What word do you most strongly associate with 2020? COVID-19!
It’s wreaked havoc on our physical and emotional lives and, thus far, has tragically taken more than 2.1 million loved ones from us. Few saw this coming 12 months ago, but in that timeframe, COVID-19 has changed the way we do almost everything, from how we worship and where we eat to how we manufacture products and collaborate at work.
We start 2021 with an optimism driven by the rollout of vaccines that we all hope and pray will end this murderous surge. But even with a successful vaccination program, I think that it’s important to appreciate that not everything will return to as it was in January of 2020.
And that’s not all bad. We learned some things that are worth retaining. To quote Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, “We learn from failure, not from success!” I concur.
Despite the pandemic, Prime Engineering had one of our best years in our 31-year history. Friends, family, even representatives of companies seeking to acquire other companies continue to ask me how we do it. How can we sustain the success we’ve experienced over the last five years during this economic blindside?
There are several important reasons, starting with the quality of the people—the talent—we have working for our firm. With strong leadership, a deep bench notable for their technological sophistication and old-fashioned work ethic, and an ethos throughout the firm to work with integrity for the betterment of company and country, I wouldn’t trade my team for anyone’s. I’m very proud of this group and the recent honors we’ve received—the Zweig Group’s Best Firms to Work For in 2020 and certification as a Great Place to Work by a Fortune-affiliated firm’s “100 Best Companies to Work For”—provide third-party verification of our accomplishments.
We work in a highly competitive industry, so forgive me if I’m not completely transparent in describing how we achieved this. Rest assured, it’s been a long, steady process, one in which I wasn’t completely confident as we downsized to stay afloat during the 2006-2009 recession. But a series of steps we took a few years after the recession bear a significant amount of the credit for creating the foundation for our success today.
Before I outline those steps, allow me to tell you an important story from my college days at Georgia Tech. I was vice president of the Georgia Tech chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). One of the many things we did through ASCE was invite speakers from the engineering industry to come to campus and share with us kids the secrets to their success. It was a great way for me to meet and connect with industry leaders in a city that was booming with development. And it was a great way for those leaders to tap into a vein of future talent that would help them continue to succeed in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry. At one event, we had the honor of hearing from one of the giants in the industry, someone who’d worked on projects that everyone in the country would immediately recognize. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, he was kind of a big deal.
In years to come, I got to know this influential gentleman. and I consider him to be a good friend to this day. But after listening to him speak to us that day some 50 years ago, I made a silent vow never to be “that guy.” On that day, that guy spoke of experience, he spoke of tenure, he spoke of age and wisdom. And while he was certainly paying it forward that day (as he did throughout his career) by taking time to speak to a group of aspiring engineers, he made it very clear that he wasn’t terribly interested in our opinions or perspectives. He—like so many of his generation—believed that college kids should keep their mouths quiet, their heads down, and their patience would ultimately be rewarded. But until we became experienced senior leaders in the profession, it was recommended that we keep our ideas to ourselves. When I challenged his assertions that day, he politely put me in my place. Upon completion of the program, one of my professors took me aside and suggested in no uncertain terms that I shouldn’t talk like that to a successful leader in our industry.
I never forgot that lesson.
I share many of that leader’s perspectives. I believe in hard work. I believe in high quality. I believe that you should earn your rewards and I’ve built Prime to reflect those values. We ran a tight ship for many years: no telecommuting, no casual Fridays, no break rooms with free alcohol, and no ping-pong or air hockey in meeting rooms. I wasn’t an entrepreneurial IT exec; I was the president of a firm that designed and built complex things for our clients.
But I was also the president of a company having problems, like so many in our industry, in hiring top talent. We went to recruiting fairs and colleges around the Southeast. We paid sizable commissions to engineering recruiters. I served on the board of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech and spoke to students on a regular basis. But our recruiting and hiring results were spotty for too many years and our sporadic performance in attracting top people had a substantive impact on our bottom line. I wouldn’t characterize our recession years as a failure. But they led to many more lost hours of sleep than I would have preferred.
To address this personnel problem, I begged my employees for suggestions and offered financial incentives to anyone who helped us bring new talent into the organization. Fortunately, several stepped up. It just so happened that they were junior staff with plenty of suggestions. Harkening back to my ASCE days, I listened.
And we changed. Those changes unknowingly prepared us for what was going to hit us a year ago last March:
- We loosened our rules on needing to be in the office to work and relaxed our dress requirements.
- We increased our incentives to invest financially in Prime.
- We ended our three+ hour all-hands meetings every Friday and decentralized those discussions into individual group meetings.
- We increased our investment in social media, reduced our investment in recruiters, and dramatically improved our IT infrastructure, allowing us to work more remotely in both Atlanta and the growing number of offices we were opening across the country.
- We increased our post-work social engagements (pre-pandemic) and began to revel in shooting skeet, playing cornhole, dressing up for Halloween, throwing axes, and even having a beer or two in the process…after we quit throwing axes, that is.
- We have a variable compensation plan for every employee.
- And now we have a very liberal work-from-home policy.
But you know what (cue the music)? The Kids are Alright. And so are we.
Our success isn’t solely attributable to a younger workforce:
- We have a strategic plan and a business plan to which we stay true.
- When things go south in one area of our business, we move upstream or downstream. For example, even though the sharp downfall in air travel and fuel demand has hurt those markets in the short term, people staying home and eating in has been a boon to companies like UPS and Amazon.
- We’re aggressively going to social media platforms where potential employees tend to congregate, rather than simply waiting for someone to walk into our booth at a job fair. Over the last two years, we’ve hired more than two dozen staff, of whom only one came to us through a recruiter.
- We’ve expanded our geographic footprint, opening offices in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Huntington. In doing so, we’ve expanded our hiring map well beyond the Atlanta area and gotten closer to some of our clients.
- We’ve established relationships with local universities such as the Georgia Institute of Technology and Marshall University. It means something to us and our employees when we’re able to hire students who grew up in that area and build an improved infrastructure and economy for their friends and families.
COVID-19 has seared a lot of horrible things into our memories that will last for years to come. But if it has taught us anything, it’s that stasis can be deadly. If we don’t evolve, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant. That’s the most important lesson this pandemic has taught me.