President of LandDesign (Best Firm Multi-discipline #30 for 2017), a 165-person landscape architecture, civil engineering, and planning firm based in Charlotte, NC.
By Liisa Andreassen
“From the day LandDesign was founded, it was intended to be a firm that transcended generations; one that was about ideas and inspired by ideals,” Crocker says. “The talent, expertise, and ability we have in our offices today is the best I’ve ever seen. That’s exciting.”
A CONVERSATION WITH RHETT CROCKER.
The Zweig Letter: 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?
Rhett Crocker: We do well retaining; it’s the finding that’s a challenge. The talent war is really crazy. You have to be creative and do whatever it takes. We’re doing things like investing in new technology, offering great benefits, education, research and development, and opportunities for community involvement. We give people more time to volunteer (outside of vacation and holidays) and make sure, culture wise, that we’re always learning and having fun, too. It’s key to provide opportunities for great work to keep staff energized. We spend a lot of time on growth and career paths.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
RC: A little bit of humility goes a long, long way. You have to focus and be confident in core values and expertise. Don’t get out of your lane. Just because you see a shiny object, doesn’t mean you should chase it.
TZL: There are A/E leaders who say profit centers create corrosive internal competition for firm resources. What’s your opinion on profit centers?
RC: Even though we have six offices, we are one firm. We measure each office and market to understand where we need to ramp up or share work. We don’t use the term “profit centers” – we just do great work. We don’t want to be a spreadsheet company. We measure so we can understand better. We all understand that it’s possible for one office to be up while another is down. It balances out.
TZL: What’s your policy on sharing the firm’s financials with your staff? Weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually? And how far down into the org chart is financial information shared?
RC: We’re very transparent and there’s never been a negative to that. We want people to learn about the business and to understand it. It helps people to better understand contracts and ultimately, do better work. Even the most entry-level staff member appreciates working for a profitable firm. Our accounting staff is part of our team and meets a few times per month. They share information with studio leaders and project managers and discuss things like change orders and project performance. Face-to-face meetings are important. We also have a dashboard for project managers and studio managers which delivers real-time data.
TZL: As you look for talent, what position do you most need to fill in the coming year and why?
RC: We’re always looking for industry experts and great designers who can think, draw, and be visionary. You can’t teach people how to be visionary. We need people who can lead teams, no matter their experience level or age.
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?
RC: If you haven’t started, it’s probably too late. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Ours is favorable to the next generation and we’ve worked to make the financial transition smooth. They’re vested now for the future. You can’t look at transition as a retirement cash out. The value is in the people. Get in early and go deep. We have third- and fourth-generation small owners now who are locked into the system.
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?
RC: In order to get new work, you have to be in the work. You have to understand what clients are facing. A high percentage of our work comes from repeat clients (80 to 90 percent) because we over deliver and push innovation. We’ve invested time and money in a business development director and also have marketing staff. Marketing finds new markets and niche locations and business development makes the connection. It’s key to make it personal. We often make the mistake of letting business get in the way too much. It’s important to cultivate a social relationship, too – go to dinner – the social side is important. Business development is the front line and then hands it off to be built upon.
TZL: Diversifying the portfolio is never a bad thing. What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?
RC: Our brand is collaborative. We set a vision and stay the course. Every office should represent our core disciplines and then diversify based on geographic need. For example, in Washington, D.C., we recently invested in civil engineering. In Dallas and Orlando, we’re doing more in hospitality and resort development. We’re also trying to get better at balancing public and private projects. We’re always looking for what’s next, but not trendy. It has to be sustainable and long-term.
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?
RC: Project managers are the lifeblood. Give them all the information, tools, and resources that they need. Try to make their lives as easy as possible. The dashboard I mentioned before helps with forecasting, too, and makes it possible for them to get ahead of a problem so they can be proactive, not reactive. We also have to be flexible. Understand that people have lives and need to take their kids to school, go to a soccer game, etc. We encourage balance.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
RC: It’s vital for our firm and structure. We’re always looking for entrepreneurial qualities and even mentor and teach those qualities. To date, we have not grown by acquisition. We’ve grown organically and just about every office was started by a staff member who proposed they could do the job. We get behind them and learn together. Get out of the way and let people do what they do best. You learn more when you listen.
TZL: In the next couple of years, what A/E segments will heat up, and which ones will cool down?
RC: Urban density projects and master planned communities will heat up – places that have high walkability in urban areas. Every city is challenged with affordability issues. Infrastructure is not spreading out as much. Transportation is also hot. How people are moving will remain a hot button issue. Things are really going to change. More and more people want to live and work in the same community so they have more free time. It’s fascinating to think about and I could go on and on about the subject.
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?
RC: We’re not opposed to M&A. In fact, we’re much more open-minded about it than we used to be. We realize there’s risk, so it would take a unique opportunity, but we’re open to it. Never say never.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2018?
RC: We’re in growth mode. This year, we’ve had about 10 to 15 percent growth in revenue and anticipate a strong finish.