Founder of Tamarack Grove (Boise, ID), a firm that serves its clients throughout North America by providing responsive, safe, and trusted solutions.
By Liisa Andreassen
The message on coffee mugs at Tamarack Grove is, “Truss me, I’m a civil engineer.” And, that’s a message that Sielaff has worked to instill since the firm’s inception. He launched the firm out of a love for design and problem-solving, but also brought with that a need to serve with purpose. He wanted to create a firm that was built on relationships, not just stamped and signed documents. Sielaff works to lead by example. When he looks at his team, he sees a room filled with individual strengths and people having fun. That’s something he thinks leads back to being passionate about what they do along with the company culture.
“Everyone is responsible for pulling their own weight, but it’s never all put on one person’s shoulders,” Sielaff says. “When we see an issue or trend, we bring it to light and all work on trying to address it. Is it the client? Is it the market sector? Is it us? What can we do to put things back on the right path for success?”
A conversation with Brian Sielaff.
The Zweig Letter: Your online bio states, “Delivering the ultimate client experience is ensuring we are focused on building intentional relationships, actively listening, understanding pain-points, and being proactive and responsive while solving challenges that help our clients succeed.” Can you illustrate how you’ve recently solved a client challenge? What was involved? What was the challenge? What was the solution?
Brian Sielaff: Our firm was birthed out of developing intentional relationships and we’ve seen many client challenges over the years. One big challenge that springs to mind occurred over the last 10 years within our manufacturing market sector. Manufacturers were having a difficult time getting their clients a set of permitted deferred submittal construction documents. When we came to the table, the typical turnaround within the industry was a standard two- to three-week process. On top of that, manufacturers were forced to use four or five different engineering firms to produce their work, solely on the fact that not one firm had professional licensure within all 50 states. This resulted in the manufacturer having its product engineered four to five different ways by the various firms and the wait period for the final product was two to three weeks. So, in 2010 we pursued licensure within as many states, providences, and territories as possible. We then started a hiring process in 2011 that would change the face of Tamarack Grove Engineering forever. By adding key, strategic team members, we kept up with industry demand. Our final solution for them was to take the lead on getting licensed in all of North America so that our company alone would know and understand their product and we would engineer it one way, not four or five. As a result, we’ve become a one-stop-shop and have gotten our turnaround times down to 24-hours.
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: You have to start early and you have to have a plan in place. I started when I was 47. My wife and I will start our exit plan in nine years. I’m a firm believer that if you feel like you have the right people in place, you have to bring them along. Our process took about two years to complete. First, we hired Zweig Group to value our business. Next, we developed a full ownership transition process. Our first ownership member came to the table in 2020. We’re working on adding a few more behind the scenes. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Some people hang their hat on the “someday clause.” Life can take a turn quickly with unexpected events. Plan for the future now. And, don’t just set yourself up for a transition, set up the staff and overall company too. Zweig Group was invaluable in helping us lay this groundwork.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
BS: I had no idea what this actually meant until about three years ago when I met my current business coach. Through the course of understanding what “strategic hires” were, we’ve since positioned our company to have all the right people on the bus, and in the right seat, as author Jim Collins puts it. Having this in place, has allowed me to spend more of my time “on the business” rather than “in the business.” I’m more focused on strategic planning now and that’s been vital in reaching our business goals.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
BS: We’re very purposeful in making sure that Tamarack Grove Engineering is intentional in our hiring process. We strive to be a well-diversified company, one that includes everyone. Currently, we’re a team of 38, nine women and 29 men. Five of our team members are also on work visas. I strongly believe that without intentionality in your business decisions, this topic can get overlooked. Our industry really needs to be more intentional about this.
TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?
BS: Each year we sit down and discuss how we can be better. Are there more or better benefits we can offer? We currently provide 11 holidays off, annually, as well as their birthday and a choice between a work or personal anniversary. We cover 100 percent of our full-time staff’s health and medical insurance premiums and everyone gets three weeks’ vacation once their probationary period is over. We highly encourage all staff to contribute to their 401(k) and offer a Safe Harbor plan, so – whether or not they contribute – TGE puts in 3 percent to their plan. We also do a discretionary contribution at year end which is based on overall company profits. We also ask staff for input on the subject during our “Town Hall” meetings.
TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?
BS: Yes. We first found out about this in 2018. It’s been a game changer for our business to have these funds – that would normally go into paying taxes – returned back to the business. For our business specifically, it has allowed us to remodel our building, have better software and hardware devices for our staff, and make strategic hiring decisions.
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: I agree with this 100 percent. Here at TGE, it begins with simply valuing all staff. We have weekly leadership training with our engineering staff managers because we want to empower them to lead their team. We require all of our staff managers to meet one-on-one with each team member, quarterly. We cover topics having to do with our leaders’ weaknesses and strengths. We ask questions such as, “How can we get better in leading you?” and, “What are your goals?”
TZL: When you identify a part of your business that is not pulling its weight in terms of profitability or alignment with the firm’s mission, what steps do you take, and what’s the timeline, to address the issue while minimizing impacts to the rest of the company?
BS: Our very first question we always ask is, “What can we (leadership) do to help out?” Our underlying theme is “We win as a team, we lose as a team.” Everyone is responsible for pulling their own weight, but it’s never all put on one person’s shoulders. When we see an issue or trend, we bring it to light and all work on trying to address it. Is it the client? Is it the market sector? Is it us? What can we do to put things back on the right path for success?
TZL: You started the company in 2007 to “serve a need in the industry.” What was that need that was not being filled? How has the firm evolved since you first conceived it to what it is today?
BS: I felt that the industry lacked a “connection with people.” I saw the industry evolving into a commodity. In the first few years of my career, I started to think about what I would do differently if given the chance. I started thinking about the importance of company culture. I was employed at a place that didn’t care much about culture or making connections. Connections breed relationships. When I had the opportunity to set out on my own, I created Tamarack Grove Engineering on the foundation that “life is about relationships.” Within our office we ask everyone on our team what makes us different. We don’t just want to give a client a finished product. It’s our knowledge, availability, experiences, depth, other-centeredness, and responsiveness that adds to the end product that we deliver. We want new and repeat business founded on the relationship first and the work second. I often tell our staff that we’re in the relationship building business first and structural engineering second.
I also didn’t want to just be a local firm. I wanted our relationship-driven attitude to pervade all of North America. And, technology makes it possible. So, over time, Tamarack Grove grew into a firm with licensure that helps clients all over North America.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?
BS: Being a servant leader and teaching others.