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Business Disrupted: A discussion with Firm Owners

A recap of the webinar discussion with business owners Suzie Murdock and Julie Cromwell.

In a recent Ideas Worth Hatching session, a panel of business owners and leaders discussed how they’re approaching their day-to-day business operations, maintaining crucial connections with clients, monitoring finances and budgeting for the future, and how they’re engaging their employees and leading their organizations during this time of disruption and interruption.

Suzie Murdock, president and owner of Motz Engineering, and Julie Cromwell, owner and CEO of Cromwell and Associates, talked about how they’re conducting business and strategizing for the future.

How are you staying connected with staff and communicating with your leadership team? Have you changed your approach or the overall cadence?

Suzie:

Something that I was surprised about initially was how many people took a step forward and asked, ‘How can I help?’ and ‘What can we do?’ An event like this affects people in a lot of different ways, and I was amazed to see how many people wanted to step up and ask for new roles and responsibilities to help the business move forward. So with that in mind, the ways that I’m creating new business is by actually listening to my employees give suggestions on new things we should be trying and then give them the proper support to go for it. They’re reaching out to clients and making those relationships stronger.

As for me, with some of the time that typically would be reserved for clients and in-person meetings, I’ve been able to read a lot more and have been reading local newspapers as well as national publications and gleaning so many insights. LinkedIn has been a wealth of information during this time. It’s incredible to connect with some of our competitors and large engineering firms and see what they’re doing. This situation has been a great equalizer of sorts and leveled the playing field because we’re all going through this and we’re all in it together.

Julie:

I agree with you, Suzie, and fortunately our business has not slowed down at all. We haven’t had a lot of extra time to try and connect more than we normally would. I have noticed there are more virtual meetings (and meetings in general), so there’s a sense that we’re connecting more with clients. The fact that this is affecting everyone so much more, both personally and professionally, I’m getting to know the clients I work with on a daily basis on a more personal level because we can relate to each other and the challenges that come along with this process. It’s made our relationships with clients much stronger.

Suzie:

Especially because everyone is working from home, with their families and kids and pets right there with them, you have a window into people’s personal lives. What might have been perceived before as an awkward or unprofessional situation is now relatable and making those relationships stronger.

Internally, how are you proactively communicating with your staff? Have there been any changes in topics or frequency?

Suzie:

I definitely think there’s room for improvement always with this topic. I’ve always shared quite a bit of information with everybody, especially those who are interested or want to know things about the company. We have a standing leadership meeting on Thursday afternoons for department heads, and when all this first began the question was asked, how transparent we want to be with staff? I think there is absolutely no right way to answer that question. It has to do with you and your team, the goals you have, and the financial situations, whatever you decide as the leaders of your company is the right amount of information to share with employees. As long as it’s consistent and the message doesn’t stray so drastically, and you can maintain your cadence, you can keep people relatively calm. Not everyone really wants (or needs) to know the day-to-day financials, but it’s important to take the time to meet with any employees who are asking questions to gauge their interest and then decide with your business partners what level of transparency you really want to have. Really, just addressing staff concerns and fears and conveying a solid direction and confidence in that direction is key.

Julie:

We have our standard Friday workload meetings where we go through the week ahead and assess everyone’s workload and who can help each other out. I try at least daily to check on everybody, and that’s a little more on me but because we’re such a small group it’s manageable. I don’t know how we would do it if we were a large firm, because everyone is reacting differently. I have some employees who are a little higher anxiety to begin with, and there was a lot of initial fear when all this began. When it comes to sharing more information about the business itself, I’m a bit conflicted on that. I want to inform people but at the same time, if you don’t know all of the business goings-on you can have some false fear when it’s not really necessary. So I try to strike that fine balance with what I share while continuing to reassure, and listening to employees to be able to help those who may be having a hard time, whether that’s a reduced workload or moving assignments around. The last thing you want is a stressed-out, high-anxiety employee. I do feel like a bit of a therapist at times, which can eat into my productivity and daily time, but I feel like it’s worth it for the health and wellbeing of my team.

It’s almost the beginning of another quarter and there are these hysterical rhythms we have as businesses about forecasting workflows and revenues. How do you forecast and plan in this time? What does this mean for your strategic plans? What are some of the conversations you’re having about looking to the future, both short and long term, business wise?

Julie:

I have a CEO roundtable that I’m part of, and because I’m a small business and the only owner, I need that outlet to connect with others and share advice and best practices. We’re very fortunate that we have exceeded our projections for the first quarter so far, but before I had those numbers I admit I was more nervous. I now know we can handle a downturn and know how to prepare for this kind of situation. New proposals have continued to come in and current projects have kept moving. Only one project went on hold. There was a brief lull in RFPs, which made me a little nervous for our long-term pipeline; but this week I’ve started to see projects that were previously on hold being released. So the forecast is looking a little brighter than it was a few weeks ago. In our industry there is a bit of a lag or delay compared to other industries, so a lot of our projects already had approved financing and were moving down that path. We may feel it a little later than other industries though.

Suzie:

Last year was fantastic for us in a lot of different ways. We had positive performance in 2019, and were in the middle of reloading and renovating our offices, hiring some staff, and growing. As for our work, there were a few pretty big projects that were put on hold for a few months. But similar to Julie, our proposal count has never been higher. We focus on a 3, 6, 9 month outlook for our planning, and it’s nice to know people are interested in getting proposals going now knowing the financing needs to happen for August and September. When Mike Murdock (my dad) and I first got into the Motz seats 5 years ago, we really only looked in 30-day increments. Every year we’ve gotten better and better at our planning and forecasting. We have an overall 5-year strategic plan that contains more operational and performance initiatives that we’ve been able to stay on task with getting done. I have spoken with some business owners who do scenario planning for decreased revenues as certain percentages, and ideally that kind of planning is the ultimate goal I have for myself and my firm.

What innovations have you seen in our business or found yourself doing at your firm?

Julie:

As engineers, we have a lot of contract drawings. Normally, when we’re in the office we have a regular printer that prints up to 11×17, but we don’t have a large plotter like most larger firms do. So we utilize a printer, Key Blueprint, to print many of our large drawings for us. Now working remotely we’re utilizing Key Blueprint much more to not only print our large drawings but most everything and deliver it to our homes so we’re not taxing anyone’s personal equipment at home. The tech we had in place (and our people in general) have made it much easier for us to adapt to working remotely, but I do plan to query our team once we have a minute to slow down and think about what they’ve observed, innovations and new ideas we can implement to make our work easier.

Suzie:

Some of the natural innovations that we’ve noticed are from a consumer product side. Some firms have reached out to us to start building and installing temperature thermal scanners in buildings to prepare for reopening. One client knew a company wanted to move their offices, and they reached out to the property broker to help facilitate the deal by doing visualizations and virtual walk-throughs of properties to move the deal along.

I have two employees who have pulled together a handbook of sorts for next steps for preparing your building before people come back to the office. There are some considerations that need to be made as a business owner and facilities operator before buildings are occupied again. They really thought ahead to provide a toolkit and resources for clients and partners who may not know what needs to be done.

Julie:

I’m the local structural engineer for the new FC stadium, and the AOR and MEP are both out of town, so we’ve been doing all the walk-throughs and site visits remotely and virtually. It’s definitely improved collaboration and sharing of information among consultants because we’re not doing individual site visits and operating in a bubble anymore, we’re doing the walk through together.

Anything interesting to share about how you’re conducting business right now, getting business, spotting innovation and looking to the future?

Julie:

I’ve heard of companies that stopped having meetings on Fridays, especially Friday afternoons, because employees are just done from the week of packed video meetings, work, homeschooling, etc.

Suzie:

You know, a lot of times people automatically set up meetings or calls to last an hour, and then sometimes feel they need to fill the entire time. And when you have back to back meetings with no time in between, it gets exhausting and unproductive. But I’ve found that if you can schedule a meeting or call for 15-30 minutes, we can be more productive and get more done in a shorter time.

Have you done anything different relative to the face-to-face with clients?

Suzie:

If you’re not using Miro, look into it. It’s an amazing tool, and everyone has the chance to participate and contribute in real time with a sticky without the fear of speaking up.

Julie, I saw on LinkedIn that you recently hired someone. What was that process like?

Julie:

Yes! I hired Keith a week or so ago. We had begun some discussions before COVID, and I admit I questioned whether I should hire him when we aren’t sure what’s going to happen to the economy. But I told myself to go for it, because when you have good people and you have the opportunity you have to take advantage of it. The fortunate thing is I’ve known him for nearly 25 years so onboarding him was a lot easier in that regard. Thank goodness he’s far enough in his career that he can work fairly autonomously with limited help and interaction. I don’t know how I would do it with a young person just starting in their career and who needs more one-on-one time. Hiring Keith helps reassure our existing staff that we’re still hiring and have work to support it and moving forward.

One of the big questions this time of year is how you’re going to bring interns onboard. There are plenty of companies that have said they’re not doing it. Have any of you had conversations about how you’re handling interns?

Suzie:

Having co-ops and interns is critical to the growth of our company. Some companies might consider it to be a financial burden if they don’t have the workload, but we’re quickly growing and we’re developing them and investing in them as college students, and then when they accept a position at the firm at graduation, they already understand our culture and we’ve built a relationship with them. It’s super important to us that we get to keep them. It’s also important to the mentor/mentee relationship, they learn from mentors in the firm, and the mentors learn about themselves while helping the young professionals learn, it’s beautiful. It’s very dependent on your firm, the styles and culture that you have.

Ask your younger staff how they see themselves mentoring or having job shadows, and enable them to contribute in ways that they feel comfortable. Enable them to step up. We’re going to miss an entire generation if we don’t embrace these young pros and figure out how to bring them into our field.

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