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Executive Corner: 2021 End of Summer Executive Outlook

Steve Gido on September 30, 2021 - in Articles, Column

As the disruption of the COVID-19 virus continues to factor into everyday decisions, A/E leaders across the country continue to take on the challenges of running their firms. We recently connected with two more CEOs to glean insights as to what they’re facing today. We asked how they’re handling office-reopening efforts, which client and business opportunities are emerging, and how the pandemic is shaping them as leaders.

Gido: Tell us about FGM Architects and your capabilities and markets.

Dzarnowski: We build community at FGM Architects. Our mission is to help plan, design and build the facilities that make each unique place a community. Schools, places of worship, recreational facilities, defense, police, fire, ambulance, 911 and civic, higher education, and trade-school buildings define the character of each community.

Gido: With offices across various states, how have you planned and organized bringing FGMA staff back to the office?

Dzarnowski: Our return to the office plan was very cautious and deliberate. We have people in six offices across four states, each with potentially different COVID-19 scenarios at different times. Our physical office locations were closed until June 1, 2021, when we partially opened our offices. Fully vaccinated people are now allowed to work without masks or restrictions if they choose to do so, and unvaccinated people are allowed to work in the office while still complying with CDC and local health-department guidelines. We have notified our people that we will fully open our offices in mid-September and expect them to be working fulltime in the office at that time. We are in the final stages of modifying our remote-work and flexible-work policies to allow staff opportunities to work from home when needed, though we continue to promote a culture that encourages constant professional learning, mentoring, training, and teaching in a collaborative and inclusive in-person environment.

Gido: FGM has selectively made strategic acquisitions through the years. Which characteristics and cultural elements do you look for in firms and owners that join you?

Dzarnowski: We carefully assess how the prospective firm’s culture will mesh with our desired culture, and pay a lot of attention to the prospective firm’s mission and values. Most of our clients are public bodies, units of government, faith-based or educational institutions—so finding a firm that’s adept at working with this client type is critical, as they already know how to guide the clients in the design and construction process with patience and understanding.

Gido: Overall, how has this pandemic experience impacted you as a leader? As CEO, which strategies or lessons have you taken away from the last year?

Dzarnowski: Learning how the pandemic affected every FGMA employee, their immediate and extended families, and how to translate that knowledge into making us all more accommodating and hopefully better as a team. Our FGMA community pulled together and had one of our best years as a company, just by being thoughtful of each other.  

Gido: Tell us about Coffman Engineers and your capabilities and markets.

Ruff: Coffman Engineers was founded in 1979 by our namesake, Dave Coffman. We started as a structural firm in Seattle, performing projects on the North Slope of Alaska and then quickly added mechanical and electrical disciplines to provide a broader service offering. We have embraced the multidiscipline format and added civil, survey, corrosion, fire protection, commissioning and acoustics (among others) to assist those clients who desire a one-stop shop or niche solutions for those unique requests. We serve a broad mix of markets, including healthcare, life sciences, higher education, department of defense, oil and gas, manufacturing, and alternative energy. 

Gido: With offices across the country, how have you planned and organized bringing Coffman staff back to the office?

Ruff: With our move eastward into Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Denver, we now have 17 offices across the United States. I met with our team of office managers multiple times to map out a return-to-office plan that balanced protecting our people and perpetuating our business. We wanted to retain some of the quality-of-life improvements offered by working from home (WFH) and balance that with the long-term needs of our business. Each office has developed an individual WFH strategy that strikes this balance, modified by their local circumstances, such as commute times and local culture. Generally, we’re going to be in the office a bit more than at home. Determining the timing of returning to the office (with the post-COVID WFH schedule) has involved a mix of following the CDC/OSHA recommendations and state and local requirements. About one third of our offices are back to 100-percent occupied, the remaining offices are expected to be fully occupied and open very soon.

Gido: How does the second half of the year look and going into 2022? Any specific business or client opportunities or challenges?

Ruff: Remarkably, 2020 was a good year for Coffman, as it was for many others in our industry. However, in the first half of 2021, we finally started experiencing what can only be described as “COVID malaise.” Backlog had softened slightly.  Backlog now is strengthening, and we expect our performance will rebound with it in the second half of the year after our teams get back together and after some much-needed vacations. As we look toward 2022, we are concerned about continued post-COVID effects that can’t be fully anticipated and the changes in policy at the federal level that take time to settle out in the marketplace. 

Gido: Coffman has selectively made strategic acquisitions through the years. Which characteristics and cultural elements do you look for in firms and owners that join you?

Ruff: We position ourselves financially so we can move opportunistically if needed, but generally we are vetting for strategic and cultural fit. One of our main strategies is diversification to broaden our foundation and improve service to our clients. We bias our strategy toward offices that haven’t yet achieved critical mass, but have enough presence to faithfully represent Coffman’s culture to the new team members. We spend quite a bit of time evaluating the cultural match between our firms. There are various ways to manage consulting firms, and the history of each firm uniquely shapes the culture. Cultures are not right nor wrong, they’re just different. Joining companies together creates enough change on its own without the additional strain of one company feeling like they have lost more than they have gained. 

Gido: Overall, how has this pandemic experience impacted you as a leader? As CEO, which strategies or lessons have you taken away from the last year?

Ruff: Leading through a crisis such as COVID-19 is easier at the beginning than in the middle and end. Rallying the team to “take the hill” is much clearer and more compelling than convincing them to stay on top of the hill and not go down yet. Each person’s risk assessment and viewpoint from the vantage point of the top is unique, with legitimate concerns about when and how to move on. I underestimated the amount of energy it would require to lead all the way through to the new normal. Each day presented a new challenge that potentially modified a decision we had just made the day prior; the old adage of taking it one day at a time certainly applied. Leaders must reserve the energy to face each day anew. Optimism is a vital component of leadership; but optimism can morph into specific expectations, and when those outcomes are not realized, can leave you with limited energy to shake it off, readjust and inspire your people to adjust with you, again. I’m reenergized and ready for whatever comes next; very hopeful, but with managed expectations.


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About Steve Gido

Steve Gido specializes in corporate financial advisory services, including mergers and acquisitions, business valuations, ownership transition plans, and strategic planning for engineering, architecture, environmental consulting and construction firms. He leads ROG+ Partners’ merger and acquisition practice, and has advised on a wide number of A/E/C transactions, representing buyers and sellers of all sizes and disciplines.

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