders so your firm can adapt to the future and remain viable? No one else can do it for you. Originally published 3/31/2003.

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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.