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By Clive Shearer
September 10, 2014
Everyone makes mistakes. The difference is how we handle them. A professional can use them to learn and grow — personally and professionally. And an organization that learns lessons and applies them will excel.
I spoke to three local people about learning from experience.
Vince Ferrese, managing principal at Seattle's Encore architects, which does housing, retail and office design
How does this apply at Encore architects?
We have learned lessons at universities and through our field experience that strengthen our firm. The average age at Encore is 42, which is higher than in the industry as a whole, so we have more technical ability and more experience.
For example, I have over 100 built projects and over 40 years of experience, and I do things now in ways that I did not even think about 30 years ago. I see the bigger picture more clearly now and know that it's all about relationships. I'm better at knowing when to swallow my ego and when to push forward on issues. It is a team effort — which includes the contractor and the owner — and the contractors and owners we work with are all very savvy people. This leads to a great and appropriate building that serves all of the team.
Encore is also motivated by the fact that all the licensed staff are firm owners with a vested interest in providing exceptional service. One way we more easily share “lessons learned” is linked to our switch from land lines to using only cell phones. This offers multiple benefits. For example, it frees our staff to take a call from a consultant, owner or contractor, and then walk over to a colleague's desk to continue the conversation, and share and discuss project issues and solutions. Our “bullpen” is very active!
What are the consequences when design practices take their hands off the wheel?
Dropping the ball with customers, designs that are trendy, lack of technical strengths (which can result in litigation), having a flawed business plan, and being under financed.
What's one way you try to provide excellent customer service?
We offer free site-capacity studies to help our clients plan their projects. We also respond quickly and responsively.
What about collaboration?
By being owners, everyone has a voice in daily decisions. We have a designer on each project but collectively work to find unrealized opportunities. Our clients appreciate this attention.
How do you sum up Encore architects?
We communicate well and keep learning. We keep our projects simple, timeless and cost effective.
Faith Roland, CEO of Roland Resources, a Bellevue-based real estate consulting firm focused on infrastructure acquisitions, negotiations and relocation
Tell us how you collaborate.
When I launched my company, I recognized what was needed for success, and then aligned myself with a firm that had the technical know-how I needed, such as servers and computer support. They took me under their wing and were a huge resource as I started my company, and we still have an office together. More companies could benefit from cohabitation.
Secondly, I started hiring people with excellent technical skills. I recognize that I will never be the “techie” in our company, but I will always surround myself with people who have talents I don't have.
Based on what you have learned what would you do differently?
The part about working for little or no money in the first two years is real. This gets downplayed in the business books. In hindsight, I would have leveraged additional money and resources to grow rather than continuing to use my personal assets. The boss really does work the hardest and needs to be paid too. Our company sells hours of service, not widgets or a tangible consumable product. There are 24 hours in a day and we can bill eight or nine of those, per person on a perfect day.
The business model is quite simple. Motivating folks to be aware of their non-billable and marketing time is a constant pursuit. No one can bill 100 percent of their time — that's a flawed model. The real number for me over the course of a year is around 68 percent, when you deduct holidays, sick leave, education and administrative functions.
What makes you proud?
I'm staring at my 5-year anniversary of starting a business from scratch. I'm proud of quite a few things. From day one, I have hired top notch employees. This requires good salaries, benefits, holidays and perks. I have stayed away from contract workers at low wages and no benefits. This is because I want people who are proud of the job we do for our clients. I appreciate my employees every day. We make a strong team — well educated, credentialed and dedicated.
You might think that being a woman-owned, small business might be the driving factor in our success, and I have tried to take advantage of WBE/DBE tools and resources when we bid on projects. Occasionally it helps us get a foot in the door on a bigger team, but I have yet to win a project because of my DBE status.
Small companies really do have a disadvantage in bidding on projects. It has taken about 5 years to build a reputation that we can perform, despite our lean appearance. Our clients recognize that bigger isn't always better. Small can be nimble and deliver a great service.
Jay Bower, CEO and president of Landau Associates, a geotechnical and environmental engineering firm in the western U.S.
What's the most important lesson you have learned?
Learning to understand our clients' objectives is the most important lesson Landau Associates can address with our current leadership, and one we place great importance on as we grow our next generation of leaders. We aren't simply designing a retaining wall, installing a remediation system or obtaining an air quality permit, we are helping our clients find an efficient and sustainable solution to their project challenges. This might mean helping our clients choose from a range of options for building on a site with slope stability issues, assisting them with land use decisions during planning for expansion, or identifying process changes that make permitting a new facility feasible. Having the client's ultimate objectives in mind allows us to consider a broader range of solutions and (stay focused) as conditions change over the life of the project.
How do you collaborate with clients?
Understanding our client's objectives is a direct outcome of successful collaboration. Collaboration doesn't just happen. It involves intentional and effective communication between our internal project team, the client and, in some cases, outside stakeholders. Once we have a shared vision of project outcomes, we have to remain vigilant to adapt if the vision shifts during the life of the project. By understanding and focusing on our clients' objectives, we make them our own.
Talk about how this works over the life of a project.
Opportunities to learn happen every day, and we encourage those lessons by engaging our project staff in the critical thinking aspects of a project. There are a myriad of decision points in any complex project, and each is an opportunity to engage staff in designing potential solutions. We take advantage of opportunities to learn when there is room for improvement, and never assume that we have learned it all; we can't rest on past successes. While our practice areas are diverse, ranging from geotechnical engineering to site cleanup to ecological assessments, we've learned that the underlying premise for achievement does not change. Communicate to understand the clients' objectives for success; define them succinctly so they can be adopted as our own; and then work collaboratively to design solutions that meet the objectives.
Clive Shearer is a coach, educator and retreat facilitator and can be reached at CGB9@yahoo.com.