President and CEO of BSB Design (#87 Hot Firm for 2017), a 180-person architectural design and development firm based in Des Moines, Iowa.
By Liisa Andreassen
“My advice is to get on it!” says Swift, referring to ownership transition. “Most firms run out of time and don’t spend enough of it on transition. It cannot be rushed because when that gets rushed, it can get ugly fast.”
A conversation with Dan Swift.
The Zweig Letter: Zweig Group research shows there has been a shift in business development strategies. More and more, technical staff, not marketing staff, are responsible for BD. What’s the BD formula in your firm?
Dan Swift: In our firm we believe that business development is about relationship building and protecting those relationships. All staff has a role to play when you are trying to create a firm that is a sales machine. As stated above we have a BD operations team that leads the charge and trains all staff including technical, design, and marketing staff in the soft skills needed for becoming a future BD talent. You cannot have too many salespeople.
TZL: The list of responsibilities for project managers is seemingly endless. How do you keep your PMs from burning out? And if they crash, how do you get them back out on the road, so to speak?
DS: Burnout is the result of losing focus on your goals. It’s important to re-ignite the “why we do what we do” by creating diversity in product types and challenges so that there’s always a new “why.” We also have flex hours and generous vacation benefits for rejuvenating.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
DS: If you do become a leader at BSB, it’s largely due to possessing a strong entrepreneurial spirit. We encourage and expect our leaders to adapt and pivot to the changing demands of the market and act like founders. In our leadership guidelines, which define a clear path to ownership, it’s clear and often stated that thinking like and acting like an entrepreneur is critical.
TZL: In the next couple of years, what A/E segments will heat up, and which ones will cool down?
DS: I think housing will heat up and retail will suffer.
TZL: The talent war in the A/E industry is here. What steps do you take to create the leadership pipeline needed to retain your top people and not lose them to other firms?
DS: At BSB we have two groups that run the company day to day: Our operations committee is responsible for running the “the back of the house;” and the BD team runs sales. Both of these groups mentor the rest of our teams. We’re also launching a brand new Emerging Leadership Program where all employees participate in tier one training and then have to be selected for tier two and tier three training. Lastly we have a full-time trainer in corporate that manages virtual training using Red-Vector.
TZL: As you look for talent, what position do you most need to fill in the coming year and why?
DS: We need business developers who are also “hot pencils” to support our seller-doer model. We’re also looking for BDers and “front of the house” lead designers who can work as teams.
TZL: While plenty of firms have an ownership transition plan in place, many do not. What’s your advice for firms that have not taken steps to identify and empower the next generation of owners?
DS: My advice is to get on it! Most firms run out of time and don’t spend enough of it on transition. It cannot be rushed because when that gets rushed it can get ugly fast. We plan three years for each candidate to have one year shadowing, one year working as equals, and the last taking over using their mentor as a sounding board.
TZL: Monthly happy hours and dog-friendly offices. What do today’s CEOs need to know about today’s workforce?
DS: All companies need to adapt and pivot as our workforce demands different environments that will excite them and would most attract them to come and work in your company. That said, protecting your culture can never be compromised for a fad. At BSB we have a Culture Club, Fun Squads, and design competitions that work in parallel to promote culture, teamwork, and a family atmosphere. We all got involved in the A/E industry because we wanted to express our creativity and our design completions include all employees from accounting and legal to marketing and design.
TZL: Diversifying the portfolio is never a bad thing. What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?
DS: We have acquired two firms and several strategic hires have expanded our reach in student housing, multi-family, office buildings, major league baseball, commercial interiors, and hospitality. In housing, we’ve lost the last decade and, as a result, have an aggressive acquisition strategy to make up for lost time.
TZL: With overhead rates declining over the last five years and utilization rates slowly climbing back up to pre-recession levels, how do you deal with time management policies for your project teams? Is it different for different clients?
DS: For us, it’s not just about time management. It’s about working a proven process with focus. To have real focus you have to create urgency and set targets for tasks that are very specific to avoid what I call “time warps” where folks have no idea how long something did or should take. Back when I drafted I used to use a stopwatch to track my speed so that I knew to the minute how long each task would take and then I worked on process to improve speed. In the BSB Innovation Lab we use Elite Action Teams to work on improving cycle times by reinventing our processes and eliminating what we call “white space.”
All jobs are different in terms of fees and scopes, but the constant has to be executing within a disciplined process that you know works. When it doesn’t work, one of two things is happening: You skipped process steps, or the process needs to change.
TZL: Measuring the effectiveness of marketing is difficult to do using hard metrics for ROI. How do you evaluate the success/failure of your firm’s marketing efforts when results could take months, or even years, to materialize? Do you track any metrics to guide your marketing plan?
DS: When we create a marketing strategy, before it is ever launched, we determine what the ROI will be within a set timeframe. You cannot leave that up to chance so we create the focus and the urgency in each plan or we don’t do it. For example, even when folks attend a conference or industry function they have to produce an ROI statement about how their attendance will move the needle for BSB on revenue, relationship building, or new knowledge that we can leverage.
TZL: The last few years have been good for the A/E industry. Is there a downturn in the forecast, and if so, when and to what severity?
DS: In housing we are still in recovery and expect the next dip in two to three years out, but it won’t be a big dip – but more like a correction back to normal.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
DS: With the housing downturn and financial collapse of 2008, we learned that having 15 offices that offered everything was hard to pivot on. We learned to make ourselves lean and nimble.
TZL: While M&A is always an option, there’s something to be said about organic growth. What are your thoughts on why and how to grow a firm?
DS: We think you have to do both. The talent pool is shallow and time-to-ROI has to be considered when determining which strategy makes the most sense.
TZL: Do you use historical performance data or metrics to establish project billable hours and how does the type of contract play into determining the project budget?
DS: We track all job performances and use that data to determine what worked and what didn’t to learn for the next time. Our process requires us to establish prototype documents to ensure that we have a clear picture of what the endgame on deliverables will look like with a supporting budget. This takes the guess work out of budgeting which, too often, is conceptual in nature.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2018?
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