Successful Business Planning

May 14, 2001

Schweitzer, Rosenblatt, Tunick, and McBlarsky had just ended one heck of a run. The 250-person E/A firm had grown from 40 people to 250 over the past five years. And while it was undeniably exciting, the four partners were, to a great extent, exhausted. Now the firm was showing evidence that the economy was slowing— backlogs had started to decline, hiring requisitions weren’t coming in to HR, and it just seemed that things weren’t going gangbusters like they were just a few short months ago. The four partners met in the conference room for their usual monthly get-together. After the usual chitchat about kids and golf games, they got down to business. Things weren’t all that rosy. But before they started to see it in the firm’s income statement, these four were anxious to take action. While the consensus around the table was that there was probably some fat to be trimmed, Joanne McBlarsky spoke up and gave her thoughts on what needed to happen. “Sure, we need to cut, especially people with poor attitudes or those who can’t do their jobs. We’ve hired so many people in the last few years that there’s no way some of ‘em could help but be duds,” she said. “But we also need to invest. We’ve got to be thinking about what we can do as a firm that’s going to give us something new to sell, what’s going to make us more efficient, and how we can improve client satisfaction so we can push prices up.” No one at the table disagreed. “I think it’s high time we stop assuming every problem in the firm is our problem,” said Rosabeth Schweitzer. “The employees need to step up to the plate and do what they can to sell work, save money, and more.” “The problems are internal to the firm,” said Ian Tunick. “It’s not the market, per se. It’s how we are responding to changes in the market. Let’s decide who stays and who goes, but let’s also decide what we are going to invest in so we don’t watch the top line revenue start to slip back on us. I don’t know about you all, but I find it much more fun to work in a company that pays me a bigger paycheck than I ever dreamed of than to work for peanuts. And I’m not at all ashamed to say that!” So what did they do? They put together a new business plan. Here was the process they followed: They hired a management consulting firm to do a study on Schweitzer, Rosenblatt, Tunick, and McBlarsky. They explored all the alternatives, but ended up hiring a company that understood what their firm does and had a reputation for being confrontational, as opposed to a touchy-feely facilitator. The consultants talked to a lot of employees, poked through all of the numbers, and pulled no punches in their report. Schweitzer, Rosenblatt, Tunick, and McBlarsky learned that a lot of what they thought they did well wasn’t that great. It was an eye-opener. They hired a marketing consulting firm to do a client perception study. They learned that just being a high-quality professional service provider that can stay within the client’s budget is not enough to distinguish their firm from the myriad of other firms out there. They learned that clients liked the fact that the principals were still involved in serving clients. And they learned that their design capability was judged so-so, but their project management capabilities were thought to be excellent. They had a meeting to present the results of both studies to all employees. They brought everyone together, and the staff got to see the good, the bad, and the ugly. Each employee also got a copy of the report highlights. They used a core group of managers to develop a new business plan for the firm. This wasn’t just Schweitzer, Rosenblatt, Tunick, and McBlarsky’s board of directors; it also included the firm’s marketing director, HR director, and CIO. The plan included a mission, vision, strategies, goals, and action items. They had another meeting to present the plan to all employees. Once again, everyone got to see it. Every employee was provided with the plan, in writing. It was put up on the intranet. All of the principals were there to answer questions or provide their spin on what it was all about. They implemented the cost-cutting suggestions made by the management consultants. About $1 million was easily trimmed from the overhead. It came from unbillable professional staff, excess overhead staff, and office space that the firm didn’t need. They implemented the strategic initiatives developed in the business plan. Creating a new marketing database, acquiring a small firm in the Boston area, and hiring a new PR firm were all critical things that had to be done. And they were! They went through the entire process again eight months later so that next year’s plan was ready before the year started. “Why wait until we are in a crisis mode to have a plan?” asked McBlarsky. “We are supposed to be planners, so let’s do it in advance from now on!” Schweitzer added. The results? More growth, restoration of profits, and most important, confidence that they were once again in the driver’s seat and not victims of an uncertain economy. That’s worth a lot! Originally published 5/14/2001

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.