Succession Success

Feb 09, 2004

Paul Weir, president and CEO of Weir-Sofein Architects and Engineers in Albany, New York, had a problem. He and his primary business partner, Wolfgang Sofein, usually saw eye-to-eye. There was a long history of mutual respect between the two. Sofein had joined him early on in the business and risen over the years (and his peers) to become a star player in the firm. He was without question the only hope Weir had to ever get out of the business and do something else some day (ever since the Bob Newhart show was on TV, he fantasized about owning a Vermont bed and breakfast). But this time there was no agreement between Weir and Sofein. Paul Flash, one of their junior partners and the head of their Saratoga Springs office, was the point of disagreement. Sofein thought Flash was the best employee in the world. “He’s the greatest! He’ll be the next president of this firm, or another, if we don’t take care of him,” Sofein was fond of saying. Weir just could not understand the disconnect. Sofein was usually so right about things, but in this matter he just was plain wrong. Weir’s impression of Flash was that he had no substance. Sure, he was good looking and a smooth communicator, but he was a lousy architect as far as Weir was concerned. The guy was only 15 years into his career and had already gotten completely out of design. In fact, he was only superficially involved with clients and projects at all at this point. Weir, on the other hand, had been working with some of the same clients, actively, for more than 30 years. Flash saw his job as a full-time manager. Weir thought the best way to manage was to set an example by “doing” properly. According to Flash, he needed more time to sell. But once again, Weir thought the best way to sell was by doing. That brought you into close contact with the clients and allowed one to demonstrate his or her capability to the client firsthand. “That’s always the best way to sell,” Weir thought to himself. “On the other hand, Sofein had an excellent track record of running a profitable, growing operation, so maybe I need to listen to him when it comes to Flash,” Weir thought to himself. “And the truth is, that someday he is going to be running this place on his own, and the Flash problem— if it is a problem— will be his to deal with. I’ll be living in Newfane or Brattleboro, smelling my own griddle cakes, bacon, and maple syrup every morning, and my biggest problem is going to be getting all the beds made while the guests are eating their breakfasts!” Over the years to come, Weir never changed his mind about Flash. And, as more and more of the control over the day-to-day operations fell onto Sofein’s shoulders, he, too, became more and more aware of Flash’s shortcomings. In the end, things probably turned out differently than either Weir or Sofein thought they would. With a lot of coaching from Sofein, Flash turned into a really solid performer. He got back into jobs and became a more substantive leader. His office made money year after year and had the best morale of any in the firm. However, just about the time when Sofein was going to see if he could move Flash into Sofein’s own role as Sofein assumed the leadership post from Weir, Flash turned in his notice. He decided to go to work for one of their hotel-chain clients in charge of virtually all of their construction projects at a salary of $250K per year! Sofein was ultimately let down. The good news is that his replacement, Sharon Strudel, hired from a competitor, Upshot Architects and Engineers, turned out to be a much stronger leader and principal than Flash ever was. She took over the Saratoga Springs office and made it grow like a weed. Two years later, she moved to Albany and assumed Sofein’s Executive VP/COO role. Today, Weir’s living the life he always wanted in Vermont. Though his inn is a little smaller than the one he fantasized about, he eventually got it. Sofein is now only five years away from his pursuing his dream retirement gig— being a college professor and writing the great American novel about a successful architect. Sharon Strudel systematically plucked the best people out of Upshot because its owner couldn’t ever get around to developing a long-promised stock plan and Weir-Sofein is now operating under the name of Sofein-Strudel, and is twice the size it was back in ‘98 when Weir retired. Everyone loved Sofein-Strudel! Originally published 2/09/2004.

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