The power of focus
A focused business is a successful business. This is a central theme of marketing consultant Ellen Flynn-Heapes' new book, Creating Wealth: Principles and Practices for Design Firms.
Focus has been the book's central theme from the outset, says Flynn-Heapes, who has been involved in A/E marketing for 25 years and for the last 15 years has been principal of a firm that provides strategic planning for architects, engineers and contractors. When she became more aware of the relationship between focus and profitability, she saw an opportunity to broaden her approach and discuss the nonfinancial benefits that a more profitable firm can provide. They include greater staff expertise and the ability to accept work from the most suitable clients.
"The strongest players of tomorrow will be sharply focused on the client base that they define and choose to capture," Flynn-Heapes declares. She strongly advocates regular staff meetings to explore a firm's long-range strategic objectives. These planning sessions will help a firm to chart its course "so it's not just running in a hamster cage," she says.
Specialization sets a firm apart from competitors. For example, she notes that ambulatory-care experts at Marshall Erdman offer a complete turnkey product, including in-house fabrication of components. EDAW analyzes clients' land holdings to find value in underutilized properties. BSW International specializes in providing high-volume, repetitive designs for fast-growing clients such as Wal-Mart.
"Only one thing really matters to clients: They must reduce their risk and maximize their return. To the extent that they can, they'll hire the best in whatever it is that they perceive they need," Flynn-Heapes says.
Most firms find that the types of work in which they have the most expertise is, not surprisingly, their most profitable, she observes.
By sprinkling the book with illustrations from other industries, Flynn-Heapes demonstrates that in many respects the business requirements of architecture and engineering firms are no different than those in other fields. Veteran A/E marketers will understand this, but it is easy for others in the field to lose sight of.
Flynn-Heapes does not believe that bigger is necessarily better. The obsession with size is illustrated by one of the most frequent initial questions asked when attendees at an industry meeting greet each other: "How big is your firm?"
A recent informal poll indicated that more than 60 percent of large firms have a net profit of less than 10 percent, while returns for smaller, well-focused firms typically are in the 20 percent range, she says.
In addition to its provocative nature, Flynn-Heapes says she selected the title Creating Wealth to challenge the A/E industry to think about a subject that does not get the attention it should.
One particularly insidious consequence of this general failure emphasize long-term firm economic viability, according to Flynn Heapes, is that a high percentage of top graduates of architecture and engineering firms are now opting for jobs in the technology and entertainment fields.