President and chairman of Garver (Best Firm Multi-discipline #2 and Hot Firm #43 for 2017), a 500-person consulting and professional services firm in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
By Liisa Andreassen
“We give our employees the opportunity to develop the skills they want to develop and use that to follow their dreams,” Williams
Williams has been with Garver for 35 years. During his time at the firm he has worked as a design engineer, project manager, regional office manager, executive vice president, and chief engineer, before assuming his current position.
A CONVERSATION WITH DAN WILLIAMS.
The Zweig Letter: 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?
DW: We’re currently in the process of embedding our finance, marketing, and recruitment teams into the day-to-day operations of our business lines, which will ultimately take some of the administrative burden off of our project managers. We want employees to pursue projects they want to work on – that’s what improves our company and keeps people here. Turning over some of those administrative duties to our creative teams – which is possible because of our investment in those teams – gives our engineers the ability to engineer.
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?
DW: We have a long history of organic growth, which we’ve used to build a firm foundation on which to support mergers and acquisitions. That foundation allows us to occasionally take on a smaller firm – such as Wichita, Kansas-based Ruggles & Bohm – and seamlessly integrate them into our culture as long as their staff embodies the same values as ours. Because of the support structure we’ve built organically we can be selective when it comes time to consider any mergers and acquisitions.
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?
DW: We realize that, when outside of the office, employees are going to tell the truth. So, we take that to mean we’re doing something right if our employees recruit candidates from career professionals to new graduates. We work hard every day to make this a place that attracts and retains great talent. I think it’s one of the things that makes us a Best Firm to Work For. We walk the talk – that’s how we’ve been able to get great people who serve as living testimonials for what goes on here year-round.
TZL: As you look for talent, what position do you most need to fill in the coming year and why?
DW: The most challenging position for us to fill is the engineer with anywhere from five to 15 years of experience – the project manager role. Whether it’s because of a reluctance of those professionals to move, or of the lack of engineering students during a previous era, our task continues to be identifying those market leaders. Our push will continue to fill those leadership voids.
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?
DW: The reality is that when you’ve been around as long as we have, ownership changes. It’s an ongoing process that’s built into our DNA. The key is to consistently develop employees within your company who display your values, vision and mission. That way, you can eventually trust them with transition when the time comes.
TZL: Monthly happy hours and dog friendly offices. What do today’s CEOs need to know about today’s workforce?
DW: We’ve been named a Best Firm for four consecutive years for a reason – our employees are satisfied with the culture. We’re an adaptable company, but at the same time, we’ve been around for 98 years and we’re not going to chase every trend. We hire good people who can build relationships with clients and we trust them to do their jobs.
TZL: 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?
DW: We’ve always operated under the doer-seller model. Our technical staff knows they need to get out there and build relationships not just so we can win a single project, but so we can become a client’s go-to firm any time a project comes up. We also prioritize giving our technical staff the support staff they need to put their best foot forward. Business development is about finding the perfect balance between the relationships we build and our ability to execute a pursuit strategy.
TZL: Diversifying the portfolio is never a bad thing. What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?
DW: We’ve established what we’re good at and we’re not going to do things we don’t know how to do. For us, broadening means promoting collaboration and cross-selling while bringing all of our service offerings to all clients. Diversifying also means expanding our geographical reach, which we’ve done by expanding a footprint that now includes 24 offices in 10 states.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
DW: It goes back to our doer-seller model and our diverse capabilities. If we have a technical expert in a field we haven’t worked much in before, we trust that employee to go out there and be an entrepreneur by selling that new service to clients or to take that service to a new market area. In short, we give our employees the opportunity to develop the skills they want to develop and use that to follow their dreams.
TZL: In the next couple of years, what A/E segments will heat up, and which ones will cool down?
DW: We know our clients, we know what we do, and we’re ready for whatever turn the industry takes. With respect to infrastructure, we know there are many challenges. The answer to this question is dependent on states to step up and provide the funding needed to tackle critical infrastructure projects.
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?
DW: A key part of our award-winning culture is having an administration that trusts its employees. Our project managers were hired because we trust them to do their jobs. We hold them accountable to plan the way they see fit, and we have confidence that they will produce quality work.
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?
DW: We have looked closely at marketing costs by client, and we use that to help us prioritize our marketing spending. It’s a challenge, but we feel our method is one that works for who we are and what we want to accomplish.
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?
DW: With a history like ours, we’ve dealt with many economic downturns, and we’ve continued to move down the road. Some of our best years were during the recent recession, and that’s because we developed a reputation for doing great work. There’s always going to be infrastructure needs, and as long as we stay true to our core values, we’ll maintain that trust and good client relationships.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
DW: Whenever I look back on my professional shortcomings, they always go back to the same root – a failure to communicate. No matter how hard you try, sometimes you haven’t been as clear, or as open, as you think that you were. It doesn’t matter if it’s something good or something bad – you can never over-communicate.
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?
DW: We use both. The type of contract doesn’t really make much of a difference. In the end, you’ve got to provide your clients with a reasonable project budget, independent of the contract type.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2018?
DW: 2018 looks really, really good. We plan to continue the strong performance that we had in 2017 for the next 12 months. Also, we’re excited to start gearing up to celebrate our 100th year of doing business in 2019.
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