Striving for excellence: Brian Peters

Apr 20, 2020

Managing principal of Woodblock Architecture (Portland, OR), a firm that sees each new project as an opportunity to create something awesome and build new relationships.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Woodblock Architecture was founded by four friends who share a passion for design and a good sense of humor. Peters said they had a simple goal to create a firm that’s about putting people first.

“From our clients and partners to coworkers, when you love who you work with, the work is simply a labor of love,” Peters says.

A conversation with Brian Peters.

The Zweig Letter: How has COVID-19 affected your business on a daily basis?

Brian Peters: Communication is taking quite a bit longer, though we have seen next to no decrease in work to date. That may change as this drags on, but new projects are still coming in the door.

TZL: What are the three to four key business performance indicators that you watch most carefully? Do you share that information with your staff?

BP: We watch:

  • Balance sheet
  • Break-even number
  • Previous month’s revenue

We share with staff wins and losses of projects, workload projections and planned needs for more staffing. Specifics about business performance is not shared with staff.

TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

BP: Personally, I split 25/75 (project versus overhead), but other partners split closer to 70/30. It’s all about a balance of operating the business and providing great service alongside the product.

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?

BP: Family is integral to my career as they are one of the driving forces in striving for excellence. The better I can do in the professional portion of my life, the more stability I can give to my family. Given that my partners and I started our own firm, we have been able to closely tie our families to the business. There is overlap and much of our outside of office gatherings include our significant others and children. It’s also the driving force for allowing our staff and ourselves a healthy and flexible work-life balance.

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.

BP: We reward all growth and improvement and try to be out in front of employee needs. Tenured or new, we make an effort to value everyone equally. Honest communication and transparency probably help the most. We are all humans and make mistakes but by owning them, as well as actively listening to staff concerns can take the place of solely relying on monetary benefits.

TZL: What novel approaches are you bringing to recruitment, and how are your brand and differentiators performing in the talent wars?

BP: We strive to highlight a great public persona with our digital presence and branded swag. We feel that we win the talent war when we act quickly and mindfully. Honesty is a hallmark of our culture and we believe that is a differentiator.

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

BP: We went from “not allowed” to the entire company doing it over the course of one day.

TZL: When you identify a part of your business that is not pulling its weight in terms of profitability or alignment with the firm’s mission, what steps do you take, and what’s the timeline, to address the issue while minimizing impacts to the rest of the company?

BP: We recognize it, track it, and come up with a plan to replace the detrimental revenue stream. Every instance is unique and that accounts for specific steps and timelines. Every effort is made to minimize the impact on the company but awareness is the best way to counteract.

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

BP: The impacts on projects and contracts is a hot topic for us in regards to change management. The key is the management of additional services that correspond with managing changes and therefore the communication of implications with the client.

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?

BP: We valuate the firm annually, using in-house staff to monitor revenue, P and L, and balance sheet.

TZL: Are you seeking some kind of financial assistance during the COVID-19 crisis? If so, what type?

BP: We will file for the SBA loan to cover payroll with the uncertainty of the market and future of the industry.

TZL: What financial metrics do you monitor to gauge the health of your firm?

BP: Aside from the yearly valuation we used almost daily the P&L, balance sheet, and monthly billings versus monthly budgets. We track the accuracy of our forecasting against the backlog of work in the pipeline which is also helpful.

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?

BP: We hope to ensure a smooth transition by taking our time and planning ahead. Hopefully, it can be a 10-20-year transition. We are also keeping our options open to a multitude of transition models to allow for future flexibility.

TZL: What unique or innovative pricing strategies have you developed, or are you developing, to combat the commoditization of engineering services?

BP: We do not have direct pricing strategies; however, we value professional relationships that work and will continue to develop those relationships as they are more important than a quick dollar immediately. Reducing the commoditization of the profession is more important than an innovative pricing strategy.

TZL: How are you staying in touch with your clients during the COVID-19 pandemic?

BP: Email, phone calls, and virtual meetings have all combined to keep us in touch.

TZL: You want high utilization for profitability, but that means employees are fully loaded with assignments. How do you balance growth, utilization, new clients, and new hires?

BP: We strive to build a business that doesn’t require a high utilization rate to succeed. We sacrifice some profit for growth, education, and on the development of new hires. It’s a balancing act but leaving money on the table and having happy people is more important than a decimal point percent.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

BP: Ironclad proposals are difficult. We will no longer do additional work for a client without an Add Serve. Retainers are a great safety net when working with a new client you have no history with.

TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?

BP: We ask our project managers what they need to accomplish their goals and the tasks that we ask of them weekly. We also hope to create an atmosphere where employees can participate in the management of how much work they have on their plate and be open about when they need help and how that can be accommodated.

TZL: What measures are you taking to protect your employees during the COVID-19 crisis?

BP: No human contact required for business. Everything will be done virtually or electronically.

TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?

BP: We do not have any principals in their 20s or 30s. We have four principals, each with 15-20 years of experience. We do not see this profession as being a good model for employees to gain the knowledge necessary for this level of job demands in that short of time. That being said, years of experience is not a direct link to capabilities as people are very different in their individual abilities and should be judged on that alone.

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