Striving to grow: Kumar Buvanendaran

Aug 08, 2021

President and CEO of PRIME AE Group (Baltimore, MD), a firm that creates vibrant communities by connecting people and conserving culture and the environment.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

With a background in bridge design, and after spending time with several well-known engineering firms, Buvanendaran decided to start his own firm. His passion for engineering and solving clients’ challenges was clear. Today, PRIME AE has seen substantial growth and top rankings in national industry publications. As president and CEO, he supports a work culture that centers on client satisfaction and employee retention, and he often spends time in each of the firm’s 17 offices.

“If you don’t grow, you die,” Buvanendaran says. “We’re trying to build an enterprise to be the employer of choice – clients love us, employees want to work here, and we deliver quality deliverables. So, when I say ‘grow,’ I mean it both quantifiably and behaviorally. I want employees to grow as humans, professionally and personally, and to be the best versions of themselves. If we aren’t striving to grow, what are we working toward?”

A conversation with Kumar Buvanendaran.

The Zweig Letter: Your online bio says you have a “hands-on management style” and are able to recruit top talent.” Can you elaborate on this a bit more? How do you recruit talent? What do you look for? Where?

Kumar Buvanendaran: It’s taken a long time to figure out how to recruit top talent. I spend a lot of my time networking at conferences, events, and meetings. When I attend certain events, I have a different agenda than my team. I am going to gain intel and find potential recruits based on reputation, experience, etc. It usually takes me months to make progress in “dating” (as I like to call it) this individual and sometimes it works out, and sometimes it does not. I tap into my network to request warm introductions on these identified prospects and am never afraid to make the ask. I consult heavily with my senior management team for input and feedback on candidates and never make these key hire investments alone.

One of my recruitment strategies is to follow our business plan, align the talent with it, and lay out how they will play into that plan. Sometimes I recruit quicker than our actual need, but I hate to lose talent to a competitor. I know the upfront investment is well worth it in the long run.

So, all this makes me “hands-on.” I am constantly traveling to our different offices to touch base with employees. It’s important to make frequent in-person visits to ensure staff stay engaged and active. I’m also actively involved in proposal development (i.e., teaming arrangements, interviews), project management, client relationship and client management, staffing/new hires, business development, and operations.

TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

KB: We changed our telecommuting policy permanently to be more accommodating and flexible to this “new norm.” It’s a difficult adjustment and one I am still getting used to myself but I know adapting to allow more flexibility in our employees’ work schedule is critical to our survival in this industry.

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

KB: It’s hard for me to separate the two, but I like the question. As president and CEO, I think I’m always doing both, whether I am cognitively aware of it, or just inherently acting in both capacities. There is always so much to do to continuously improve and just “be better” for the business. Networking is an inherent part of growing and developing business. At the same time, I focus on improving systems and processes to improve efficiencies and culture. I really concentrate on all aspects of the business.

TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

KB: Trust is everything. This is what makes or breaks companies. I have spent much of my career building and fostering relationships with clients and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to do what you say you will do, and do it right. Our entire industry is client-centric and focused on innovative and sustainable solutions to make our communities better. Our clients have come to trust us because we follow through with our commitments and deliver exactly what we promise. Along the way we openly communicate, show transparency, and collaborate in a team environment while always being respectful of each other.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

KB: Where do I begin? There are so many skills required to run a successful practice, but some of the most important ones are adaptability, trust, entrepreneurial spirit, risk-oriented, inclusive, respectful, and the willingness to challenge yourself and your leadership.

The one thing I always think about when I am asked this question is how much my role focuses on people. I am a bridge engineer by trade, so by default, I focus on process and systems – the concepts or solutions that can fix objects. But, as I’ve transitioned into the role of a CEO and president, I rarely focus on actual engineering or design work. Most of my time is now spent working with leadership and developing my team on soft skills – communication, listening, attitude, time management, empathy, etc.

TZL: Since the firm’s founding, it’s gone through several acquisitions. Are there any lessons learned to share when going about acquisition research?

KB: There are always lessons learned and I’m still learning lessons as every acquisition is different. Here are a few:

  • Do your due diligence.
  • Focus on finances, business plans, personnel, ownership succession plan, and general synergy and commitment of the management team.
  • Ensure the key principals plan to stay on board for a specific amount of time before exiting.
  • Don’t rush decisions. Take your time in the research and meet and greet phase. Synergy is everything!
  • Over-ask for documentation. While conversations and dialogue are extremely helpful to understand the documentation, you need to see it in writing!

TZL: How do you handle a long-term principal who is resting on his or her laurels? What effect does a low-performing, entitled principal or department head have on firm morale?

KB: I’m a strong believer in “lead by example.” In this type of situation, unfortunately, you have to let the principal go. It’s a very difficult decision that requires an incredible amount of damage control to the firm, but the negative effects are far more damaging and will only allow the negative/low-performing behavior to continue. I’ve experienced this a few times in my career and it’s never easy, but as a leader, you can’t sit back and allow this behavior to continue. It will have a domino effect on the firm and employees will become less motivated, less engaged, and less interested. It really needs to be handled as soon as the low performance is noticed.

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?

KB: Embrace the transition – that’s the most important thing I can say. I recently went through this as I went from owning PRIME AE to transitioning ownership to our equity partner, NewHold AEC Corp. It was a difficult decision, but once I knew this was the right decision for the company, I needed to be open, patient, flexible, and cooperative as the decision was mutual.

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

KB: This relates to my answer about low-performing principals. Don’t allow non-performers to outlive their welcome. Cut your losses immediately. Typically, an underperforming employee’s behavior will not change and will have damaging effects on the business – particularly the bottom line and overall morale. If you get stuck in a place of loyalty or regret, you really have to rip the Band-Aid off.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?

KB: Growth. If you don’t grow, you die. We’re trying to build an enterprise to be the employer of choice – clients love us, employees want to work here, and we deliver quality deliverables. So, when I say “grow,” I mean it both quantifiably – number of employees, offices, services, etc. – and behaviorally. I want employees to grow as humans, professionally and personally, and to be the best versions of themselves. If we aren’t striving to grow, what are we working toward?

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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.