President of CMTA (Hot Firm #2 for 2017), a 250-person consulting engineering firm, and a leader in net-zero energy, based in Louisville, Kentucky.
By Liisa Andreassen
“I think it’s important not to micro-manage people,” Seibert says. “If the goals are achieved, I’m not too concerned with the path the person took to get there. Let staff do their thing.”
A CONVERSATION WITH KEN SEIBERT.
The Zweig Letter: In the event of failure, how does your firm react?
Ken Seibert: I don’t think about failure. We’re lucky to have a group of partners who are strategically aligned. We’re heavily invested in business development and human resources. We’re diversified.
TZL: Monthly happy hours and dog friendly offices. What do today’s CEOs need to know about today’s workforce?
KS: We have a happy workforce. While dog-friendly offices are great, we don’t rely on trends. We’re in it for the long-term. I think what really gets people excited and keeps them engaged is professional growth opportunities and financial success. I think it’s also important not to micromanage people. If the goals are achieved, I’m not too concerned with the path the person took to get there. Let staff do their thing.
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?
KS: I constantly see firms with great design skills, but poor leadership structure. Many don’t have ownership transition plans in place and many leaders end up working beyond their time. It’s important, internally, to start identifying and grooming leaders as soon as possible. If someone demonstrates what it takes, use their talents and promote them quickly. Ownership and solid financial compensation are also key. Right now we have 26 owners. A personal story – I started with the firm 36 years ago. I was a junior in college. I had been there for six years when I asked if I could open an office in Louisville. They let me do it. If they hadn’t, they likely would have lost me. Everyone benefited financially, too.
TZL: The A/E market is great right now. What are you doing to cushion your firm in the event of a downturn?
KS: Even in 2008, we were still well positioned. We only experienced one year of stagnant growth. Diversity is important. Avoid markets that are susceptible to downturns – developer and industrial markets for example. We’re also focused on differentiating our services. We have expertise in energy. We have a data-driven energy design. We offer clients a special value so they can, in turn, win work. Our expertise brings value.
TZL: How do you deal with underperforming employees? What are your steps for removal after they have proven to be ineffective, or even counterproductive, to your firm?
KS: We’ve made improvements in this area. It’s inevitable to make bad hires when in organic, high-growth mode. When we recognize we’ve made a mistake, we try to move as quickly as possible. We do more frequent performance evaluations with those people so that way we have proper documentation. If we don’t let a bad hire go quickly, morale will suffer. Once we let someone go, we connect them with a company that will help them be successful in another role. We’ve gotten calls from people we have let go in the past and they have actually thanked us for all we did to help get them on the right track.
TZL: Firms that have principals and firm owners that lower their compensation and invest back into the firm perform better, grow quicker, and have higher valuations. How do you balance owner compensation with investment in the firm?
KS: I strongly disagree with the thought process of lowering owner compensation so they can put it back into the firm. That’s what banks are for. They fund growth. Even though we have money in the bank, to fund an acquisition, we’ll get a loan from a bank. We need to keep our balance sheet strong. Growth won’t come at the expense of not paying our leaders well. We need to compensate our leaders to lead. That’s the number one recipe for long-term success.
TZL: How does marketing contribute to your success rate? Are you content with your marketing efforts, or do you think you should increase/decrease marketing?
KS: I’ve turned 180 degrees here. We have two groups – marketing staff and business development staff. Marketing provides the tools to respond to RFPs, and handles things like branding and making client touches. Business development gets out there and pursues new clients. Right now we have four people in business development and five in marketing. They work hand in hand and we need them to grow. I’m very pleased with our setup so far.
TZL: If there was one program, course, or degree program that you could take or recommend before becoming a principal or owner, what would it be?
KS: Don’t laugh. I think they should be a participant on a show like The Apprentice. It’s important to learn how to compete. We compete daily. We always have to be asking ourselves, “How can we win?”
TZL: What’s the greatest challenge presented by growth?
KS: It depends. If organic growth, business development, and human resources are the top challenges. If by acquisition, then maintaining the firm culture across the board.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
KS: I don’t just want leaders to be entrepreneurs, I want engineers to think like entrepreneurs, too. We want to avoid being a commodity engineering firm. We have to ask ourselves all the time, “How can we create a risk adverse environment that will encourage innovation and doing things better?” You have to have it.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2017 and for the next five years?
KS: Strong growth for our firm and overall good years for the economy. We’ve had anywhere from 40 to 90 percent growth over the past few years. We need to catch our breath. We are positioned to succeed. We should exceed our 2020 goal by 2018. We’ve got more service lines and are also growing our performance contracting. We still expect to make some acquisitions. Things are looking good.
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