Founder and CEO of Wright Engineers (Best Firm #1 Structural for 2018), a Vegas-headquartered firm where perfection is the goal but excellence is tolerated.
By Liisa Andreassen
“In 21 years, I’ve only had to terminate one long-time leader who, over time, began to behave entitled and above the rules,” Wright says. “I tolerated it much longer than I should have. Everyone in the company knew he needed to go. When he was terminated, it was like a heavy steel ball had been cut loose.”
A CONVERSATION WITH BRENT WRIGHT.
The Zweig Letter: Engineers love being engineers, but what are you doing to instill a business culture in your firm?
Brent Wright: If I have one complaint about engineers, it’s that they love engineering so much that they have a tendency to neglect that other “dumb stuff I gotta do” like contracts and invoicing and managing the business side of the project – all the other stuff that’s necessary to be a profitable business. We share our financial numbers for the company, for each office, for each department, and for each project. We train our people carefully and often about business practices. Profit sharing is directly tied to our business performance and everyone sees the numbers for that. Each PM knows he/she is responsible for the profitability of their project and their project is not done until we’ve been paid.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
BW: From day one, part of our company vision has been to be a destination employer. The last thing we want to do is train the best and brightest so they can leave us and join (or become) our competition. Of course we do our best to offer pay and benefits and perks that are representative of a destination employer, and we’re constantly looking for ways to improve, but we also focus on profits. You need to be profitable to afford the best and we focus on training since the best and brightest want to continually learn. We also focus on growth and advancement opportunities and on doing excellent work that will challenge and be interesting. We regularly hold fun company events where team members can bond. Our monthly one-on-ones help each team member to reach their career goals.
TZL: Do you tie compensation to performance for your top leaders?
BW: Our profit sharing program is directly tied to the performance of each office, and the amount is significant for principals. Those who fail to meet performance goals get nothing. Those who exceed their goals receive higher profit share.
TZL: Describe the challenges you’ve encountered in building your management team over the lifetime of your leadership? Have you ever terminated or demoted long-time leaders as the firm grew? How did you handle it?
BW: In 21 years, I’ve only had to terminate one long-time leader who, over time, began to behave entitled and above the rules. I tolerated it much longer than I should have. Everyone in the company knew he needed to go. When he was terminated, it was like a heavy steel ball had been cut loose. Financial performance immediately improved as did the overall office atmosphere and morale among principals. Several commented that it should have been done long ago. It reaffirmed what I already knew – keeping the wrong people around is bad for all the right people.
TZL: How do you promote young and new leaders as the firm grows?
BW: Our first choice is always to promote from within. We know those who’ve “grown up” with us. We know we can trust them, we know they’re a great cultural fit, and we know they don’t have to get rid of any bad habits. A person’s position in our firm is based on their capability and performance and desire to excel, regardless of their tenure. Most of our principals joined us right out of college. We try to create opportunities for everyone who has the desire and ability to become a leader.
TZL: With technology reducing the time it takes to complete design work, how do you get the AEC industry to start pricing on value instead of hours?
BW: I think the notion that AEC services are undervalued is as old as the industry, and it’s partly a self-inflicted shot in the foot. For every established firm with a substantial and loyal client base that is willing and able to charge a fee commensurate with the value it provides, there are dozens of less established firms that feel they must rely on low fees to bring in new business. There are exceptions, of course, but much of the market has generally been conditioned to think of AEC services as a commodity to be purchased from the lowest bidder – and we as an industry allow it to happen. I don’t know how to change that.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
BW: Chart the course and lead the way.
TZL: What happens to the firm if you leave tomorrow?
BW: We have a leadership transition plan in place with seasoned leaders who would seamlessly continue our momentum.
TZL: There is no substitute for experience, but there is pressure to give responsibility to younger staff. What are you doing to address the risk while pursuing the opportunity to develop your team?
BW: Younger staff are capable of doing a lot when they’re given proper training, resources, and guidance. Our young engineers are given smaller projects where they are the PM, and they’re also given opportunities to work as a member of a team on larger projects. They’re assigned a mentor who conducts monthly one-on-ones, and they work closely with experienced engineers who provide close oversight and guidance. We give them as much responsibility as they can handle just as soon as they’ve shown us they can handle it.
TZL: Benefits are evolving. Are you offering any new ones due to the changing demographic?
BW: At the Hot Firm + A/E Industry Awards Conference in Dallas last year, none of the Best Firms To Work For had a student loan assistance program, and I never thought we would do something like that. But I came back home and started doing some research and realized that this is a big deal and that we could actually do something very meaningful. So, we’ve developed a student loan assistance matching payment plan where we match their payment dollar for dollar up to an annual maximum. We rolled out the program in January.
TZL: How are the tariffs impacting your business and that of your clients?
BW: News stories claim that tariffs on steel and lumber have led to increases of 25 to 40 percent for steel and $9,000 per single-family house; $3,000 per multi-family unit. It’s hard to see if these price increases have slowed construction.
TZL: How are the tax cuts impacting your business? Have salaries and bonuses increased?
BW: We’re waiting to see how the tax cuts will affect us, but so far we have not noticed any benefit. Maybe it’s because of the double-digit increases in health insurance premiums, rising prices for software and hardware costs, and other rising costs. Yes, salaries and bonuses have increased, but it hasn’t been driven by any tax cuts.