Ten Years Later

May 06, 2002

Sometimes it’s amazing how little things change, huh? The challenges of implementing change, the myth of the dual career path, the hassles of poorly performing principals, the confusion resulting from messy office environments, why firms don’t believe in marketing, poor project management practices, how to do effective business planning, determining what principals make…. These and other issues were dealt with in the first few issues of The Zweig Letter back in 1992. And all are still issues of concern for many firms today. That said, I think the A/E/P and environmental industries have made some real progress in the last decade. Here are a few areas that we have seen real positive change in: Principal compensation. You don’t need to see the surveys to know it’s gone up a lot in the last couple of years. I’m not saying it wasn’t long overdue, either. But there are a lot more firm owners making $150K, $200K, $300K, or more now than there were in 1992! The big difference has been supply and demand for what our firms do. Demand has gone way up while the talent pool has not. This has worked to drive prices up. Communications. We’ve gotten a lot more efficient. In the last decade, e-mail went from an obscure communication method to one of the primary ways people in our business communicate both inside and outside their firms. Virtually everyone in our business has e-mail today. Just about every principal has a cell phone, also. And more and more are now using wireless handheld computers of one sort or another. On top of it, voice mail is completely accepted today. All of these technologies have made it easier to be responsive and react to any problem far faster than you could have only a decade ago. Business planning. More firms than ever before now accept the need to have a working business plan, and there’s less inclination to put all kinds of B.S. into the plan. Thanks to Dilbert (and us, to some extent), top management has pretty much come to the realization that the plan has to be real, and that management flavors of the month pretty much only work to sour the intelligent labor pool we all depend on. On top of it, firms are much more likely to share the business plan with all employees and eliminate the mystery of why the firm is in business and how it is going to remain viable. Support staff. Thanks to advances in accounting and project management software, and widespread adoption of Microsoft Office, more firms over the course of the decade have been able to drive down the number of support staff they have relative to design/technical/production staff. And even if the firm’s numbers of support people have not declined, that same talent or salary money has been deployed elsewhere in the firm in a more effective way. I see this as a good thing for many reasons, and the financial results for our industry certainly support my thinking! Mergers and acquisitions. They are more common than ever before, and the probability of any single combination of firms succeeding is going up every year. I think this is because we all (ZweigWhite included!) have gotten a lot smarter over the last 10 years, and firms just aren’t making the kind of goofy mistakes they made in buying and selling a decade ago. Experience is the best teacher! Marketing. Far more firms today than a decade ago believe in the power of building a brand. And they are doing it with their marketing efforts in the form of direct mail, PR, e-marketing, web sites, providing client education, doing original research, and more. There are just too many examples of firms doing this successfully for the naysayers to ignore it any longer! Organizational structure. Designing the whole company around market sectors and getting out of the business of pitting one office against another used to be considered heresy. But it’s not any longer, with more and more companies going to standing teams and divisions based on client type. With all of the progress we’ve made in the last 10 years, can you imagine where we will be in the next 10? Originally published 5/06/2002

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.