Patrick and Tim discuss how Foth reinvented itself to kick-start growth—committing to a value system, shedding clients who didn’t share in it, and flattening out the organizational structure to better serve clients. Tim also shares advice for young CEOs. Foth is ranked as a top design firm by the Engineering News-Record, and specializes in strategic planning, consulting, and engineering services in infrastructure, environment, and production.

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PH: Tim Weyenberg, welcome to Coffee and CEOs.
TW: You have to build your own mentality around “I’m going to do something really great today and I’m going to do it with the people I work with.”
PH: So, Foth … you guys have had a lot of growth over the past number of years. Can you give us a little bit of background on what the company is, where you guys are now, number of employees?
TW: Sure. Well, we’re headquartered here in Green Bay, in the Green Bay area. We’ve got today 19 offices around the country—we also have an office in Toronto.
PH: Right.
TW: Our business is engineering and science consulting. We write about 650 paychecks every two weeks. You can’t really say you’ve got that many employees anymore because there’s part-time, and temporary, and casual employees. So we just look at it that way.
PH: So a couple years ago you transitioned out of the CEO role, chairman. But during your term as CEO, you guys had some phenomenal growth. Give us a little bit of the history on where you came from to where you are today.
TW: Ok. We did. We were a little bit lucky and I think we were in the right place at the right time. In 2001, we had—our revenue, which we publish with the Engineering News Record, so I can share some of that information with you—we were at $30 million in total revenue. And eight years later we were at $130 million.
PH: Wow.
TW: I think we did two things well. One was we built a leadership team that was engaged and had the will to succeed. We didn’t really start out with a growth plan, frankly. We started out with a client development plan that would have enabled growth. So it was focused on our customers. And the growth came as a result of doing that. The other thing I think we did well was live our values with our customers.
PH: Sure.
TW: Not every dollar of revenue is a good dollar of revenue. Not because you’re not getting any margin on it, but because the business isn’t any fun. Your clients are treating you in ways you don’t prefer to be treated.
PH: Right.
TW: And we started asking the question, “Why are we working for people like that? Do we have the right to choose our customers, or are we forced to have them choose us?” And we decided it was a two-way street. So we actually “fired” a number of clients in the mid-90s. And you know the neat thing that happened is our revenue increased.
PH: Did it really?
TW: Yeah. We reduced, by almost 20 percent, the number of accounts we were working with, and our revenue kept growing. Because we paid better attention to people we liked working with.
PH: So you mentioned earlier that you’ve really become a flat organization with very few tiers. What drove that decision? And what did you run into along the way of becoming an organization like that?
TW: Sure. Well, we actually made that decision in 1992 … and I remember the day, and I remember the hour … because we were looking at our budget plan for the next year, 1993, and we were planning on losing money. And that was not going to work. So, we literally took a two-by-four to the side of the head of the company—we just laid it flat. On Friday we told everybody, “When you come to work on Monday, throw your business cards away because you no longer have a title, ok?”
PH: I can only imagine! (laughs)
TW: “You do not have a manager.” And the question we got was, “What am I going to do?” And the answer was, “The same thing you did Friday. Because you’re not working for a manager, you’re working for a client. So you need a line of sight to the real customer.” And we just took the organization, took all of the structure out of it, and we rebuilt it, piece by piece, over a five-year period.
PH: Wow! And it didn’t implode in the meantime?
TW: Well, we really didn’t have any choice! You know, if it did? If it had done that? Well, what’s worse, you know—imploding or going out of business?
PH: So Tim, what’s the—in your years as CEO, what’s the biggest thing you learned in your role as CEO?
TW: Well, you better love people, ok? And love working with them, and you can’t fake that. The ability to use your emotional quotient, your emotional intelligence, the socialization piece of business. It’s a lot more, at least in our business, than offering services. It’s offering, in a real concrete way, a relationship that is going to benefit both parties. And then, like we were talking about before, you have the option of firing customers if they are inconsistent with that value system, and have the courage to trust your guts on that.
PH: That’s one thing we say around our place all the time. Every time we don’t trust our gut, we always wish we would have. Always. I just, I said it last week to one of my partners. Same thing.
TW: Yup. Well, a lot of us learn the hard way, Pat. And I know I did.