Ask Anthony: How Do I Grow My Small Civil Engineering Business?

December 15, 2016
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I recently got an interesting question from a civil engineer who owns a small civil engineering company. I will call him Joe to keep him anonymous and let you know that his business consists of only a few people, and, at this time, he is very hands-on and does a good portion of the design work himself.

His question – “What is the best way to perform business development and the best ways to balance marketing and business development activities with design work? It seems like I never have enough time for business development.”

I think the bigger question here is, “How do I grow my small civil engineering company?”

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Joe’s approach seems to be too small and not big-picture enough. He is trying to figure out how to balance his time, so that he can do both design work and business development. Instead, he should think through how he can get enough work to hire a full-time design engineer to focus on business development 80 percent of the time.

To accomplish this, he should focus on his repeat clients as his first source of business development. These are the best kind of clients, because they don’t require additional business development efforts, other than ensuring he provides them with great service, which he should already be doing.

He should take the extra steps needed to give them A-plus service and, when appropriate, look for ways to politely ask them for additional work. Maybe he can provide a complimentary audit on some of their existing projects and do a value engineering review. Or offer them a complimentary due-diligence study on a parcel of land they are considering developing. He should focus on this repeat-work strategy first.

Secondly, he should try to engage in business development activities that can get him more bang for his buck. For example, he could volunteer to speak at conferences in front of target clients. This allows him to improve his knowledge of the topics he speaks on through preparation, and then he can leverage his time by getting in front of many prospective clients at once. He should look for activities that leverage his valuable time.

Then, as soon as there is enough backlog work, he could hire an affordable design engineer who can start part time with the flexibility for future expansion. Hiring a person like this will give him the time to engage in more business development until he can afford to hire the designer as a full-time employee.

It won’t be easy, but if you try to do everything on your own, you will never grow your company to its fullest potential. I hope these recommended actions help you, as a small civil engineering company owner, to build a successful firm and career.

Anthony Fasano, P.E., M.ASCE, is the founder of the Engineering Career Coach website which has helped thousands of engineers develop their business and leadership skills. He hosts the Civil Engineering Podcast and has written a bestselling book for engineers, Engineer Your Own Success. You can download a free video series on his website that will give you the tools needed to immediately improve your networking and communication skills.

6 Comments
  • This is a reply for the firm that is always losing employees to competitors. His remarks make it sound like his is a great firm to work for with a good owner, and above average compensation. Is the firm really supplying this or is this his view on the situation? He needs to have an outside firm do confidential exit interviews with people who have left to find and fix the reasons for turnover. High turnover typically means problems.

    • David great point, we always need outside perspectives on our own projects to ensure we are getting true feedback about the real conditions!

  • Many firms end up chasing everything that moves – they chase leads. That means, they’re continually pouring time and energy into lower possibility opportunities because the firm hasn’t taken sufficient time to build the needed relationships and tee up the opportunities. Instead, a move to account-based business development and marketing can build more stable and sustainable revenues.

    Account-based programs put the firm’s focus on the companies, agencies, and organizations they want to work with, whether that account has a project right now or not. It allows a firm to purposefully select and pursue the “accounts” that are a best fit for your firm and build solid relationships. It takes a firm out of a chase-the-lead approach and into one that makes a firm’s BD and marketing work with purpose. A shift to an account-based program doesn’t happen overnight, but the change is well worth it.

    The comment in the article about focusing on current clients is right on. Good current clients and past clients are the best bet for repeat work and for referrals into other opportunities. To capture those opportunities, seller-doers should be well-versed in how to build lasting relationships, uncover future opportunities, and ask for referrals, both within the existing client’s organization as well as to other organizations.

    • Deb great comments, thank you for sharing them. Usually good habits take time to build, but they are worth the time :)

  • Dear Anthony, I also want to grow my small engineering company, but I’m afraid your advice above won’t work for me. Marketing and sales is not a problem; I can sell enough work for more people than I have. The problem is attracting and retaining good staff. My strategy has been to provide a customised employment package to suit each staff member, to encourage risk taking and profit sharing, and to pay significantly better than the industry average. My door is open and my staff love me. But as soon as they are trained up, they quit. Sometimes they become new clients. But its very hard to find more good people. So my business basically provides free training for my competitors’ future staff. Do you have any advice that’s not obvious like hire more dependable people or snap the golden handcuffs on them? Kurt

    • Not really Kurt, it’s tough. How about as opposed to profit sharing, ownership, like an ESOP program. You could also implement a benefit plan like graduate school reimbursement with a payback plan – but I guess that is the handcuffs approach.

      I would look into the ESOP.

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