What I Learned at This Year’s Hot Firm Conference

Nov 22, 2004

As usual, this year’s Zweig Letter Hot Firm Conference & Celebration in Boston drew a great crowd. We had the typical smiling, optimistic, high-growth A/E and environmental firm principals and managers in abundance and it was fantastic! Did I tell you I love these people? This event is always so much fun, and it’s a direct result of the people who come— those who own and manage Hot Firms, and those who want to be in that envious position. Thanks to our conference planning staff, we had a lot of good speakers this year. Here’s a quick sampling of what I got from them: Ed Friedrichs. Ed, besides being an avid motorcyclist who was once featured in Fortune magazine, was for many years CEO of the mega-architecture firm Gensler (San Francisco, CA). He’s now on his own. The thing that I always enjoy about Ed is he is first and foremost true to himself. He practices what he preaches, and he was talking about “quintessence,” i.e., finding the quintessential you. Ed says that while he attempted to be a chameleon and change himself to deal with different people differently when he was younger, one cannot be a chameleon and ultimately be successful. You have to be yourself and find your own quintessence. He also talked about the importance of having your own strategic plan and personal board of directors (i.e., advisors, mentors, sages, etc.) that can give you advice. I always enjoy Ed! Gregs Thomopoulos. Gregs is the CEO of Stanley Consultants, Inc. (Muscatine, IA), and he’s one of my favorite CEOs (as well as favorite people, in general!). Gregs talked about the impacts of globalization and outsourcing on the A/E business. His basic premise was that outsourcing is driven only by cost and, as long as your client is basing its selection process on qualifications, it’s not a threat. He did say, however, that we either have to open up our borders to allow more foreign-born engineers in, or we will end up hiring them in other countries simply to meet the growing demand for what A/E firms do. Gregs knows this subject— he is a foreign-born engineer himself, and he and his firm have worked in dozens of foreign countries (Stanley is currently working in Iraq). Our panel of leaders of five-time Hot Firm winners: Wendy Lopez, Robert Macomber, Rick Wilcox, and Gary Bowman. This was pretty interesting— four firms that have been on our Hot Firm List five years running were present, and all were similarly-sized in the 200- to 300-employee range. Five years— that’s amazing when you think about it— to be on this list. These firms are simply defying logic and growing like mad in spite of a flat overall economy. Two were in Michigan, one was in Texas, and one in the DC area. Two were entirely land development focused, and two weren’t. It was hard to see a lot of commonality in their approaches other than two things that stood out. One, they all had a big spread of owners and were working on furthering that ownership distribution and resulting transition. Second, they were all interested in promoting the whole vs. the pieces of the business. Three of the four firms, while ALL having multiple offices and disciplines, did not have multiple profit centers— something that I have suspected all along as being one way you get people working together cooperatively. Good stuff! Steven Valentine. Steven is an architect and creator of the Timeship Project, a far-out futuristic project that he designed for life-extension advocate Saul Kent, who wants to create a facility where people can have their bodies flash frozen (after the antifreeze is injected to prevent ice damage, of course!) and be preserved for some point in the future when they can be brought back to life. Thankfully, Steven was our dinner speaker immediately after cocktail hour, because he was one entertaining guy. His work pushed every limit ever faced by the design profession and, whether you thought the Timeship Project was real or an elaborate PR stunt of some sort, he was a very interesting speaker and provided something for everyone there to remember. John Zweig. My oldest brother, John, is the chairman of WPP Group Specialized Communications Businesses, a roughly 50-company group inside WPP Group (New York, NY), an $8 billion revenue owner of ad agencies and specialized professional services firms worldwide. We started by telling some embarrassing stories about each other from our youth, then John shared his perspective based on his extensive and wide-ranging experiences. Over the years, John learned a lot about buying and managing companies, selling integrated services, and how to keep creative people motivated. John told us that organizations are like living organisms— they naturally want to grow. But he added that as they get larger, they often develop some problems, one of them being that people feel powerless. He went on to say that “powerful” is what people inside organizations need to feel for the organization to be able to truly deliver its best to the clients and customers. John, while a believer in the power of truly integrated services, said that in actuality only a very small part of most companies’ business comes from referrals from other parts of their business. He felt that there was too often a large gap between the promise and the realization of synergies and client service when companies are acquired. John thinks that gap can be overcome and the promise realized through having a compelling vision that goes beyond making money and a relentless effort from top management to communicate that vision to the people working in the enterprise. John Gaunt. John, former CEO of the international health care, sports, and corporate design firm Ellerbe Becket (Minneapolis, MN), made the switch eight years ago to academia when he joined the University of Kansas as dean of its College of Architecture. As such, he has worked tirelessly to make architectural education as relevant as possible, so his institution turns out the kinds of graduates that firms want to employ. In his role, John has emphasized the need for students to have clear communication skills. They have also done a great deal to make sure students get field experience, with the graduate students at KU each year designing and building an incredible modern house. John explained the difficulties facing deans of design schools and how change is very slow in the typical higher education institution that has complex multiple missions that may be conflicting. Yet, he offered hope that today’s students are getting better prepared for the dynamic business and social environment in which they will soon find themselves working in the design business. There were so many other interesting speakers and characters at the event. I wish I could cover them all. But you can come see for yourself at next year’s Hot Firm Conference— sign up early! Originally published 11/22/2004

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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.