Few, if any, businesses can say they saw this pandemic coming. For some AEC industry firms, the business ramifications have been severe. While the market sectors you serve do play a role, there are other factors that can significantly impact the resiliency of your business during a time of crisis.

In this issue of The Friedman File, we’re going behind the scenes with one engineering firm that isn’t just coping with the COVID-19 disruption, they’re looking at it as an opportunity to reinvent their business.

Fortunately for 175-person engineering firm Borton-Lawson (Wilkes-Barre, PA), that business focuses on two client sectors with ongoing operations— public and private infrastructure, and industrial and energy. Three years ago, the firm also rolled out Beyond Engineering, a technology-focused initiative that is proving itself well positioned to meet the current moment.

To President and CEO Frank Joanlanne, the opportunity is not just keeping the doors open, keeping staff and meeting profitability metrics, although the firm is doing that right now. It’s setting themselves up to thrive in a post-pandemic business environment.

“Getting through this is not our goal,” Joanlanne says. “Surviving is stressful. Thriving brings hope. Thriving is about mindset – seeing the opportunities and operationalizing those— and that is what is giving everyone purpose right now.”

Scenario planning pays off

Even before the pandemic reached U.S. shores, no one at Borton-Lawson was waiting around to see what would happen. As the virus spread in China, Joanlanne wondered how his firm would operate if they could not access their three offices. By mid-February, they were reviewing existing business contingency plans and ramping up a phased implementation.

By March, Borton-Lawson had been designated a “life-sustaining business” by the State of Pennsylvania. The firm expanded its focus to include employee safety, purchasing supplies and personal protective equipment, and enacting cleaning procedures and daily briefings on CDC and state guidelines.

Preparing for the transition to remote work, they added 40 laptops to their computer lease agreement and set up emergency networks and technology systems to handle added traffic. They accelerated a planned adoption of Microsoft 365 to deploy MS Teams and set up team channels as well as channels to help staff maintain social ties, such as a lunchtime games channel. When it was time to send people home, they were ready with an inventory system to monitor the computers, desks, and technology heading out the door.

Borton-Lawson’s leadership believed the capacity of their network would be the biggest remote work challenge, but adopting shift schedules and offering employees flexibility in working their remaining hours helped to manage the loads.

From the start, Borton-Lawson’s leadership put communication first. They kept clients informed and reassured. They held morning and afternoon leadership meetings, weekly communications and a firm-wide meeting to prepare. Joanlanne started, and has kept up, personal check-ins with staff to see how they’re doing. (One lesson learned: While remote work may come naturally to millennial staff, it was initially challenging for others. The firm had to step up with more support.)

“This is an emotional disruption as well as an operational disruption for a company,” he says. “That dictates as a leader how much time should be spent on communication. It’s about rallying the troops.”

Building a resilient culture

Joanlanne admits that his previous roles have given him “global news geek” tendencies, which helped him take early action to prepare the firm. But Borton-Lawson is thriving in large part because of its company culture, he says.

“It is our culture that got us here and that culture will continue through changes in the workplace,” he says. “These people impress me day in and day out. They have taken more ownership of their company through this time. We have built trust and they are giving that back to the company in a time of crisis.”

That culture didn’t happen by accident, and Joanlanne believes that employees would not be responding the same way if the firm had cultivated a “command and control” style culture. Borton-Lawson’s leadership is transparent, he says, and employees know the state of affairs. It’s an open-book firm where autonomy and innovation are rewarded and where division leaders and service leaders have profit and loss (P+L) responsibilities. The firm also conducts Denison Model-based organizational culture surveys every two years and actively implements staff feedback.

Long before COVID-19, Borton-Lawson had been positioning itself for another kind of disruption. With technologies such as virtual reality poised to change how the AEC industry operates, how it serves clients and who it hires, the firm wanted to be ahead of the curve. They moved to a 3D platform six years ago and then launched Precise Visual Technologies (PVT), a technology division to differentiate and expand their services, and provide new opportunities for their most tech-minded people.

Leveraging disruption

Not all of the firm’s clients have shifted to 3D design — some still prefer paper plans in the office — but many larger clients have made progress on the firm’s trademarked Digital Transformation Curve approach. Borton-Lawson developed a Digital Transformation Curve to depict the increased Return on Investment (ROI) over time as an organization’s assets are digitized, modeled and used to simulate events and processes. Now that’s paying off, particularly for oil and gas sector clients who need virtual technology to maintain and operate their assets in a stay-at-home-order world.

For a client with thousands of brick-and-mortar assets that they are not allowed to visit, intelligent digitized models can be key to safe operations and keeping projects on schedule. With 3D scanning, drone image capture and specialized software, they can monitor sites from afar, virtually walk through them and collaborate with remote-based engineers as needed. Existing clients are taking advantage, and have referred a few new clients as well.

But if project work continues on, business development has changed. Borton Lawson’s staff are conducting client “health checks,” including clients without active projects, and virtual lunch-and-learns are training BD-focused staff to sell new technologies.

“We are doing more farming than hunting these days, though we have acquired a half-dozen clients in the last couple of months,” says Joanlanne. “We did not expect that, but our clients trust and rely on us, and have approached this crisis in a way that innovation and creativity are valued.”

Creating the new normal

Financially, the firm has managed the disruption so far. Business is coming in, projects are moving ahead and clients are keeping to their payment schedules. But things are also changing.

A recent survey showed that employees like the independence and flexibility of their current work schedules. Eliminating the commute, along with fewer meetings and no travel, has made them more effective and increased utilization. As a result, the firm will be reevaluating its technology budget and flexible and remote work policies going forward.

Borton-Lawson is also introducing the virtual asset management approach to clients in all of their business lines (industrial, pharma, power), rolling out virtualized solutions to help clients realize long-term value by “engineering for a connected environment” rather than seeing the design phase as a means to construction. The PVT team will marry engineering expertise with virtualization tools to help clients better manage projects, increase productivity, improve safety and minimize mistakes.

“We were fortunate that we were already making this shift,” Joanlanne says. “Often, this kind of initiative would be pushed aside when there is a crisis. Here it has not. We have pushed ahead. We’re thrilled because we’re busy getting ready for this industry’s new normal.”

How is your firm weathering the COVID-19 storm—and what are you learning? I’d love to hear more at rich@friedmanpartners.com or (508) 276-1101.