The NEW Hot Firm

Nov 17, 2008

I just got back from the ninth annual Zweig Letter Hot Firm Conference and Awards Celebration, held in Chicago this year. It was, as it always is, a great event filled with optimistic people— something I sorely needed a dose of in these trying economic times. I emceed the event and was pretty much there the whole time. And while there were a lot of repeat winners there, we also had a lot of new firms this year that I had never seen there before. And what became readily apparent to me was that the “new” Hot Firm of today may be a little different from (some) of the Hot Firms of yesterday. My sense from the CEOs and managers that I spoke with at our conference is that these firms are confident that they can beat the odds of a poor economy and do well in spite of it. No one feels they will be the beneficiaries of a boom— their success will be based on what they and their companies do. This is contrasted with previous years where many companies would tell me they were there because they served a “hot” market (not to say that’s the only reason they made the list!). I also saw a lot of companies— the majority— who were already in their second or third generation (or beyond) of ownership/leadership. Those who rise through the employee ranks to become CEO may not be as brash and boisterous as many founder types but they may also have tremendous communication and personal leadership attributes. I met a number of these “level five” leaders— men and women alike— in their 30s, 40s, and 50s— who I found very impressive in terms of their vision for their firms, thoughtfulness, and strategic thinking. There seemed to be a lot of renewed interest in design/build at-risk as a project delivery method. The main reason from what I heard is simple— profit. It’s just more profitable. And it allows the company performing the project to have a completely unique offering and not be so easily compared to any competitor… something we all strive for. There was a great deal of interest in the whole international scene. With the domestic market (for the most part) in the tank, one can see how tempting international work can be. What’s going on in the Middle East, China, and India is pretty amazing, and some firms in this country are getting 70 to 90% (or more) of their work from foreign countries. I almost cannot imagine a firm being on this list next year that isn’t doing some international work. There was also a lot of interest in the topic of sustainability— something that will no doubt be a big part of the Hot Firm of the future. It is not a fad and will change our business (and our world) without question. It’s going to create a lot of opportunities for all of us in this business— and all kinds of new technologies and service offerings will emerge. My last observation about the group of firms we saw this year revolves around their people. Everyone seemed more concerned than ever about the welfare of their employees. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to hear the genuine concern about the people that the Hot Firm leaders expressed. More flex time, more telecommuting, and more concern that the employees have some free time were resounding themes heard in most of the companies’ stories. I don’t see these concerns lessening in the Hot Firms of the future. Next year is going to be our 10th annual Hot Firm Conference and Awards Celebration. I predict it will be our biggest and best ever— and that there will be more exciting tales of success in spite of environmental challenges than ever. I’ll be there and hope you will be too! Originally published 11/17/2008

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.