If at first you don’t succeed, don’t give up. Cast your net again and chances are you’ll catch another fish.
By Liisa Andreassen
Rob Matthews, president of Matthews Design Group, Inc. (#10 Best Firm Civil for 2016) worked for several different companies, both big and small, before forming his 27-person firm based in St. Augustine, Florida. He says that while he liked the opportunities available to him at a large company, he preferred the more intimate, personal feel of a small one.
“I always wanted to build something from scratch to make it the best of what I saw in both these large and small companies,” Matthews says. “And with that in mind, MDG was formed.”
A conversation with Rob Matthews.
The Zweig Letter: How have you seen the company evolve since its founding?
Rob Matthews: In 2005, MDG was formed as a land development engineering firm. Most clients were private sector. However, I knew from previous employers that diversification, in client type and services offered, was the key to success. We grew very quickly in 2005 to 2008 due to the boom in the housing market, but were hit hard by the economic downturn. By 2009, MDG had been reduced by 70 percent. The need to diversify was imminent. We ventured into forensic engineering and started pursuing municipal continuing service contracts in 2007. We landed our first municipal contract in 2008 and that trend continued. With the private sector screeching to a halt, we focused on writing RFQs for municipal contracts. Today, we currently have continuing services contracts with a number of public sector clients which accounts for about 30 percent of our workload.
TZL: What are your key leadership strengths?
RM: I have a vision of what the company should be, build a good team and trust them to do a good job. A good leader needs to know when to lead, but also know when to get out of the way. Overall, I find that people know what they need to do, but they just require some reassurance and the knowledge that they have backing to move forward with their decision.
TZL: How would you describe your leadership style?
RM: I would like to think that I operate with a hands-on approach and am available to my team to bounce ideas around as needed. However, I let them operate independently, and check-in. Since I am ultimately responsible for what goes out the door, I do oversight reviews of plans to make sure we are consistent in quality and accuracy.
TZL: To date, what has been a top challenge and how did you deal with it? What was the outcome?
RM: My greatest challenge was leading MDG through the recession. We had grown so quickly when we opened and it looked like there was no end to work coming in the door. However, overnight the economy crashed, but we hung on. We reinvented ourselves, our services, our team, and our mindset. Since 2010 we have grown steadily, diversified, built a great team, and not allowed ourselves to get in the same financial or singularly-focused position that we had then. We grow more cautiously now and have strategically put MDG in a much better position to weather future economic downturns.
TZL: What is your vision for the future of Matthews Design Group?
RM: We have just started a strategic planning process with Zweig Group and will be sharpening that vision so that everyone on our team understands and shares the same vision.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project you are especially proud of and why.
RM: The Therapeutic Learning Center. The TLC is a division of the ARC of St. Johns which provides schooling for children ages 3 to 6 with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I was asked by a friend to provide the services pro bono to design the site for TLC’s new school. I had recently had a child that was born eight-and-a-half weeks early and could imagine when seeing these kids that it could have been my son that needed these services. The more I learned about the organization, the more I wanted to help. Now, I am an active board member for the ARC of St. Johns. This was not a large dollar project, but it was one that had a huge impact on me and our community.
TZL: Any news you care to share about firm projects or anything else?
RM: Through our strategic teaming relationships, we just completed the off-site roadway design for an Amazon Distribution facility in North Florida. We had worked on many roadway projects, but how this one came together and the scope and timing of this project made it truly unique. It showed a much larger firm how we can integrate into their team when needed to take care of critical aspects of projects.
TZL: Are you married? Children? Pets?
RM: I have been married to my college sweetheart, Keri, for 19 years. I met her while she was taking my scuba class. I also have two wonderful children, Robie, 10, and Abby, 8, and a two-year old King Charles spaniel named Stripe.
TZL: What’s one thing most people at the firm don’t know about you?
RM: I spent my summers working with my dad on a longline commercial fishing boat (just like in the movie the Perfect Storm) fishing for swordfish and tuna. We would go out for two weeks at a time. I really enjoyed my time on the water with my dad and it was a great experience, but it was also a great motivator for college. It taught me the value of hard work and the need to work as a team. It takes five guys to make the boat work efficiently.
TZL: Best vacation spot? Dream destination?
RM: I love to scuba dive. So far, Hawaii has been my favorite. I would like to visit Australia and New Zealand.
TZL: What’s the last book you read?
RM: The Finest Hours by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman.
TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you’ve ever received?
RM: Work harder than everyone else. If you want to get noticed or move ahead, you have to set yourself apart. My favorite quote is, “Failure is not an option.”
TZL: Is there a leader you really admire?
RM: My dad. He taught me what was needed to get the job done and the value of hard work. He also taught me that you can work hard and not succeed, but that you cannot let it get you down. You’ll get another chance tomorrow to try and catch another fish.
TZL: What advice would you give to someone interested in starting their own firm?
RM: The list is long, but primarily stay true to your ideals and understand that you are only as strong as your team and that you need to take care of that team.
TZL: When you’re not working, what types of activities do you enjoy?
RM: We live at the beach, so we love to spend time on the water. We are often on the boat or at the beach with family and friends.
TZL: Favorite lunch?
RM: Blackened mahi tacos at a place called Beaches in St. Augustine. The food is great and the atmosphere and view are even better.