What’s so great about the A/E business?

May 18, 2020

Now is a good time to take stock of the many positive aspects of our industry to help keep yourself and your employees motivated and directed in the midst of uncertainty.

I have worked my entire professional career in the A/E industry. After completing graduate school, I started in a management consulting and recruiting firm and had A/E firms as clients in 1980. I eventually became an owner in one of my early client companies at age 25 or 26, went on to start my own company (what is today Zweig Group) at 30, and then worked with literally thousands of people and companies in this business over the last 32 years.

Over that time, I also started or helped start a number of other businesses including a motorcycle shop, a reading clinic, a baby products company, and a design/build general contracting and development company. I also served on many BODs of A/E firms and was an owner in several of those. I am now in my 16th year of working as a college professor teaching entrepreneurship at The Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.

If nothing else, no one can say I lack perspective. This year, at the end of the semester, I wrote a blog post where I provided my best advice for graduating seniors. One of my key points for them was to find an industry that they enjoy and to get into that. Those who do that will never have to shift gears and step back. Everything they learn will be useful and build upon the last thing they learned.

It got me thinking. What’s so great about the A/E business, and why do I love it so much? I thought I would share my thoughts for you, our readers, to perhaps use when recruiting new graduates who have other choices, as well as to get other newcomers into our industry. Or, to help convince people who are thinking of leaving our business for another one in a different industry that they could be making a mistake.

Here are my thoughts on some of the many awesome “pluses” of working in an A/E firm:

  1. You do something our society really needs. Not every business can claim that. One could argue that we could really do without soft drinks or cigarettes, or $170,000 Porsches, or yet another brand of $200 women’s fashion jeans. But we cannot do without the people and businesses who solve huge problems such as how to provide clean water to a community, or how to provide staged housing for people later in life, or how to make retail environments that are safe and efficient, or provide transportation facilities that pay for themselves and facilitate movement of people and essential goods. And these things are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of the things A/E firms do. You are so critical in so many different ways and touch nearly every aspect of everyone’s life, that it is impossible to list them all here or anywhere else.
  2. You get to work with honest and ethical people. I think many of you take this for granted but believe me, not everyone working in another industry can claim that. Some industries are plagued with constant ethical problems because they attract greedy people or people who truly don’t mind hurting other people as long as it benefits them personally. How much is that really worth to you? I think it is worth a great deal. It has been proved through research that it is very hard to remain ethical if everyone you work with isn’t. Who wants to be corrupted? I know I don’t!
  3. You get to work with intelligent, creative, “can-do” people. You have some amazing and talented coworkers. They can meet any challenge or solve practically any problem they are asked by clients to solve. How interesting are those people and how inspirational it is to be around them! That is so energizing in itself and you can’t put a price on it.
  4. You have a chance to do really well financially. When I started in this business 40 years ago it was practically conventional wisdom that you had to take a vow of poverty to work in our industry. No one can say that today. Do you know how many people I know who make $200,000, $400,000, or, in some cases, millions of dollars a year in this business? Many! This industry can provide a fantastic living to those who master not only their requisite design and technical disciplines but also the BUSINESS of this business. There are so many opportunities to do good for people and to do really well at the same time. Few other “industries” outside of medicine really provide that, and in some ways you have fewer constraints on what you can really earn in the A/E business than they do. You don’t have insurance companies or regulators telling you what you can charge for the most part.
  5. You will never have to become obsolete. There are few constraints on the services your business can provide in order to adapt to changes in the marketplace. This is not a capital-intensive industry. There are no constraints on your ability to continue learning and developing your expertise to meet the needs of a changing market. Not every business and industry can claim that. Some are so wedded to particular technologies that become obsolete which makes the skills of their employees obsolete.
  6. You can change the world. Who – working in what business – can honestly say that? Not many. But you can. You have the potential to solve enormous societal problems that affect the quality of life for all of us – perhaps now more than ever before. You can also leave a tangible mark on the world and see what you have accomplished and contributed to. That is incredibly gratifying.
  7. You work in a business that is still needed and can function in the midst of a crisis such as the current pandemic. Thank God what A/E firms do is a truly essential service. On top of that, you have proved that most of you and your employees can work remotely from home if you have to. Try doing that if you are in the restaurant business – or the brick and mortar retail business – or the professional sports business – or leisure travel – or dentistry – or any other of many other industries and professions. There are so many others who are so much more vulnerable than we are in this industry.

We all face the temptation to succumb to negativity and lament opportunities lost or complain about problems we are having to deal with. But maybe it is now a good time to take stock of the many positive aspects of the industry we all work in to help keep yourself and your employees motivated and directed in the midst of uncertainty. I think that is an important role of leadership. And I know I feel better about this industry today more than ever!

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

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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.