President and CEO of ARM Group (Hershey, PA), a science and engineering consulting firm where the entrepreneurial spirit thrives.
By Liisa Andreassen
Wehler has been with ARM Group for more than 15 years. Outside of project work, Wehler focuses on talent acquisition, business strategy and execution, sales and marketing, and continuous improvement and educational initiatives. ARM Group is best known for using collaborative multi-disciplinary project teams to devise and implement work plans that are founded on creative and intelligent strategies while producing a favorable ROI.
“We focus on actively promoting and nurturing a healthy organizational culture that leads to ARM being a great place to work for the long term,” Wehler says. “Additionally, the primary reason we are growth-oriented is because we want our people to be challenged and to continue to have career advancement opportunities that are independent of attrition, so they can grow professionally and realize their full potential.”
A conversation with Bryan Wehler.
The Zweig Letter: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?
Bryan Wehler: Approximately six to nine months.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
BW: This is a topic that’s often on my mind as I regularly get consumed by the day-to-day “firefighting.” However, to be most effective in leading, growing, and improving the business, I believe I should be spending at least 50 percent of my time working “on the business.” Currently, I spend about 90 percent of my time working “in the business” and this is an area I am actively working to change.
TZL: What, if anything, are you doing to protect your firm from a potential economic slowdown in the future?
BW: We’re looking closely at our backlog and using this information as a guide for making hiring decisions so that we do not create an over-staffed situation should the economy move into recession. Additionally, we’re actively working to reduce debt and shorten our collection period to improve cashflow while continuing to be aggressive with marketing and business development. Lastly, we have intentionally developed highly-diversified services and clients, and this has served us well in past economic slowdowns.
TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?
BW: Yes. We’ve pursued this credit the last two years and it appears to be working well so far.
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?
BW: Because this is such an important topic, we’ve always emphasized soft skills with our managers, and we are now developing a formal in-house people management/development training program for all of our personnel managers.
TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?
BW: Yes. We partner with several regional, higher education institutions – mostly in the form of providing technical presentations to students at different times throughout the year. This provides us with an opportunity to engage with students pursuing degrees in the fields where we practice, as well as an opportunity for the students to learn more about our company and our people.
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?
BW: We conduct an annual valuation and it’s performed by a third-party accounting firm. The valuation includes several different factors and multiple methods, but is weighted most heavily upon three-year trailing earnings.
TZL: What financial metrics do you monitor to gauge the health of your firm?
BW: We examine employee engagement survey results, utilization, overhead rate, census, gross profit percentage, revenue, effective multiplier, and average billing rate. In terms of planning and projections, we look most closely at weekly sales, proposal activity and backlog trends.
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?
BW: We are amid a formal 10-year succession plan to enable the divestiture of some of ARM’s original principals. In my view, some of the keys to success are planning for the transition far in advance, developing a detailed plan that garners a firm commitment from company leadership, sticking to the plan, and making sure you are actively developing the next generation of leaders to facilitate project, client, and knowledge transition and succession. The succession and development plan for replacing key senior principals is critically important and must begin many years before planned retirements.
TZL: You want high utilization for profitability, but that means employees are fully loaded with assignments. How do you balance growth, utilization, new clients, and new hires?
BW: This is one of the most challenging balancing acts in consulting. In simple terms, we look at individual and practice area utilization and backlog relative to staffing to make decisions about whether to hire. We’re very sensitive to avoiding burnout and, consequently, we work hard to balance and/or rebalance workloads on a regular basis. We generally hire when backlog is strong and when practice area utilization or position utilization is elevated for an extended period. However, we will also hire what we consider to be outstanding candidates even if backlog and utilization don’t justify it, as we’ve found that these exceptional candidates end up staying busy.
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?
BW: As mentioned, we’re very sensitive to avoiding burnout, but there are times when we ask people to stretch when we have reason to believe that it’s a relatively short-term spike in work. Asking people to stretch for a prolonged period is inconsistent with our values and can lead to the departure of a good person. In terms of PM training, we annually conduct a comprehensive internal PM training program that is focused on PM best practices and the behaviors of successful PMs. All of ARM’s PMs have participated in our internal PM training.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
BW: We focus on actively promoting and nurturing a healthy organizational culture that leads to ARM being a great place to work for the long term. Additionally, the primary reason we are growth-oriented is because we want our people to be challenged and to continue to have career advancement opportunities that are independent of attrition, so they can grow professionally and realize their full potential.