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Schmidt Associates: earning loyalty through lasting relationships

Schmidt Associates: earning loyalty through lasting relationships

August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200803 issue of BD+C.

W hen architect Wayne Schmidt went out on his own 31 years ago, he vowed to build his new design firm around the guiding principle that one should lead through service to others. “I firmly believe that you don't declare you're the leader,” said Schmidt, who launched his architectural practice on July 4, 1976, armed with his undergraduate degree and $800 in savings. “People have to vote for you to be the leader. If I serve your needs, you will allow me to lead.”

Schmidt's founding principle of “servant leadership” still rings true today, serving as the philosophical backbone of his bustling 98-person, Indianapolis-based firm. By never straying from his fundamental doctrine, Schmidt has created a culture that thrives on building strong, lasting relationships with clients, staff, and the community. The fruit of this is an extremely loyal customer base (approximately 80% of the firm's work comes from repeat clients) that has helped Schmidt Associates grow into one of the largest full-service architectural/engineering firms in Indiana.

“We believe that we must focus every interaction, every process, and every staff member on ensuring a client experience that is above all others in the industry,” said Schmidt, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. “We are committed to serving our clients, because without them nothing else matters.”


To reinforce this culture of selfless leadership and develop talent within the firm, Schmidt and his management team established a comprehensive career development program that rivals that of some of the largest AEC firms in the industry. Staff orientation, ongoing mentorship, continuing education, and career path planning are key components to cultivating the servant leader ethic within the firm.

“From the moment new employees walk through the door, they are encouraged to embrace our unique culture through a complete immersion of reading materials, one-on-one information sessions with key staff, and specific activities that reinforce our processes,” said Schmidt, referring to the firm's intensive, 90-day orientation period, during which employees receive in-depth training on everything that is Schmidt Associates—from the principles of servant leadership to the firm's quality management standards.

From day one, new hires are paired with a senior member of staff who serves as an ongoing supervisor and role model. Besides helping new staff members get their feet on the ground during orientation, the mentor establishes and manages the employee's career path and performs the individual's twice-a-year performance review. The two also meet several times a year to discuss and plan the employee's training agenda.

This combination of career development and mentoring applies to all employees, from design principals to administrative assistants. The company has four distinct career tracks—support staff, design/technical, project management, and rainmaking—to help guide employees through the career development process. Within in each track, the company offers various job titles and multiple levels of competency—including knowledge and appreciation, critical skills, leadership, and exemplary outcomes—to identify how each staff member fits into the firm's operations and how they can continue to develop their skill sets.

The Schmidt Academy, established in 2005, is at the heart of the firm's career development process. The in-house continuing education program offers nearly 50 technical seminars and courses hosted by the firm's principals, including Schmidt himself. All employees are required to enroll in at least three classes within their career track and one elective course each year. Since its launch, the academy has put on more than 105 classes, with participation by 90% of the staff.

Participation in design charrettes, monthly staff meetings, staff retreats, mentor training, monthly LEED classes, and twice-monthly building technology meetings is also encouraged as part of career development, as is external training and education through attendance at industry conferences and leadership seminars. Tuition for university classes is fully reimbursed. In 2007 alone, the firm invested more than $125,000 in training and professional development—an average expenditure of $1,250 per employee. “We are committed to investing in our greatest asset: our talent,” says Schmidt.

Schmidt's investment in staff training and development is certainly paying off, if the firm's rapid growth is any measure. During the past five years, the company has seen revenue growth exceeding 40% and nearly double the profit. Moreover, the firm has been able to cultivate its next generation of leaders and senior management. Since 2004, the firm has added seven new principals to its shareholder group—all promoted from within—bringing the total of principals to nine. Eight of the nine employees recently named associate have participated in the company's career development program for at least two years.

Schmidt also attributes the firm's decrease in voluntary turnover (down from 14% in 2005 to 6.5% in 2007) and in construction document errors and omissions (down from 1.8% in 2005 to 0.54% in 2007) to staff training and development.

When it comes to protecting the environment and giving back to the community, Schmidt's staff definitely walks the talk. The firm regularly provides design services pro bono for local organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Lutheran Disabilities, and Martin University. Several employees serve on the boards of local community organizations, and many more donate their time and money to events like blood drives, Arbor Day tree planting, school supply programs, and elementary school reading programs. Last year, Schmidt employees even adopted an entire nursing home during the holiday season, providing gifts and grocery gift cards for more than 70 residents.

The firm has also made a commitment to achieve LEED for Existing Building certification on its own building by implementing initiatives such as officewide recycling, installing a rooftop garden, and harvesting solar energy. The firm's solar canopy generates 3,219 kilowatt hours annually, enough energy to power 10 computers around the clock for two months.

— Dave Barista, Managing Editor

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