Piano and trombone

Oct 17, 2016

A visionary rather than a command-and-control type of leader, Mike Sanderson has a musical side to him that some might find surprising.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

He doesn’t like the word “client.” He prefers “customer.”

“It sounds warmer and friendlier,” says Mike Sanderson, president of Sanderson Stewart, (Best Firm Civil #31 for 2016) of Billings, Montana.

And since he and his current partners purchased the firm 15 years ago from his father (the firm’s founder, Bob Sanderson) and long-time partner, John Stewart, he’s been focused on not just creating exceptional design, but a memorable customer experience, too.

Sanderson started working in the family business as a surveyor while a junior in high school and to date, has done just about every job imaginable. Today, this 60-person firm focuses on multi-discipline engineering, planning, surveying, and landscape architecture, and its leader is careful to avoid being pulled down into the weeds.

A conversation with Sanderson.

The Zweig Letter: How have you seen Sanderson Stewart evolve over the years?

Michael Sanderson: Firms change over time to reflect changes in people and the marketplace; ours has been no different. Beyond the organic changes, we’ve undergone significant strategic change, too. We’ve evolved from being a one-office civil/survey firm working in one local market to being a multi-disciplinary design firm working for several distinct client types in multiple geographic markets. We did this intentionally to diversify our client portfolio and to target what we call ‘A’ clients – those seeking a high-level of planning and design that isn’t easily commoditized.

TZL: As a business leader, what are your key strengths?

MS: I focus on the big picture, how all the moving parts of the business are interrelated and on how that fits into the external marketplace and macroeconomic environment. I have a mindset that won’t let me get immediately pulled down into the weeds to solve the details. I think that’s the downfall of a lot of engineering leaders.

TZL: How would you describe your leadership style?

MS: I’m a visionary and definitely not a command-and-control type of leader. I’m the one always looking up and forward, assessing the changing environment and projecting into the future. After that, my job is to paint the pictures and tell the stories that are going to compel people to work hard to achieve that future. As a result, I need to make sure I have strong task masters on my management team to keep things on track.

TZL: To date, what’s been your greatest challenge? How did you handle it?

MS: Managing our firm through a massive downturn while not losing sight of our long-range vision. Keeping our focus while working on those two seemingly disparate goals was an incredible challenge. We’ve always done a lot of work in land development, so the recession hit us pretty hard. But, even as we downsized and adapted to a new economic reality, I still insisted that we take the long view and keep innovating for the future. We were often cutting in one area while investing in another. This was difficult for people to understand. I implemented many open book management practices and met with staff on a regular basis to give updates at quarterly, all-hands-on meetings and in a weekly email update. We communicated the details of our strategic plan, reported financials and explained what it meant and why we were doing it. We continue these practices to this day.

TZL: What is your vision for the future of Sanderson Stewart?

MS: The business model of the traditional professional services firm is broken. It’s an anachronism. It’s a 20th century model, and perhaps even a 19th century model for selling time by the hour, which was developed during the industrial age of assembly lines and steam engine technology. We now live in an information economy driven by 21st-century technology. My vision is to continue to innovate in our business practices, perhaps disruptively so, to create a 21st-century firm that is built on the concept that our ideas are worth more than the time it takes to put them on paper and have a few meetings – and hopefully we can have some fun while we’re doing it.

TZL: Tell me about a recent project you are especially proud of and why.

MS: We recently worked on several new schools in Billings, Montana. The Billings Public School District hadn’t built a new school in nearly 30 years and recently passed a bond issue to build two new middle schools and completely rebuild two elementary schools. We were part of the teams on all four projects. It was great to be part of projects that will have such a lasting impact on our community. The middle school projects gave us the opportunity to design campus-like learning environments that are unique in our area.

TZL: What do you feel sets your company apart from others?

MS: Outperforming the competition – it doesn’t matter the industry or the market – it all boils down to differentiation. You have to be different in the customers’ eyes in some positive way – better service, more reliable, more trusted, better expertise, or something. If you don’t, then the only way to differentiate is based on a cheaper price, and that’s the definition of a commodity. What separates us from the pack? Customer service. We’ve studied firms outside of our industry who have great customer service – companies like the Ritz Carlton and Nordstrom’s – to see what they do. We ask customers what they like and don’t like. We’ve learned that whenever there’s a breakdown in customer service, it always traces back to a communication breakdown. That’s why we’ve implemented tactics to ensure communication remains a top priority. We provide weekly progress reports to customers and consistently find that great customer service relies on three things:

  1. Responsiveness (our goal is a one-hour response time)
  2. Creating little ‘wow’ moments
  3. Anticipating need

It’s all about creating an experience, not just a design.

TZL: Is there any news you care to share about anything else?

MS: In 2014, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce voted us the Small Business of the Year at the 10th annual America’s Small Business Summit in Washington, D.C. That was a pretty big deal for us!

TZL: Are you married? Do you have children? Pets?

MS: I’ve been married to Sara for more than 20 years. She’s an environmental engineer. We have two children – a daughter in high school and a son in middle school – and a very energetic black lab.

TZL: What’s one thing most people at the firm don’t know about you?

MS: I went to college on a music scholarship. I played the piano and trombone. I believe tapping into the left and right side of my brain has helped me to be an effective leader.

TZL: What’s a favorite vacation spot? Do you have a dream destination?

MS: We recently took a family trip to the Galapagos Islands. It was an amazing experience. I just love to travel, so my dream destination is just about anywhere that I can experience new places and cultures. I’ve never been to Scandinavia or Africa and I’d love to visit the Himalayas.

TZL: What’s the last book read?

MS: Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike. Phil Knight’s story illustrates how much success is dependent on grit and perseverance.

TZL: What’s the last movie you saw?

MS: I love old James Bond films. I think it was Moonraker.

TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you’ve ever gotten?

MS: The people who are most successful keep showing up.

TZL: Who is a leader you admire?

MS: I’m fascinated by entrepreneurs. Two who come to mind are Richard Branson and Elon Musk.

TZL: When you’re not working, what types of activities do you enjoy?

MS: Hiking, trail running, fly fishing, and snowboarding – pretty much anything that gets me outdoors. My son and I are also on a quest to see a baseball game in every Major League ballpark, so we fit in baseball excursions whenever we can.

TZL: What’s your favorite lunch?

MS: Lunch with my kids – even if it’s just a sandwich in the school cafeteria – that’s the best.

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.