CEO of Garmann Miller (Minster, OH), a multi-discipline design firm that impacts communities through dedicated service and smart design.
By Liisa Andreassen
Garmann Miller is one of the largest architectural and engineering firms in Ohio. Baltzell started with the company nearly 20 years ago as an electrical engineer, and mainly attributes its growth and success to company culture.
“I, along with our board of directors, need to set the vision and the example,” Baltzell says. “I have to follow through on our why, which is to impact communities through dedicated service and smart design. My goal is to motivate our people to join me in that journey. I try to be that steady voice, reminding them who we are, why we do what we do, and where we’re going.”
A conversation with Eric Baltzell.
The Zweig Letter: Tell me a little about your path to being CEO. When did you become CEO? Since being CEO, what’s been your greatest challenge and how was it solved?
Eric Baltzell: I started with the firm in 2001 as its first engineer hired. A month later, I was able to get our now COO, Chris Monnin, to join me at Garmann Miller. I was electrical and Chris was mechanical, and we led our departments, working hand in hand with its founders, Brad Garmann and Bruce Miller. A succession discussion took place for the long-term, and I was voted CEO, and Chris, COO. We began our roles in early 2017. When it comes to challenges, you can’t compare anything to what we’ve experienced in 2020. We’ve had to be flexible and try our best to adapt to the changes, which we are still doing on a daily basis. My approach is to provide clarity to our team and effectively communicate the plan and procedures we put in place.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
EB: We already had a process in place prior to COVID-19 for working remotely, which included converting our team from desktops to laptops. Having three offices now, we needed to have that remote aspect for our team, and we invested in technology to make that possible. It wasn’t a big issue when we first had to work at home; it was surprisingly effective, using Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other platforms to communicate. Our clients were in the same boat. These platforms make it easy to have quick meetings and not having to travel saves so much time. As convenient as the virtual meetings are though, we still value in-person meetings and events.
TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?
EB: I’d say six to nine months. Having a full-time controller on our team has been great, with managing our systems to monitor schedules and invoicing, targeted goals with business development, what revenue we’re targeting, and leveraging that with schedules and revenue.
TZL: Trust is crucial. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
EB: I believe trust is earned with the client by following through with what you say you are going to do – following through on a promise and delivering on it. We are above industry norms on meeting schedules and producing quality documents with minimal change orders, but the personal experience with listening and meeting needs is crucial in a service industry. We value our client relationships and go to extensive lengths to get them involved in every step of the project process.
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?
EB: As architects and engineers, we weren’t trained to manage people. We recognize and value the need for professional training and development. We provide ongoing training to our managers that includes programs focused on effectively communicating with people and dealing with and resolving conflicts. We’ve also set up training with a local therapist who helps with people skills. His counseling addresses issues such as what’s happening in their life outside of work and developing ways to handle life challenges in a healthy, productive way.
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?
EB: We valuate the firm every three years. Company value gets re-assessed, using a formula with net revenue and net income as the key metrics. Formula is a weighted scale; five years back would be the least weighted, through that sets a value for the company and what shares are worth. We outsource an accounting firm and an attorney who work from the same formula and basis throughout and how it is to be handled.
TZL: Zweig Group named your firm No. 1 full-service Best Firm To Work For. What do you most attribute that recognition to? What do you feel truly distinguishes your firm from other competitors?
EB: Our culture. We aim to maintain the culture that the firm’s founders first mapped out. That culture was to create quality design, provide exceptional service, and always do what’s right. We’ve been very intentional regarding who we want on our team. When we talk with job candidates, we dedicate a significant amount of time to explaining who we are and what we’re about, as well as the day-to-day responsibilities. We also put time into getting to know them and their goals and make sure they understand our vision. As for what separates us, I believe it’s our exceptional service, responsiveness, and listening. These lead to fully understanding a client’s challenges and needs. We’re then committed to providing solutions and answers. Everyone here is willing to jump in; there are no egos, everyone works together to do what’s best for the client.
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?
EB: One key was to plan in plenty of time. We had a 10-year transition, which sounds long, but it actually was done strategically. We had to be very intentional with our transition plan and not rush the process. It’s difficult to just turn over the keys to a business without training and coaching on how the business is run; there’s a lot of transfer of knowledge that has to happen. And for me, it was important to keep the legacy of what the founders built. Another key was using a business advisor. They guided us through some key components to work through in the transition, such as vision, mission, values, organizational chart, and strategic planning. Having someone from outside the business to turn to as an advisor is important. Sometimes it takes that outside perspective to offer a different way of doing things.
TZL: What unique or innovative pricing strategies have you developed, or are you developing, to combat the commoditization of engineering services?
EB: We’d rather not combat commoditization with pricing strategies. Companies can get caught up in pricing wars at times, and we prefer to set ourselves apart. In accordance with the Ohio Revised Code, it must be qualification-based in the public sector when an owner selects a design firm. We want to partner with a client who values us for who we are, the quality of work we do, and our level of service.
TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?
EB: We understand how important it is to invest in training and professional development for our PMs. They are given outside formal training on the project management role, and internally, we meet to discuss what it means to be a PM at Garmann Miller, what challenges they have, and what tools they need to be successful. We have a weekly production meeting and weekly PM meetings, which give them the opportunity to talk about what help they need and what’s going on. We’ve also implemented monthly check-ins to stay connected and allow for training opportunities.
TZL: Since you started with Garmann Miller, what are some of the more significant changes you’ve experienced (new technology, policies, new service lines, etc.)?
EB: AutoCAD to Revit, modeling in 3D design, has been significant. I’m really proud of our group. They’ve embraced this technology, and I’m amazed by how talented they are working in it. 3D animations, laser scanning, and drones are all part of this modern tech we’re using, and it continues to advance. For our policies, I like to always encourage family first and keep a good work-life balance. Even before the pandemic, we adjusted our policy to allow more flexibility in working from home and investing in the hardware and software for our team to do that. It benefits all of us if we give our people freedom and have the resources to be productive, not only in the office, but at home as well. Finally, opening two offices outside of Minster – Columbus in 2018 and Indianapolis this year – has been exciting. This has allowed us to expand our reach and enter into new markets.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
EB: Lead. I, along with our board of directors, need to set the vision and the example. I have to follow through on our why, which is to impact communities through dedicated service and smart design. My goal is to motivate our people to join me in that journey. I try to be that steady voice, reminding them who we are, why we do what we do, and where we’re going. It’s important to me that our people value our vision, mission, and values.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
EB: I believe it goes back to providing a culture where everyone feels valued and respected. We also want to put them in the best position to grow personally and professionally. To do this we’ve implemented social and wellness committees and created a team specifically for giving back to the communities we serve with volunteer and philanthropic efforts. The company also provides access to RightNow Media, which is a great resource for faith, professional, and personal growth with its video-based content. We’ve provided a competitive benefits package with profit sharing, paying overtime, flexible work hours, etc. At the end of the day, we want a total team effort, creating an environment where we’re all working toward and sharing in the success.