President and COO of DCI Engineers (Hot Firm #62 for 2017), a 320-person Seattle firm with offices in seven states.
By Liisa Andreassen
“Start early,” Heeringa says of ownership transition. “Make it a standard part of doing business. I’m a second-generation leader in the firm and we’ve been working on this for about 15 years. We’re almost always transitioning ownership.”
Heeringa has been part of the DCI team for more than 20 years and was named president in 2012.
A conversation with Roger Heeringa.
The Zweig Letter: 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?
Roger Heeringa: We don’t really use any hard metrics. We rate a lot of success based on relationships that turn into projects. We’re always planting and harvesting. It all takes time.
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?
RH: We’ve created a mandatory employee development program. An internal staff survey was its impetus. In addition to technical classes, we have varying class levels that offer training, for example, on how to move up from a project manager to a senior project manager. It’s a pretty new program and we’re still working to formalize the process. There are 15 to 20 different classes and they occur year-round. We’re also in the process of developing a more formal mentoring program.
TZL: As you look for talent, what position do you most need to fill in the coming year and why?
RH: We’re struggling to find production staff (AutoCAD and Revit). There’s a lot of competition for these skills, for example, in the gaming industry. There’s also a gap in the mid-level engineer jobs. I attribute a lot of that to the hiring freeze during the recession in 2008 to 2010. I’m also concerned that our education system is just not training people for the long-term. We need to promote STEM programming wherever we can.
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?
RH: Start early. Make it a standard part of doing business. I’m a second-generation leader in the firm and we’ve been working on this for about 15 years. We’re almost always transitioning ownership.
TZL: Monthly happy hours and dog friendly offices. What do today’s CEOs need to know about today’s workforce?
RH: Listen and be open-minded. Different people take varied approaches to their careers. While I’m part of the grey-haired set now, I still believe that the most important thing to people is to be a part of something. They want to be appreciated and rewarded.
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?
RH: We have a designated business development staff of four. They are separate from marketing, but work closely with them. They help to plug us in where we need to be plugged in.
TZL: Diversifying the portfolio is never a bad thing. What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?
RH: We recently merged with a firm in Montana and expanded our California offices. Not only are we diversifying geographically, but also in terms of services. We’re doing industrial and open to pretty much anything that makes sense for us. We just monitor the risk and then if the reward is worth more than the risk, we explore it.
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?
RH: As a firm, we’re really working to clarify roles so project managers don’t take on more than they should. Senior staff stay involved to make sure they are getting the support they need. Day-to-day management and communication are key. We continue to push senior staff to be more
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
RH: It’s something we always look for in senior management. Since most of our growth is organic, entrepreneurship is often responsible for how new offices open. It is something we admire and encourage.
TZL: In the next couple of years, what A/E segments will heat up, and which ones will cool down?
RH: I’m really not sure. There’s a lot of dysfunction in our current political climate. One inappropriate tweet might catapult us in the wrong direction. There’s just too much unknown.
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?
RH: I keep thinking it will slow down, but so far it hasn’t. We’re feeling some downward pressure from rising construction costs. While I don’t foresee a big downturn, I do think business will not continue to grow as quickly as it has.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
RH: I took over management in 2007, right before the recession. If there’s one thing I learned from that it was to be alert and nimble. You can’t be overly optimistic. Keep a clear eye on financial performance – things can change quickly.
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?
RH: Mostly, organic growth has worked for us. We’ve bought or merged two offices. Organic growth allows us to more easily maintain our culture. We’ve never opened an office that we’ve had to close.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2018?
RH: Our backlog is as high as it has ever been. We will remain strong. I think it will be a very good year. There will be a slow down at some point but not in 2018.
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