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From A/E/C Firm to Owner:

Lessons Learned from Both Sides of the Table By Holly R. Bolton, FSMPS, CPSM, 3chord Marketing LLC, and CE Solutions, Inc.

When it comes to talent, the one constant in the design and construction industry is people moving from one firm to another. Over the past few years in particular, we’ve seen even more change take place. Many professionals have made the transition from working at A/E/C firms to working for owner organizations. Every new role and experience provides the opportunity to increase perspectives. To understand those perspectives, I talked with a few professionals who have made that change, to learn what it’s like being on the other side of the table. What have been the biggest lessons learned/a-ha moments from being on both sides of the table?

RATIO Design Studio, Indianapolis, IN. Design Architect: RATIO Architects; General Contractor: Pepper Construction. ©Susan Fleck,

Todd Buerger, AIA, NCARB, RID: Seeing things from the owner’s side; the number one thing I’ve learned is that anyone who works with an owner should really understand the culture of the institution. If you know who we are, that goes a long

way in making everything more efficient. Often, consultants will come to the table highlighting their expertise, which is important, but everyone we’re talking to is smart, trained, and experienced. When you blend that expertise with an understanding of how we operate and who we are, it might make you think differently about how you deliver design or construction. MARKETER OCTOBER 2016


Pamela Fox: When I worked for a general contractor, I was held to a very high standard of quality. If a customer was not satisfied with a construction project or my performance as a project manager, I knew there were other general contractors who may get the next opportunity instead of me. Now that I am on the owner side, I see the owner/vendor relationship as a partnership and there are things that each of us can do to strengthen that partnership and not waste each other’s time. As an owner, I think it is fair to be very clear about scope, timing, and probability of the work getting cancelled. What I would want from a vendor is a fair price and an honest assessment if they can perform the work as described. Further, I do not intentionally look for the vendor with the lowest price (although price is many times a factor), I look for the vendor who brings the most quality. Lastly, I rely on the owner/vendor relationship to solve problems. Michael Miller, P.E.: As a consultant, I would be frustrated when anticipated

projects weren’t released or were put on hold for seemingly no reason. Now, as an owner, I understand why. The reasons will vary, but they’re never intentional, especially when it comes to critical infrastructure. Often times, funding or regulatory issues hold up the project. In addition, I have a much better understanding of procurement philosophies and procedures, the approval process, revenue sources, and spending restrictions. Being on the other side of the table has given me insight into the challenges of putting projects out on the street and actually paying for them.

phases and then moved on to another project after design development was completed. As an owner, I am able to add value throughout the entire project, from developing the business case concept, strategic planning, funding requesting, and selection of the various external consultants through planning, design, construction, and post occupancy. Additionally, I’m managing the budget, working with the regulatory agencies, and, most importantly, the customers—the doctors and nurses whom trust you to be their advocate and ensure that what they need is being designed and built.

Victoria Navarro, MBA-HCM: In my current role, I’ve learned more about the healthcare market and how design solutions can result in value-based outcomes. I see how our health system’s objectives are met and positively impact daily operations in both acute and non-acute medical and administrative environments. Working for a firm, I focused on the programming and design

Thinking back to your A/E/C firm days, what do you wish you would have known then that you know now? What do you see differently?



Todd Buerger, AIA, NCARB, RID Architect / Senior Project Manager, Operations, Butler University, Indianapolis, IN

Michael Miller, P.E. Manager – Construction, Citizens Energy Group, Indianapolis, IN

Pamela Fox Executive Director, Facilities Management, University of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN

Victoria Navarro, MBA-HCM Manager of Planning and Design, Advocate Health Care, Chicago, IL


Buerger: When it comes to selecting A/E/C firms for projects, it’s more often about the people than the firm. As a consultant, I had the perspective that the knowledge was within the company, but in many cases, it’s more with the individuals, and we (owners) often follow them. If I were an owner of an A/E/C firm today, I would try to harness that knowledge. Keeping that expertise is becoming more difficult now that people are moving around more often, especially the generations coming into the workforce. If you can demonstrate the fact that the knowledge or talent remains in the firm, it would give the client a higher comfort level.

Cummins LiveWell Center™, Columbus, IN. Design Architect: Axis Architecture + Interiors; General Contractor: Taylor Brothers Construction Company. ©Susan Fleck,

Fox: As a contractor, I always had to adjust schedules or back up project start dates because of the customer’s needs. Now that I have more experience on the owner side, I see why that happens. Owners are being pulled in many directions. Our priorities can change at a moment’s notice, which trickles down to when we start projects. Also, our funding sources can change, whether it’s the amount of funding or when the funding will be released. What I see differently is that it’s best to be as upfront as possible to vendors so they can work their scheduling. In return, I ask vendors to let us know if they are unable to meet our needs as we change schedules or funding so that we have time to find a different vendor. Miller: As a consultant, I didn’t have an understanding of how precious time is to an owner. I never understood how a meeting or a lunch took weeks or longer to schedule and why it took a few days to get a response to an email. Now, I have an incredible number of priorities competing for my time. It’s not that I don’t want to meet with consultants (in fact, we try to be very available and transparent), it’s that I have a full schedule and also deal with never-ending, unscheduled issues. At Citizens, we make decisions by committee. This is deliberate—it helps you make the right decision and share in the decision—but it also adds to your schedule. As a consultant, I didn’t realize how long it actually takes to build a relationship from an owner’s perspective.

Navarro: Looking back, I wish I would have known all the business decisions that the owner makes prior to meeting with the architect, such as project delivery methods, key hospital metrics, and funding mechanisms. As an architectural consultant, it’s beneficial to know healthcare design and be aware of the client’s mission, financial objectives, and strategies. You need to speak the same language as the healthcare provider in order to engage the client, collaborate, and develop innovative and creative solutions. I set the tone in the beginning of a project by sharing these objectives so that our designers understand our challenges and can help us be at the forefront of the marketplace and meet our goals.

When it comes to connecting with owners more effectively, what’s your top piece of advice for marketers and business developers? Buerger: It's vital to learn about the client and understand them. Another notion is how to stay better connected, not for the sake of trying to win work (which is still important), but to learn from each other. From the academic institution perspective, it’s interesting how easily they share information. They are masters at staying current and sharing knowledge with each other even though they are in a way competitors. I think that model could benefit the A/E/C industry. It’s challenging because often it is all about winning the work and there’s a hesitancy to cooperate and share. Fox: The best way to connect with owners is to listen to what we are trying to accomplish. I have sat through many onesided presentations and conversations. I would prefer that vendors ask questions and customize the conversation to my

needs as an owner. What is also helpful is to provide proposals that are very detailed in scope, with prices that are brokendown into parts (not just a lump sum), and list the exclusions. As an owner, I look very carefully at what is not included so I can account for any other associated costs that need to be included in the funding request. Lastly, vendors should be prepared to justify their costs and provide an explanation of how long a task may take. All of these ideas help me plan a realistic schedule, relay correct information to our customers, and provide a good product for our campus. Miller: Be patient. Building a relationship takes time. Part of our job is to be accessible and meet, but it might take a little while to get on our calendars. And during those initial meetings, leave the sales pitch behind. Tell me about you, learn more about me. Learn about what pressures I have, and understand what I need. Too often (and I was guilty of this as a consultant), consultants tell an owner what they need from a technical perspective, but that’s not always the answer. Understand the challenges the owner has … regulations, timing, funding, external stakeholders, etc. Many times, our challenges are much less straightforward than just designing a sound engineering solution or building a piece of infrastructure. The planning and big-picture perspective is often overlooked. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear; educate me about how we can be more effective given your understanding of my business and challenges. Navarro: For me, the number-one recommendation is to build that client relationship. I believe that exceptional client service constitutes a core value for the business, and firms should MARKETER OCTOBER 2016


Eli Lilly and Company, Indianapolis, IN. Design Architect: Axis Architecture + Interiors; General Contractor: Garcia Construction Group. ©Susan Fleck,

strive to become a trusted partner. I can differentiate firm leaders from the competition through strong relationships, and their level of service is one of the very reasons I continue to work with them. I’ve gained new perspectives from the architects we have hired. When I see that expertise and we have that trust between us, many times, we provide them with repeat business. Most important, delivering quality work for your client is paramount in building a relationship.

When you made the transition from the firm side to the owner side, what was harder than you thought it would be? What was easier? Buerger: The easy part was I was hired to manage projects, and that expertise is fairly universal, so it was familiar to me. The learning curve is related to my a-ha moment—really learning not only the culture of the university, but the cultures within it. I can’t treat every department in the university the same when I sit with them and learn what they need. I have to understand and appreciate their unique perspectives and what they are doing because all ideas are important and all questions are good questions. Another adjustment was being responsible for managing the budget/funding. I have to make priorities and decisions and be respectful of everyone’s needs. So from the A/E/C firm’s perspective, 28


it relates back to the original notion of understanding the culture of the institution. Fox: The transition from the firm to the owner side was more difficult than I had imagined. I was assuming since I was going from a general contractor who had to balance many clients to just acting on behalf of one entity, my life would be easier. That was not the case. Each department has its own set of needs and priorities. The complication of it all is there is actually a short window of time where most work needs to occur—when students are not in the fall and spring sessions. We now schedule all of our work to simultaneously occur during the four months between spring and fall sessions or over short scheduled breaks. It means we need to spend a lot of upfront planning in scheduling work, and it doesn’t leave a lot of time to work through contingencies. Miller: It was a bit challenging adjusting to the amount of meetings and competing priorities for my time. Again, there’s a lot of decision by committee, which is good, but also time-intensive. One aspect that was interesting (and easier) was no longer having to compete for projects. This was a major cause of stress while consulting. Being on the owner’s side has a fair share of stress to replace it with—we have to constantly be aware of rates and

regulations, for example—but not having to mine for work to keep utilization up was easier. Another interesting adjustment was going from performing engineering responsibilities and routinely producing a deliverable/product, to working in more of a utility management role, where I tend to produce fewer actual products, but am responsible for keeping things moving forward from a higher-level administrative standpoint. Navarro: As a healthcare planner working for an owner organization, it was hard to give up my urge to roll out the trace paper and tell the architects how to plan and design. As the owner, you still influence the design, but you have to do it in a different way. It takes a different set of skills—you ask questions to see if certain elements can be challenged or if there is another approach that will help meet the vision of the organization without telling the design team how to do it. Owners want to make sure the design solutions are what’s best for the patients, families, and caregivers. The easier aspect was having experience in healthcare planning and design, knowing what it takes to produce a set of drawings, comply with code, and manage projects to their approved scope, budget, and schedule. These skills allow me to mitigate risks, anticipate problems, and manage expectations of our organization’s leadership. ■

From A/E/C Firm to Owner: Lessons Learned from Both Sides of the Table  

© 2016 SMPS; Marketer, The Journal of the Society of Marketing Professional Services, October 2016.

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