Conference call: Alan Dostert
President and CEO of EAPC Architects Engineers (Marketing Excellence #3 Website and #1 Holiday for 2017), a 140-person firm based in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Editor’s note: EAPC, founded in 1967, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
By Liisa Andreassen
“The very things that have made you successful at one level may be what has to change to expand and move to the next, without selling out who you are as a corporate culture,” Dostert says.
A CONVERSATION WITH ALAN DOSTERT.
TZL: Fifty years in business is a big achievement. How did the firm get it done?
AD: It’s a mix of things. First, our founding partners viewed EAPC as a venture that would outlive them as leaders of the firm. The EAPC acronym is not a collection of names. It stands for Engineers Architects Professional Corporation. It was important to the original partners that the firm would stand on its own and ownership could come and go without turmoil. To that end, these original individuals wrote a solid buy/sell agreement that ensured a fair treatment to those both exiting/retiring and those buying in. EAPC was an entity that ensured success but did not become an ego block.
Secondly, EAPC has always been very diverse and forward thinking. With engineering and architecture as the base of services, the original ownership offered construction management long before it was in vogue as it is today. Central steam projects and industrial engineering were also part of the service offerings. Forensics were offered as well, developing that science into investigations of combustion source for fires and even vehicular/accident reconstruction. Diversity in our offerings and forward thinking continues to be as important today as it was in the early days.
Lastly, no business can succeed without dedication from passionate and talented employees. Tenure among EAPC employees ranges from one year or less to 45 years. We have been extremely fortunate to have this type of loyalty, enthusiasm, and talent that results in a service that our clients desire and, quite frankly, expect. It’s the special sauce that has been getting it done since 1967.
TZL: What is the biggest challenge faced by a firm with such history and expectations?
AD: Reinventing ourselves without losing the original attributes that made the firm successful is tough. For any design firm that wants to enjoy a long, prosperous history, they must remain relevant in services offered, design philosophy, application of technology, and creative marketing. There are a lot of distractions that can cause a loss of focus – especially today!
TZL: What are the next professional services the firm plans on offering?
AD: As we recruit and provide the necessary training to current talent, the time ahead for offerings is exciting! We are currently positioning the firm to offer more standalone engineering and commissioning services. We will likely morph our wind energy sector into a more diverse offering including solar and other alternative energy applications for our building sector. We currently are expanding our industrial services into more process-driven opportunities, and we are also developing our business excellence and LEAN services to a more meaningful market share. Other options EAPC will look at very closely are expanded interior architecture, marketing, and human resources services. We have solid skill sets and leadership in these areas and it only makes sense to see where these might lead when offered to outside markets.
The EAPC Idea Vault contains these ideas and more to enhance our overall client offerings, strengthen EAPC’s presence in the A/E industry, and allow for continued organic growth as well as the acquisition of new services. Stay tuned!
TZL: How does 50 years in business help in terms of marketing?
AD: It helps tremendously! Not everyone can leverage five decades of experience and apply lessons learned to testing and launching new marketing strategies. This milestone allows us to offer immediate legitimacy to potential clients. Our clients today are very sophisticated and they recognize that long-term success doesn’t just happen. They also understand what it takes to be successful and remain successful! That knowledge pays dividends to those of us who have endured the ups and downs of the last 50 years of our economy.
Because of our longevity, we can analyze what marketing techniques have worked in the past, and then apply new creative strategies for today’s tech-savvy culture. Here’s the deal: We know who we are and our purpose. We are design consultants who strive to provide the very best multi-discipline services to our clients. During our journey, EAPC has seen tremendous growth with the expansion of office locations, adding new services, and simply hiring good people. The path may have narrowed at times or taken some sharp turns as it does for any business, but our philosophy along the way has been to invest in strong marketing efforts to preserve and continuously daylight our EAPC brand identity. Time and technology does shape how we think and how we approach marketing, but the core values throughout our journey remain the same, and that is our best guide to effective marketing.
TZL: How does 50 years in business help in terms of recruiting/retaining talent?
AD: Again, that legitimacy of 50 years implies tested and true systems and a solid business platform, creating employment stability. However, we must remain relevant and stay on the cutting edge of technology if we want those young, aggressive professionals to knock on the door.
TZL: Is there a secret to effective ownership transition?
AD: We are currently looking at this next step. Most of the current ownership was recruited to replace a particular skill set and to fill a place at the table. Our next generation of ownership will be a combination of an empowering middle management (to attract and retain top-notch professional talent), and adding additional diversity to the existing ownership pool to encourage growth outside of our current offerings of professional services.
TZL: How do you go about winning work?
AD: Cultivating and nurturing solid relationships with our existing clientele is an everyday intentional effort. Providing creative ideas, responsive solutions, and simply being present with an ear to listen is a recipe we follow. With new pursuits, we draw from our 50 years of experience. We have a good story to tell and with the backbone of our marketing team, and the lessons learned, we’re able to put our best foot forward.
TZL: What’s the greatest problem to overcome in the proposal process?
AD: Managing multiple submittals with similar deadlines. Solid coordination, communication, and frequent quality control checks are all part of the process. Missing a proposal deadline is not an option per our marketing director. We also know that without personal contact our success rate drops dramatically. Finding the time to be face-to-face with that potential client is sometimes difficult to schedule and sometimes not allowed due to RFP protocol.
TZL: Once you’ve won a contract, what are the “marching orders” for your PMs?
AD: We’re currently working out and updating those “marching orders” to provide a higher level of consistency and predictability (thus profitability) due to rapid growth over the last three to five years. We have a few steps that are being implemented as follows:
- Review the proposal and contract for consistency. This may sound elementary, but it ensures that a fully executed contract is filed.
- Review the team as identified in the proposal to ensure commitments/prior commitments are and will be met.
- Enter the project in our accounting/management system.
TZL: What has your firm done recently to upgrade its IT system?
AD: We constantly monitor feedback from our PCs/PMs department and office managers to respond to IT issues. Whether it be hardware or software needs, we commit to making the necessary upgrades to serve our team. This also includes staffing commitments within the IT department. Each office location has a designated person that is the go-to person. Most recently we have implemented a ticket system to provide a clearing house of issues, needs, requests, and how our IT department will process and resolve them.
TZL: What’s the best way to recruit and retain top talent in a tight labor market?
AD: We’re always looking for good people. By that I mean people who have a background of giving back or paying forward in their personal lives. It’s the culture we promote and it seems to breed more of the same as we grow.
TZL: How do you raise capital?
AD: Up until now we have primarily capitalized profits and/or used “capital call” from the partners. We’re looking at how expanded ownership and management will affect this process.
TZL: What’s your preferred strategy for growth, M&A or organic? Give us a synopsis of how your firm effected growth in the recent past.
AD: We’ve used both. We’ve honed a process where we connect with an established firm – typically a sole proprietor, which may not have done such a great job of looking at their own succession planning. We’ve offered a business plan to them where we finish out their existing contracts (sub consult), purchase their physical assets (furniture, etc.), selectively hire their staff, and offer an employment contract with performance incentives for their marketing efforts.
We’ve also grown in markets organically by starting a presence in a regional market and building on that office location within EAPC’s talent pool. These organic growth efforts have typically been developed around key employees who desire to build on these growth opportunities. We also seek established and experienced new employees who provide connections and skill sets within the markets that are for specific targeted locations.
TZL: What’s the greatest challenge presented by growth?
AD: Keeping your culture intact where it’s appropriate and modifying that culture to respond where it’s appropriate to do so. This may sound elementary, however the very things that have made you successful at one level may be what has to change to expand and move to the next, without selling out who you are as a corporate culture.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
AD: We value that role in marketing. We look to staff who have the abilities/skill sets to carve out new markets and expand our client base. EAPC is reviewing options to enhance and reward internal entrepreneurship regarding project management and finding new and improved methods of getting work out the door.