I t was February 1995, and construction management expert Mark Anderson was hard at work in Lower Manhattan on the recovery of the World Trade Center tower following the 1993 bombing when he received a phone call from a friend in Washington, D.C., who was desperate for help.
“The situation was really bad,” he remembers today. “His company's project—then the largest-ever private-sector construction project in Washington, D.C.—was in trouble. The failing project was being featured on the front page of the Washington Post. No project owner wants a story like that on the cover of the Post.”
Anderson swept in and assumed management of the troubled project as the owner's representative. By the time the project was completed, the reputation of the newly formed Mark G. Anderson Consultants was firmly established in the minds of the Washington, D.C., real estate community. “We became the firm to call when a project is extremely complicated and really tough,” says Anderson.
Nearly 13 years later, Anderson's firm still holds claim to that distinction. In that time, MGAC has rescued several projects from the brink—everything from major flagship retail projects, to high-level government projects, to offices for some of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the world.
“One of our clients jokingly refers to us as Mr. Wolf from the movie Pulp Fiction,” says Anderson, referring to the Harvey Keitel character who “takes care of” an awkward situation in the film. “We can come in and make tough situations better on critical projects.”
The firm, which took in $14.9 million in revenue last year (a 67% increase from 2006), manages a diverse range of projects, including corporate, retail, mission-critical, hospitality, nonprofit, institutional, estate-quality residential, and government buildings. “We are solely independent, client driven, with no ties to brokers, real estate, contractors, or anyone other than our client's mission,” says Anderson.
Not going by the book
With so much at stake on every project, MGAC can't afford to hire anyone but the best. Anderson describes his 64-person firm as 64 individual leaders, all “senior-level” quality—from the administrative assistants to the projects managers. Many staff members are top-of-their-class graduates from esteemed institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and Yale, and come from backgrounds as varied as contracting, real estate development, law, architecture, interior design, engineering, and facilities management.
“I try to hire people that are much smarter and more experienced than I am,” says Anderson. To make the cut, potential recruits must have the ability and intelligence to tackle incredibly difficult projects, while exhibiting an entrepreneurial spirit. “We don't hire people who come in expecting to find a procedure manual,” says Anderson. “There is no guidebook here.”
Almost all MGAC employees are recruited through word-of-mouth referrals from current staffers—a testament to high job satisfaction at the firm, whose voluntary attrition rate was less than 5% in 2007. To ensure a perfect fit, candidates are interviewed by peers within the firm, and hiring decisions are made using a collaborative process. “Our employees are much more stringent than I am,” says Anderson. “If they think someone won't fit or isn't qualified, they let me know about it.”
To help on the recruitment and retention front, the firm offers an interesting and unusual mix of perks and benefits. In addition to traditional benefits like health insurance, a 401(k) plan, profit sharing, year-end bonuses, and reimbursement for continuing education and advanced degrees, MGAC offers goodies like free personal financial counseling, paid field trips to industry sites of interest (for example, Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater), and onsite massages during crunch periods.
Employee anniversaries are celebrated in five-year increments. For five-year anniversaries, employees can personalize their gift—one person asked for plane tickets for her family vacation, another used his gift to throw a cocktail party for the entire office, yet another had a student loan paid off.
For 10-year anniversaries, the company provides two tickets and paid expenses to tour one of the Seven Wonders of the World. “It is an experience most people would not undertake on their own, and our company is about leveraging experience into proper action,” adds Anderson.
Personalized gifts are also passed out spontaneously to reward employees who go above and beyond on a project, win new business, or promote the firm. For instance, after a particularly tough period on a recent project, MGAC provided a long weekend at a resort for one family to “decompress.” Another MGAC employee was surprised to find that their hotel bill was pre-paid as they checked out while on an annual family vacation, and another found their shipboard account had a substantial credit as they boarded a cruise ship. The company frequently will encourage employees to include spouses and family members on their business travel, at company expense.
The firm recently opened an onsite fitness center on the top floor of its D.C. office (MGAC also operates an office in Seattle). The facility, which is open to employees 24/7, has shower facilities, bike storage, a large-screen TV, free weights, and a slew of exercise machines. Employees who work remotely are eligible to receive a $100 monthly stipend toward gym membership at a location of their choice.
Establishing the right culture
Perks and benefits certainly help with recruiting, but Anderson says the firm's autonomous culture and congenial atmosphere are what ultimately attract and retain staff.
“People come here so that they can work autonomously alongside the best and the brightest,” he says. “This organization is no stuffed-shirt group, hidebound with rigid organizational mandates. Team members work collaboratively, drawing from each other's expertise to handle their own respective clients as they deem appropriate.”
Of course, support is available as needed when a project gets really dicey. Project managers are encouraged to bounce ideas off others in the firm, and major challenges are often solved using the collective brain power of the close-knit group, says Anderson.
The company encourages its staff to bond both inside and outside the office. To promote interaction, MGAC has “overhead lunches,” where two or more employees can go out to lunch on the company's dime. “There's no requirement to talk company business,” says Anderson. “We just want our people to spend the time talking and getting to know one another better.”
In-office social gatherings include celebrations for birthdays and significant personal events. Happy hour Fridays allow staff members to socialize over frozen cocktails from the firm's margarita machine.
This level of bonding extends to family and community as well. The firm pays for family members to attend company functions like picnics, cruises, and holiday parties, and all employees are encouraged to maintain a healthy work/life balance. The company regularly redistributes workload among employees to maintain a balanced work/personal life equilibrium. “With our employees working on such high-profile projects, we can't afford to overtax them,” says Anderson.
The firm regularly provides pro bono project management services to nonprofit civic organizations, most recently on a new capital project for Seattle's Richard Hugo House, a literary arts center that supports writers of diverse ages and backgrounds. The firm matches all staff contributions to charitable fundraising events. Employees are actively involved in donating food and other items to the troops in Iraq, sponsoring families in need through the YWCA Adopt-A-Family program, and participating in AIDS and breast cancer awareness events.
When asked if his firm has ever had a failed project, Anderson replied “No, but we had some very difficult judgment calls to make over the years. There have been times when we've asked ourselves, 'Can we really fix this mess?' But we always put our collective heads together and come up with a way to fix it.”
—Dave Barista, Managing Editor