President and founder of Brudis & Associates, Inc. (Hot Firm #36 and Best Firm Multi-discipline # 51 for 2016), a 90-person firm based in Baltimore.
By Liisa Andreassen
“While I like to say we’re like the Marine Corps and are ‘always looking for a few good men,’ finding talented employees is difficult,” Brudis says. “We actively seek individuals who can help us grow, sometimes even when an in-house position is not available.”
A CONVERSATION WITH TONY BRUDIS.
The Zweig Letter: There are A/E leaders who say profit centers create corrosive internal competition for firm resources. What’s your opinion on profit centers?
TB: The term corrosive seems excessive, but profit centers can create a very competitive atmosphere, especially when they’re tied to profit margins, growth, and individual performance evaluations. Management and profit centers must target responsible goals and expectations. These areas must include opportunities for the overall growth of the company and commitment from the profit center resources.
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?
TB: Financial information is shared with senior management staff on a monthly basis. Overall, general company statements are provided to the entire office during our annual staff meeting
TZL: The design-build delivery model appears to be trending upward. What are the keys to a successful design-build project? What are the risks?
TB: At present, BAI is only involved in preparing RFP documents for design-build projects.
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?
TB: We try to keep our leadership informed on the overall company status and mission, and letting management take the lead role in developing the growth of the company – either organically or through acquisition. By growing and expanding, additional management and technical opportunities are provided for leadership. We try to appeal to everyone in the firm for these new endeavors.
TZL: As you look for talent, what position do you most need to fill in the coming year and why?
TB: While I like to say we’re like the Marine Corps and are “always looking for a few good men,” finding talented employees is difficult. We actively seek individuals who can help us grow, sometimes even when an in-house position is not available. We believe most of our needs in the upcoming year will include project engineer level personnel with an experience range of four to eight years in the transportation engineering-related fields.
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?
TB: I am in somewhat of a unique position. I have three children who have actively taken positions within the company. Each of them has worked for the firm, at various positions, for several years. The experience they have learned will lead to the next generation of ownership.
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?
TB: In general, our marketing department typically contracts with procurement officials. Our senior and project management staff work directly with technical personnel. It would be rare for someone from the marketing department to attend a technical meeting. The marketing department also develops written RFPs or company presentations, but anything that would involve technical engineering applications would be prepared by the management engineering staff.
TZL: Diversifying the portfolio is never a bad thing. What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?
TB: A few years ago, we decided to get into construction management and construction inspection. We have always provided these services, but on a small, part-time and as-needed basis. We were able to build upon those qualifications, and with help from a small inspection staff, we began to pursue those types of contracts, either on a prime or joint-venture basis. After numerous procurement failures, we finally got a break for full-time inspection services. Using that contract, we were able to build on other CM/CMI avenues. Today, we have nearly 20 full-time on-site inspection personnel. We’re also developing and implementing capture plans and strategies as we take on new locales and disciplines.
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?
TB: We try not to inundate them with excessive administrative functions which sometimes can include meetings, invoicing, and personnel issues. Let the project managers do their job. We are there to make sure they have the right tools to do it. If a PM gets overloaded, we discuss options for workload sharing, available staff, etc. We also provide office activities to keep moods at ease. Typically, these include lunchtime movies, basketball shoots, office cookouts, and internal office events.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
TB: We encourage it. If staff has a good idea or suggestion, we listen. As senior management, we are open to different ideas/changes.
TZL: In the next couple of years, what A/E segments will heat up, and which ones will cool down?
TB: Lately, we’ve been seeing more water resources-related projects, which involve best management practices, storm water management, and total maximum daily loads. These projects, related to the US Clean Water Act, focus on rehabilitation and maintenance.
Driverless technology also seems to be rapidly advancing. Roadways will eventually need to accommodate these applications. In the next few years, there will be a mix of human drivers/driverless lanes and techniques being used for transportation design purposes. Some of which will include: roadway materials and sensors, pavement markings and signage, communications, speed limits, lane width, etc. In addition, there is going to be a transition period for human drivers to adapt to and accommodate these new vehicles.
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?
TB: Every year our staff develops a business plan for their division. We try to evaluate it every six months, but always at year-end. We monitor and track each marketing effort and discuss major failures and winners. For long-term marketing endeavors, we rely on the actual progress being made and our realistic instincts of performance.
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?
TB: We have tried both techniques. Each has certain positive/negative benefits. I prefer organic growth, simply because it’s a slower process in terms of cash outlay. However, organic growth can be a painful and costly experience, which never flourishes. After a certain period, you must accept it as a loss, learn from it and move forward. Acquisition is a quicker route to growth, but also higher risk factor in terms of purchase and transition.
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?
TB: While historical data and information may be reviewed, it’s not directly used in determining project budgets. Each of our projects is unique, as processes, reviews, and permitting change.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2018?
TB: Based on a revised Federal Highway budget, we had anticipated significant growth, but as the funding lingers, so do the projects. We expect a continued focus on environmental sustainability projects, such as best management practices and storm water management, as they relate to the U.S. Clean Water Act.
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