Building success Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008

John Brand is no stranger to corporate growth. Butler, Fairman & Seufert Inc., a civil engineering firm with 2007 revenue of $15.3 million, recently acquired a Lafayette civil/environmental company after partnering with the business for several years. In addition to making the acquisition, Brand — the company’s president and a principal — says Butler Fairman has grown by balancing new opportunities with maintaining existing client relationships.

“Our integrity and our firm’s reputation is paramount,” he says. “We’d like to be viewed as a trusted adviser.”

Smart Business spoke with Brand about how he and his team of 145 employees have become trusted advisers to their clients.

Q. How do you communicate to your clients that you will follow through?

First and foremost, we make sure that we take care of our existing clients so that they keep calling back and asking us to take on the next project. That’s just demonstrated on our past performance, and that’s very important. Sometimes, it’s really hard for clients to sort out until they have some experience with the firm.

It’s easy for everybody to come in and say, ‘I can do this job; I understand what needs to be done here,’ but to really separate yourself from others, you have to promote personal service and be responsive to your clients.

Your clients identify a problem, and they don’t know what’s needed for a solution. They rely on you to come up with a solution. They trust that you’ll be prudent with the decisions on their money and their schedule; they have a lot at stake. They need to know that you’ll be able to follow through and get the job done for them.

Q. How do you promote personal service?

We like to get a lot of face time with our clients. We have seven client services people on our payroll. Since we founded the company, we chose to call that department client services rather than business development because sometimes business development gives the connotation that you’re always pursuing other projects that you don’t have.

We do pursue new projects, but I’ve found that we’re able to grow if we devote four days a week to servicing existing clients and one day a week to pursuing new opportunities and new clients.

Q. How did you determine that formula?

About 10 or 12 years ago, we sent two people out on the road to call on only new clients. The amount of time they spent with it versus the payoff — it wasn’t very good. We found that if we were totally pursuing a bunch of new opportunities, we didn’t do a good job of taking care of our existing clients.

It takes a lot more time to develop a new relationship than it does to maintain an existing one. We’ve delivered projects for our existing clients in the past, and we have an emotional bank account with them.

[That means] doing what you say you’re going to do. The values in our company are honesty, professionalism, consideration, dedication and accountability. That’s how we define it to our employees. We have a constancy of purpose.

Q. What one thing can prevent a company from growing?

A company won’t grow if the leadership doesn’t see growth as a priority. If you want to maintain the status quo, that certainly can be deflating for the employees — and even the clients — to see that.

You need to be profitable enough to continue to invest in technology. You can’t fall behind in that regard. In providing good equipment for our personnel — the proper software and the training that goes along with it — they know that the company will make that investment for them to do their job well. If they look around and see that our competitors have better equipment and better resources, that can be deflating.

Q. How do you avoid the status quo and keep moving forward?

We’re in our fourth generation of owners, and we’ve all viewed it as our duty to have the company be better when we depart than when we started. We view it as being good stewards to this business. We do our part for a period of time, and then we hand it over to others and let them do the same thing.

When I came in as an owner in my mid-30s, the transition plan for when I retire — as far as the cost and the time frame — was already agreed upon, so there will be no surprises later. A person has a window of opportunity to do some good; it’s not forever. In our particular practice, we can continue our employment with the company, but we step aside as principals at age 62.

It does give a sense of urgency, but we’re also structured where no one’s going to control the destiny of the company. There’s a buffer between what’s best for the individual and what’s best for the company.

HOW TO REACH: Butler, Fairman & Seufert Inc., (317) 713-4615 or www.bfsengr.com