CEO of Olsson (Lincoln, NE), an employee owned 1,300-person firm that is working to leave the world better than they found it.
By Liisa Andreassen
Brad Strittmatter joined Olsson in 1996. He started as a project manager and worked his way up to vice president, president, and, most recently, CEO in 2016. Under his direction, the firm has seen steady growth and now employs more than 1,100 employees; and completed a rebranding effort that resulted in a new name and visual identity for the company.
“We’re not afraid to reposition people within the organization if the leadership or management role is not well suited for their success or that of the team,” Strittmatter says. “Confronting deficiencies and talking with leaders about their strengths is essential to being a successful leader.”
A conversation with Brad Strittmatter.
The Zweig Letter: To what do you most attribute the firm’s steady growth?
Brad Strittmatter: It’s really a direct result of our people’s willingness to serve our clients in new and different ways. Our firm’s philosophy is to trust the decision-making of those closest to our clients, which means our project managers, designers, and technical staff have the most knowledge of our client’s needs – now and in the future. We listen to all our staff when it comes to planning for growth and support their ability to increase our value to our clients through expanded service offerings.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
BS: We’ve always had a flexible culture, giving employees the ability to work with their supervisor to find the schedule that works best for them. Even though COVID-19 required dramatic shifts in where and how work gets done, our employees were able to seamlessly transition to working remotely. We’ve been amazingly productive, and I am proud to say we have also been able to maintain our connectedness – to each other and with our clients. Our business model is completely dependent on knowing our clients and knowing our teammates on a very personal level, which is a concern for us in a completely remote work environment. That being said, I have a tremendous amount of confidence that our staff will continue to adapt to preserve our business model. Until things get back to normal, we’ll do things differently, which will likely include working from home part-time or permanently for some employees. But we will work hard to maintain personal connections with our clients. Virtual tools make it easier. The office environment will never go away, and it will continue to be used to get work done and to socialize. It will not, however, be the same as it was. Our workplace and culture will reflect the lessons COVID-19 has taught us all about the challenges of remote work, personal space, understanding our impact on others, and respecting each individual’s personal situation away from work. I think we’ve all learned a great deal about how to collaborate with and support each other – both clients and colleagues – when our personal lives intersect with our professional ones. We will be a better business for it.
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
BS: Certainly, using assessment tools before a person is placed in a leadership or management position is the first step toward helping managers be successful. They need to understand what they are good at doing and where they need support; assessments can reveal this. We also provide an array of training, largely based on the concepts of emotional intelligence, motivation, empowerment, appreciation, and accountability. We use coaching and mentoring – internally and externally, and formally and informally – to support the development of skills that make good leaders. We’re also not afraid to reposition people within the organization if the leadership or management role is not well suited for their success or that of the team. Confronting deficiencies and talking with leaders about their strengths is essential to being a successful leader.
TZL: Tell me about the rebranding. Why was it needed? How long did it take to transition? Overall results?
BS: As we grew during the past 20 years, our brand served us well, but it needed to be simplified. Our growth has exponentially increased our service offerings for an increasingly complex client base. And while those results are inspiring, it also contributed to confusion over what people knew about Olsson and what we do. We often heard from clients or prospective employees that we were a transportation-focused firm or a land development firm or a field services firm. Rarely did anyone think we were a full-service firm. We needed to simplify the message so we could become more accurately known as a firm focused on solutions in infrastructure, regardless of industry or geography. We did this to help our clients better understand our firm and our employees to better communicate what Olsson brings to the table. Our rebranding effort was based on market research, and we started the process with the intent of changing our messaging, but leaving our name and visuals intact. When we got deeper into the process, we quickly discovered we needed to update more than just the messaging. To simplify, we needed to look at our entire image and brand. Our research and planning took place over 18 months and we rolled out the updated name, visuals, and messaging over the course of the next year. We’ve received wonderful feedback from clients, employees, and many of our partners. It’s still an ongoing process and the ROI is difficult to measure, but our 12-month audit revealed that simplifying our brand has allowed us to gain traction with clients that did not know us previously or had a perception that we were a small, local firm with limited services. We’ve also experienced a significant increase in awareness of Olsson and our employee-focused culture with new and prospective employees. All in all, we think rebranding was a huge success and, based on their feedback, our clients think so, too.
TZL: How do you handle a long-term principal who is resting on his or her laurels? What effect does a low-performing, entitled principal or department head have on firm morale?
BS: Our business is very performance-oriented, and our internal financials are reported to every employee each month on a team basis. This keeps the pressure on all leaders and managers to perform, even the ones with decades of experience. We very much believe in maintaining a high-performance culture, which creates strong peer pressure to perform every year. In cases where senior people are not performing, we work with that person to find a path to success. We do this for all employees, regardless of their longevity or status. We consistently hear from employees – especially our high-performers – that tolerating a low-performing employee can be the biggest de-motivating factor they face. I’ve always admired the consulting business for its constant reminders that under performance, even in small quantities, can be lethal to the business. At Olsson, we talk openly about the need to perform – providing a high-quality product for our clients and doing so in a reasonably profitable manner for the sake of our employee-owned business. This is fundamental to our culture, and for those who may not understand this aspect, Olsson is likely not the place they will find success.
TZL: How often do you valuate your firm and what key metrics do you use in the process? Do you valuate using in-house staff or is it outsourced?
BS: We’re a partial ESOP, so we’re required to perform a valuation annually with an independent third party. Our board of directors oversees the protocols and methods to ensure an accurate and fair value. The valuation is then used for all transactions between shareholders, the corporation, and ESOP. The valuation uses key metrics such as EBIT, EBITDA, asset/debt ratios, working capital and liquidity, future performance expectations, public company trading ratios, and third-party private transactions in the industry.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
BS: The key is planning. In my experience, failure to transition is rooted in lack of planning along with inappropriate use of profit generated by the business. Too often, principals extract capital from the business, starving it of the ability to invest or fund transition to junior staff. In our industry, most professionals don’t have the means to acquire large chunks of ownership without significant assistance from the firm. If the current owners do not recognize this, they fail to plan accordingly and typically are forced to sell the business, often during down economic times when cash flow cannot support the business or the lifestyle choices of the principal owners. Smart owners plan for the transition early and view the next generation as deserving of an opportunity to own the business long-term. For Olsson, we have a continuous employee ownership transition that is well funded annually and includes a broad spectrum of employee owners.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
BS: The biggest failures have come when we have not been true to our strengths and beliefs. Denying who you are and what you are good at can be confused with taking on new and different challenges. But, if those challenges take you too far away from your core talent and experience, you can fail very quickly. For Olsson, this has happened when we tried to provide a new service to clients where we didn’t have the expertise, skills, or credibility required. As an example, we tried to enter the freight planning business several years ago with a very qualified individual who was new to our firm. The clients did not view us as credible since we had virtually no project experience outside of this one individual. They were not willing to take a risk and hire us for any project of significance. So, while we were more than qualified in the transportation industry, freight planning was not an area we truly had the experience or skills to succeed.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
BS: Our approach is two-fold. First, we educate ourselves to understand what is valuable in our quest to be an inclusive culture with a diverse staff makeup. Simply defining metrics is not the answer because we need to understand what behaviors are effective in creating the culture around diversity and inclusion that we desire. Second, as we educate ourselves, we are taking steps to ensure all employees have an awareness around unconscious bias, discrimination, and equality. Using the experience gained by many successful companies around the world, we are in the process of modifying our recruiting strategies, hiring processes, and communication norms as well as forming employee resource groups that can sustain our efforts to learn and grow.
TZL: When Olsson hires people, they look for folks who are collaborative and demonstrate personal accountability. During the hiring process, how do you ensure you are finding the right people to fit the bill?
BS: Time spent during the hiring process to assess an individual’s talent and goals is absolutely essential to long-term success. We use several analytical tools to help us understand strengths, weaknesses, leadership traits, technical skills, and career goals. We focus our conversations with potential employees on culture – mostly around teamwork and personal interactions with others – to understand a person’s likelihood to succeed at Olsson. As much as we are searching for highly-competent technical abilities, we think a person’s ability to function in Olsson’s team atmosphere and employee-focused culture is just as important to their long-term success and happiness. We look for people who are honest with others about how they view accountability, performance, hierarchy, authority, collaboration, client service, and respect for others. When we’ve strayed from this formula, it’s been difficult for new employees to find their footing at Olsson over the long haul.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
BS: Provide opportunity. We believe staff stay at Olsson because they see more opportunity is available to them, such as a leadership or management role, technical challenge, simply shifting to a new role or learning a new skill. But the overriding desire is for the firm to provide a framework for a person to be part of something new or different. And while some employees are happy and content to perfect the job they are in, they still want to be valued and appreciated. So, while career advancement and working on more complex projects is the desire of many, Olsson strives to provide each employee with the opportunity that is right for them. Our rewards system is all-encompassing, meaning that each person has the ability to earn recognition based on whatever path is right for them. Seizing an opportunity does not have to be prescriptive. Managers can recognize their staff for different reasons based on the success of the team.