209 - TZL - John Wheaton

TZL – Conversation with John Wheaton

TZL Open [00:03] Welcome to the Zweig Letter Podcast putting architectural engineering planning and environmental consulting advice and guidance in your ear. Zweig Group's team of experts has spent more than three decades elevating the industry by helping AEP and environmental consulting firms thrive. And these podcasts deliver invaluable management, industry, client, marketing, and HR advice directly to you free of charge. The Zweig Letter Podcasts elevating the design industry one episode at a time. Randy Wilburn [00:49] Hey folks, and welcome to another episode of The Zweig Letter Podcast. I'm your host, Randy Wilburn and I'm excited to be with you guys today. I have none other than John L. Wheaton with me from Wheaton Sprague Building Envelope. And John is an outstanding individual, an outstanding engineer, a man after my own heart who actually has a podcast himself, which we will talk about in a little bit. But I've been a big fan of his for some time and we follow each other on Twitter. I think he has listened to this podcast, but I know I've listened to his and so I wanted to have him on the podcast. He actually interviewed Mark Zweig not too long ago on a recent podcast of his and I'll make sure that we put that in the Show Notes link or the link in the Show Notes. But without further ado, John L. Wheaton, how are you doing?

John Wheaton [01:39] Randy? I'm doing great. It's great to be here. Thanks for having me on.

Randy Wilburn [01:42] Absolutely. With the Zweig Letter Podcast, we are moving into uncharted territory now. We're over 200 plus episodes. We've been doing this since 2015. It is something to be able to get on the mic as often as possible. And I laugh because, our podcast originally started out with Mark just reading some of his fabulous articles from the Zweig Letter, but then it eventually morphed into something else. And so, really exciting to be able to see what we have evolved to and now we're able to bring on people like yourself, and really it makes a difference for us. So I'd love for you to share and one of the first things that we do with our guests is always trying to get their superhero origin story. So I'd love for you to give us the cliff note version of that story. I know you could go way back. And I always joke that some people go back to kindergarten, but you go back as far as you feel comfortable going, but I'd love for you to share with the audience a little bit of your superhero origin story.

John Wheaton [02:44] Oh, Randy as Colonel Flag used to say on M.A.S.H, “I'd tell you, but I'd have to kill you. Well, first of all, we met on Twitter and we still follow each other there. In fact, you DM’d me when you were asking me about this, and then we shared an email. For those listening that may think what in the world would anybody want to spend time on Twitter for anyway. I get all kinds of reasonable DMs on Twitter. One guy just DM me the other day, hey, why don't we work together to build the largest curtain wall consultancy in the world? I'm like, okay, how? so he starts dialoguing with me. So anyway, I've been following you, I think since you joined Zweig, probably through LinkedIn and here so it's good to meet in two dimensions at least. So my superhero origin story that's funny. I was born in Berwyn, Illinois, which is a little suburb of Chicago, and lived there for eight years. I moved from a little lot, a little eight-acre lot with the Sioux Line railroad station behind us. My dad was an engineer. We moved from the Chicago area and he went to the Illinois Institute of Technology. We moved from there to a 60-acre farm in Kensington, Ohio, a population of 350 in 1968. I lived four years on a 60-acre farm. My dad had it as a hobby farm, and my mom did the animals in the gardens and it was a great time. My dad worked as a metallurgical engineer for TRW Corporation in Minerva. So we were there for years and had a lot of fun there. I was an only child. I always say that wasn't my fault. I didn't make that decision but I am an only child so people can take that takeaway however they want. So I had just great parents, a great upbringing, and great surroundings, and went to West Geauga High School in Chesterland, Ohio. I've had Dean Winter, who was one of the guests on one of my podcasts. He's a colleague of mine. We went to the same high school. He's an architect. He works out in California. There are some really good folks that graduated in 1978 from Westchester High School. Then I went to the University of Akron, which is a great journeyman engineering school. They've got a great polymer school. University Cincinnati and the University of Akron put a lot of strong journeymen get her done engineers So, I worked there, graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. Wanted to be a structural engineer. In fact, quick digression, my uncle who I hope will listen to this at some point, is in his early 80s, John Lane. He is from Illinois originally, but he lives in Fort Smith, Arkansas and he has been there for many, many years. And when I was younger, I think I've told this on the podcast that my dad was an engineer and my uncle was an architect. I was torn between which one should I be, like what I wanted to do. I love to draw with a straight edge and draw perspectives, but I didn't feel terribly artistic in that way. I was pretty good at math and I like to think quantitatively. And my uncle, he said, Johnny, if you want to have fun be an architect. If you want to make some money be an engineer, which the architects may say, yeah, sure, whatever, because we all make reasonable incomes but that was his advice. But I was really attracted to the University of Akron program. When I looked at the coursework, I thought, that's what I want to do, I want to be a structural engineer. So I worked for a year at a company called Snell

Environmental Group which became an Environmental Design Group in Stowe, Ohio. They are still around. They couldn't go in the direction I wanted so at 24, I answered a three-line ad in the newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal, which wanted structural engineers, curtain wall fabrication, CAMS, which was Custom Architectural Metal Systems, PPG Incorporated. I answered that one ad for those who are my age, they'll remember young folks won't, you actually used to look in the classifieds for a job in the newspaper. Went down, a guy named Yogi Chef who still is in the industry. He ripped the end of a box of extrusions that's a Malian. I had no idea what he was talking about and they hired me. I could chew gum, walk and breathe all at the same time, I had a degree. So that's where I started. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I absolutely fell in love with the creativity, newness, and innovation in an emerging field known as curtain wall and cladding, and design engineering. It just stuck with me ever since so that's a little bit of my background. Randy Wilburn [07:13] It's so funny, because in my time at Zweig I did a lot of recruiting structural engineers, a very different animal. And I remember I cut my teeth recruiting from companies like LeMessurier, and some other really high levels of structural engineering firms. That was like a whole different world. It was a whole different ballgame in terms of skill set and discipline and these individuals were different. I learned a lot. There were different schools of thought about structural engineering. You had your MIT folks. You had your Cornell Folks. You had different people that came out of different programs, different camps in terms of different mindsets. I remember going into one firm where they were like, we only were looking for people with this pedigree and this background and that's it. And I was thinking to myself at the time, I couldn't push back because I was new in the industry. Mark told me when I first joined Zweig Group back in ‘97, he was like, it’s going to take you a couple of years to learn the industry but once you do, it's the industry that you can always work in and do things. But at the time, I was just young so I couldn't push back. And of course, then, we weren't thinking about hiring people the way that companies now think about hiring people where you look at things through a different lens. And so I just, I said, okay, well, that's what you want. It was probably one of the toughest executive searches that I ever had to do was for a structural engineer with that type of pedigree and background. And it was really difficult, not because those individuals didn't exist, but because they didn't move around that much, they all knew each other, and, it was very difficult but it also taught me a lot about executive search, especially in the AEC space, the time and effort that you have to put into it. And the other thing is that people that are really good at what they do they know other people that are like them so I picked up a lot from that. It was a real education for me, a real eye-opener. It took me forever to fill that position but we did fill it and I don't know that I ever actively went out to seek out another high-level structural search like that, because it was really difficult. And I have a different level of appreciation for

structural engineers, more so than I do just about any other engineer in the design industry space. I'm not saying that just to get your head, it's just what it is, it was just my experience.

John Wheaton [09:54] That's an interesting commentary. I mean, the same could be true in the legal and accounting world. Law firms hire the University of Chicago, Yale, and Harvard Law. Finance people on Wall Street, they're not going to come to Valparaiso or the University of Akron. They're going to hire people in a certain category from Ivy League, and then there are other categories. I'm a pragmatist. I am not an academic. I'm a journeyman and I like structural engineering but for me, structural engineering is a means to a greater end. And the means to the greater end is how does that inform me and help support the value that I can provide in the marketplace in the form of saving on material, saving on our clients on material, and installation on ease of working relationship. I've migrated more to kind of, I would say an executive level design professional, which is normal for somebody in my age and time in their industry. But, I like more of the holistic side. I love architectural engineering. Actually, without really knowing it, the path that God led me on really allowed me to be a structural engineer in an architecturally oriented business that help kind of push both buttons, you know, trip both levers at the same time. So I love the fact that we work with folks on both sides, and we can help people achieve the vision of what they want their building to look like. Randy Wilburn [11:25] Yeah, without a doubt. I like that fact. I know a lot of structural engineers that obviously you have to work well with architects. You have to work well with so many different disciplines in order to get the job done. And let's face it, if you're building anything with any verticality to it, you need a structural engineer on your team in order to get things done. I'd love to find out John because there are so many things I want to talk to you about. We may have to make this a two-part so we may have to bring you back to talk about some other stuff. But I would love to find out at what point did you decide that you know what I like working for somebody else, but I want to hang out my own shingle. I want to do something on my own as opposed to working for somebody else. When did you make that mental shift and what did that look like for you?

John Wheaton [12:14] That's a good one. I was pretty focused early on learning my craft and trade. I went to MKA Architectural Metal. So I was at PPGs Custom Architectural Metals Division, and I had to move on from there. And actually, there was a point in my life, let me give you a little bit of a roundabout answer so you know a little bit more about who I am. So there

was a point in my life where I just really made a definite decision to follow Christ in my life, to put my faith in Jesus Christ. And so, PPG was closing their commercial construction group, and my wife and I actually, at that point, sold our house and resigned from our jobs and we're going to go into the mission field of all things and we had all of that lined up. Then through a series of events, my wife got pregnant and I had to find a job and we had to get another place to stay. I kind of jumped into the Building Department of the City of Akron, and at the City of Akron, I worked as a Plans Examiner. And when I was there, I actually kind of got a bug a little bit. There I met a lot of architects and a lot of builders, but I never really lost the desire to get into curtain wall. And so while I was struggling with this vocational decision, you know, do I get back trying to go to the mission field or do I stay in vocational work? I went to work for my old boss from PPG at MK Architectural Metal, which is a custom architectural metal fabricator in North Canton, Ohio. And I worked there for five years as a staff engineer. And there I met a ton of people like I met a bunch of really future clients. And so that is where I started to learn that my services were in demand. I learned a ton from Gary McKissick and from the staff there at MK, I just have to shout them out. Even though I really don't do any work for them, they're not a client of mine but I learned a ton. I worked with really a bunch of people who became future clients of mine as glazing subcontractors and while there, you know, there are ups and downs in the cycle. I got my PE license, and they were very supportive of that but I could tell I was tapped out. I was going to be a staff engineer. I wasn't going to move in a different direction there; that was going to be what I did. I wanted to do more. I wanted to expand. I used to drive by this building and tell my wife, someday I'm going to have an engineering company and we're going to be right there. And that became actually kind of prophetic, because a few years later, we had an engineering company, and it was right there. So I'm probably rambling a bit here, but I found people recommending me and asking, do you do any other work? I started to do some side work for non-competing clients and people liked what I did; the way I presented it. They recognized the value and I so I was doing side work and at one point, my now partner, Richard Sprague, we were at MK and I said I think we're going to need to leave here, I don't know that they're going to need me long term and I don’t know that I can stay here. So I moved out on my own and he said he would come with me. From day one we always had work. We always met our payroll, and we always move forward. I describe myself as a gap filler in some ways, and one of the things I recognized was there were gaps in the industry that weren't being adequately serviced, not just technically, but there wasn't the appropriate level of value and the right mindset being transmitted in our field. I felt that there was a gap that could be filled, and, you know, like Mark and I talked one person's pain is another person's value proposition. So that kind of just started to really, really, really burn in me and actually went to two other corporations, big corporations, I won't name and I pitched this idea because I thought I got two kids and a little infant, three kids, you know, a mortgage. I'm 34 years old, what am I going to do this for? And I pitched this idea and they were like, no, I don't think that's going to work for

us. So really there was nowhere else to go unless I wanted to move and my wife and I wanted to stay where we were around family and friends so I started the business.

Randy Wilburn [16:24] So it was almost born out of necessity, where you looked at options that were available to you or may not be and said, maybe I can just go out, strike out on my own and do it. And certainly your faith, I'm sure carried you a distance beyond where you currently were in your current profession.

John Wheaton [16:46] Or ignorance, one of the two, or a combination. It talks in the Bible about how to give, to store your riches in the house of the Lord. And there's a proverb that talks about if you invest your money and your time in the right place your barns will be filled to overflowing and your vats will brim over with new wine. And I think that relates a lot to mindset. But I remember opening up our cupboards one day in our 1200-square foot ranch house and the spices fell down on the cupboard. We were in business for ourselves, and I just thought of that truth. And I said to my wife, I said, you know what, we've never missed a paycheck, we've never missed a house payment, and we've never missed a meal. I just said to my leadership team today in a quarterly meeting, I said, we could tell you stories. If you were interested we could tell you stories and you would go, you have got to be kidding me. Like there's no way that this gap is going to be filled, financially or whatever and it's always been filled, so anyway, that's been good. So some of it was fade. Some of it was ignorance. Some of it was this burning desire to be in business for myself. Some of it was attrition, realizing I had to move on from my company, so a lot of different signals there.

Randy Wilburn [18:11] It obviously all worked out. It certainly did and now you guys have Wheaton Sprague. How long have you been in business now?

John Wheaton [18:21] Since 1994? So 28 years?

Randy Wilburn [18:25] You guys will be getting to the Big Three O soon so that's a big deal. How many employees are you guys?

John Wheaton [18:31] We're in the low 20s right now. We've been as high as the mid-40s. and we've gone through quite a transition through COVID. But to answer your question, we're in the low 20s right now. We have a fairly large footprint and a bigger footprint than what our headcount would show but I've always said we've got a 2,500 square-foot ranch house on a 12,000 square-foot foundation.

Randy Wilburn [18:56] There's room for expansion there I'm sure. So tell me this, you brought up the pandemic. How much did your cadence change after March of 2020? Because I know a lot of firms were chugging along doing well and things were what they were and it just seems like we've had this great seminal moment for all of us, right, collectively. And there have been good times and there have been bad times experienced in this whole event that we call the pandemic. But how was that for you when March came around and everything kind of shut down? John Wheaton [19:35] Well, I have to think for a second to be as succinct as possible, which isn't my forte. People on my leadership team will tell you that. None of us really knew what to expect. We, certainly like many firms I'm guessing had a healthy backlog, but we really had no idea what to expect so we went remote. We weren't prepared to go 100 percent remote, but we quickly responded with our IT infrastructure. We went through at least two or three iterations of figuring out how we work remotely, and then in a hybrid environment. First, it seemed fine and we actually were chugging along in April through mid-May. No issues and then all of a sudden, we started to recognize some productivity losses and drop-offs. And then we wound up with an unprofitable quarter that manifested very quickly at the end of June, and we realized there were a lot of dissonances. We had to upgrade a lot of systems, which we did. That was amazing. We weren't even using Microsoft Teams. It was like, what do we use teams, or WebEx or zoom, or who uses what. Finally, it seems stupid now but was like, everybody's going to use MS teams. I can't imagine conducting meetings now without MS teams, it has been a very valuable tool. So the first step was figuring out communication, and upgrading infrastructure. We went through a lot of change and staff primarily in 2021. So I think people had time to assess, do I like this or not? Is this company doing okay or not? Is this a time to change or not? And I think a lot of people came to that decision. We were certainly heavily impacted by the great transition if you want to call it that. And so really for the last year, there's been a lot of changes. We were a company that had very little to no staff turnover whatsoever. But both through the pandemic and the options it presented to people, I think it empowered

staff which is good to a point. It empowered employees to say, it’s not the business owner and entrepreneur now who gets to work on their terms, I get to work remotely on my terms too. And so that opened them up to a myriad of possibilities of different recruitment vehicles and mechanisms and different firms. So we saw a turnover there. It really caused us to reorganize the business around the Entrepreneurial Operating System, EOS. We started that. My partner and I made that commitment last June. We started it with our preliminary team in August and so there's been some people that liked it, some people that didn't, some people that didn't believe in us, and people that did. So we've gone through some transition. So I would say the only way to describe the last two years has been a catharsis. It's been a dynamic catharsis and I would say the number one quality is agility, resilience and agility. Randy Wilburn [22:26] It's funny you say that because I think a lot of people have called it the great pivot, right? Even I, myself have gone through a kind of a pivot of sorts in this season of the pandemic, and kind of re-evaluating things. And, maybe a little bit of it I'll blame on the fact that I turned 50 during the pandemic, so for me at 50, I think all of us when we turn 50 we’re like we got less time on the front side than we did on the backside. So now we're thinking, what do we do next? And, you know, I think it's like, you don't want to waste even one moment, right? I think life is so precious that you want to make the most of it. And I see that through leader after leader in the design industry that really recognizes and puts the time and effort into continuing to grow as individuals as well as collectively within their organization. So I mean, a lot of what you're saying resonates with me and it's exciting to see that you are able to make a successful pivot, and you guys are still standing and the future looks bright. Before we started recording, I was remarking on one of your tweets from a couple of days ago, which, and let me just as an aside to anybody listening to this that's in the design industry space, if you think Twitter is a waste, let me say this very clearly and very succinctly. Millions of dollars in business are being done on Twitter. I'll just leave that there. You take that for what it's worth but it's true. So back to what I was saying, you were remarking about how you were very bullish on the future about some projects that were coming online and a number of RFPs that you had responded to and so things are looking good for you right now. How much of it can you attribute your feeling right now today in terms of where your company is going? How much can you attribute specifically to just where the market is versus where you are as an organization today not like two and a half years ago?

John Wheaton [24:33] That is a great question. Well, firstly, let me backtrack for a second. The last six months have been brutal in our industry, at least for us. We're always the tail of the tail

and our space of specialty delegated design, engineering and consulting. But how much is it attributed to the market and how much is it attributed to us, I think it's a combination. We are more focused on our mission. We've redefined our core. Again, you talk about EOS. What it did was it had us get together as a leadership team. So that first part is us. We redefined our core purpose, which is to enable facades that inspire. We defined our core values, not aspirational, but who are we? What is our DNA? Its collaboration, integrity, client-conscious communication, and capability. We redefined our niche - design engineering, science, and consulting for building facades. So armed with that we're super focused on what it is we do and the type of work we do. I'm going to say the market is no better. We're getting more comfortable with the dynamics in the market. I think owners are getting edgy and tired of waiting. They're trying to push the buttons before inflation kicks in more. We scorecard nine different areas. Our number of RFPs increased. Our estimated work increased steadily, it’s above our scorecard value. Our backlog has started to rise. New acquisition of work is rising in different pockets, different areas of the country because we work nationally. I don't know, Randy, if it's any better or easier, I just think we're getting more comfortable with the weirdness of it and the ability to shuck and jive and figure out. We're going to focus on these customers in these markets, these tech centers, these areas that build hospitals, and these areas that build secondary education. There are active areas, but I think people are tired, and they're just ready to move forward and figure out how they're going to act in the new reality. So that's kind of a long answer but there are lots of different signals and triggers to kind of inform that mentality.

Randy Wilburn[ 26:54] You almost have to be malleable to whatever the market is giving you, and so, if you're not, if you're inflexible as an organization, sometimes the market can be very unforgiving.

John Wheaton [27:10] You know the market doesn't care. So I always say, if you're super innovative, if you're Steve Jobs, if you're Thomas Edison, if you're Bill Gates, you create a market and the market builds around you. But with us, we're a service-oriented industry. We can be innovative, and we can be differentiated, but we have to say, what is the market giving and how best can we differentiate, serve and provide value in the context of that market? So one of the guys who are on my leadership team, Mike Kohler, who I think we were on my second podcast together, he's good about managing what you can manage and control what you can control. I can't control what's going to happen tomorrow outside of me, but I can read the signals, and I can talk to people. And honestly, Randy, I think the best way to be informed is to just get on teams or on the phone or in a dialogue with clients and ask what are you seeing? What are you

hearing? What are you experiencing and you have the ability then to make decisions. Again, control what we can control and manage what we can manage.

Randy Wilburn [28:12] I think that's the way you have to look at it. You really do. I'm curious. You mentioned something earlier, the entrepreneurial operator's system, or operating system. Where did you get that and can you just talk a little bit about what that is for anybody that's listening that may not be familiar with that?

John Wheaton [28:31] Yes, it’s called The Entrepreneurial Operating System, or EOS worldwide; it's a business operating system. So there are a variety of business operating systems. There's a franchise prototype operating system that was the E Myth book, an E Myth revisited was big on that and we set up that way earlier on. But we hit that ceiling at 5 million in revenue, and we just couldn't break through it without playing hero ball and me exhausting myself. And so we retracted some, but the retraction was necessary. I really think EOS is a way for us to go. There are a couple of clients that use it. There's another industry competitor, who's a respected collaborator that uses it, and some other engineering firms. And basically, EOS is best for private firms between 15 and 250. There's a book called, Traction that you could look up and there's also a book called Rocket Fuel, and Rocket Fuel was the book I first read. It was introduced to me by my business and personal coach, Chuck Misha, who said, this EOS system is built on kind of a dynamic duo, kind of a two-person. It's best for private companies. It's really built on a visionary integrator relationship with a leadership team. And I think what it would do is it would help protect your firm from your visionary ideas and constant tinkering and changing by filtering your vision through an integrator, who's like a CEO type, your partner, and put in a leadership team that can execute the mission of the business and frees you to explore new paths. We're still working through it. It was expensive. It takes time. It's difficult. It requires a lot of candor. Some people get left behind. If I go to the New England Patriots, I'm going to bolt into the Bill Belichick operating system. If I go to the San Francisco 49, I'm probably going to bolt into the Bill Walsh operating system. If you come to Wheaton Sprague you're going to bolt into the Entrepreneurial Operating System as defined by others. It basically says, if you plug into this, you define it this way, you're going to experience success so that's what we're working through.

Randy Wilburn [30:38] I like that. I'm a huge Michael Gerber fan with E Myth. But all that you're describing and talking about E Myth and EOS, these are just systems and if you put proper systems in place and follow them properly, and adhere to whatever the tenets are of those

systems for the level of success and outcome that you're looking for, you will eventually find i. I remember the first time I ever read E Myth, it was just a mind-blown moment; this is like so perfect and he's so right and it's such a good book. I actually would recommend anybody to read that book for the foundational understanding of what Gerber represents in that and he has a book E Myth book revisited. But yeah, I think some people listening to this may need to check out the EOS system and check out these two books, Traction and Rocket Fuel because a lot of times there are firms that I've run across that sometimes seem to be running in mud and not quite getting to where they want to be. And they may be very good firms, and their leadership may be well intended and well-meaning, but they don't have a structure in place to get them to that next level and every organization needs to have some structure to get to that next level. John Wheaton [31:55] You’re so right and those listening to this may have worked for us in the past, honestly, I know, there are people that left because they're like, what are you guys doing? I mean, leadership is necessary, but leadership is vulnerable. And when you lead any organization or any group, you're hung out there by the bungee cord and everybody gets to see in a magnified way your successes and failures. You know, sometimes it drives people crazy. We were a little bit aimless trying to figure out how are we going to bring this to the next level. The franchise prototype worked great for us for many years but what EOS mainly does is it puts constraints around the visionary and those on my staff that is listening would know. What the visionary does is say, I got a great idea, let's do this. And then some other cool idea comes along and you go, hey, let's try this too. Let's try that. And they're like, what are we doing? And so it can really become a hero with 100 workers, which that's not the model you want to follow. What EOS does is it puts a constraint around the visionary and it actually says to the visionary, you're not allowed to bring anything new outside of the core mission and purpose of the business without running that idea through your integrator, your COO, and if they say no, you have to be willing to submit to their no. You have to defer to them for the integrity of the business. And if he says, yeah, you bring it to the leadership team, and the leadership team gets to decide if it should be something that they want to incorporate or not into the business and that is tough.

Randy Wilburn [33:32] That is. They should call that no squirrels allowed. I like that a lot. You certainly are dropping some knowledge here on this. What are your thoughts about the work environment as a whole in terms of how that has changed? And I heard you talk about it on one of your podcast episodes about just the ability to create flexibility in the work environment and what that looks like for today's design industry employees. Because it's a lot different than the

way things were in ‘97. In ’97 it was, hey, you sit at your desk, sit at your computer, put your head down and don't smoke until spoken to. And we'll let you know when we're ready to do this or that or we'll let you know when evaluations are coming up. And I've been doing so much studying lately on the process of motivation and how important it is to really have a system in place about how you motivate your employees and to deal with motivation haphazardly in your organization is almost a death sentence. Because people want to work and follow and adhere to a system that has a goal in place that has an outcome that they can you know, I like to say taste, see, and touch. And I'd be curious to know how you've changed since the pandemic in terms of the flexibility in your work environment. Are you doing anything unique that you have discovered over the past couple of years that has really helped and afforded you the opportunity to give everybody in your organization the freedom and flexibility that they need to be the best version of themselves while at Wheaton Sprague? I know that's a mouthful, but I think you have a keen answer for this. John Wheaton [35:28] So, boy, that is such a good question. Let me try to focus on the empowerment part of this question first, the staff question. COVID and the acceleration of how we work in a remote hybrid or our hybrid office environment, it's empowered people in an accelerated fashion. Frankly, the jury's still out on whether it's all good or not. There's a lot of industry chatter behind the door, as to, are we remote working ourselves into oblivion? You know, is it really, really good for people or not? But my clients don't care where we work from, what clothes we wear, what our office space looks like. They care about results and value, period, end of story. Are you time constraining the deliverable and are you getting me the work product I need? So the thing that's changed substantially for us partly through attrition and partly through choice is we closed a brick and mortar office in North Carolina and a brick and mortar office in Minnesota. Partly that was through a couple of resignations of key people, one who moved on to a pretty significant position with a client as a director of engineering and another one who moved out of the industry, partly because he got bumped from leadership, partly because he just wanted to make other choices. Fantastic, man. And then we just decided, well, we had one person left up there, and one person left in North Carolina, one person in Minnesota, so we closed two offices. So what we really did was we said, we're a national firm, with an office in Connecticut, and a headquarters in Northeast Ohio, and you are attached to either the Connecticut location or you're attached to the Ohio location in our national work. So we hired a guy, a senior engineer PE who lives in Columbus. He doesn't have to come into the office. We hired a consultant from Chicago that moved here over a year ago, who lives 30 minutes away, and she's been in her office two or three times she works out of her home, partly because of the nature of her work. Anyway, let me pull back and not ramble as much. So it's really changed the tone of our business. It's opened us up to a national recruiting pool. In some

ways, not every way we still like some proximity, but it's given us more options, so that's the first piece. The unintended consequence, the thing that I'm most surprised with, is that I have gotten better. I never thought I would say this, Randy, but I've had more client meetings and more interactions with customers over teams in virtual meetings than I could ever fit into a month or a year traveling. Now there is a place to travel, especially with client prospects. If you can influence a room, well, you're better off to be in person. But once you have an existing relationship, I find clients prefer to get on teams. The other unintended consequence for me as a design professional is I can be way more productive now in a Bluebeam session on teams, or just doing a QC review of a set of calculations or drawings in Bluebeam than I ever was on paper or in a room and that has been the unintended consequence for me. I haven't touched a piece of paper. We don't send out paper anymore, we send out PDFs. So that's a long answer but those are two of the significant pieces for me. Randy Wilburn [38:50] And I can appreciate that. And I think we've all had to kind of embrace technology, right? The trees thank us for sure but I think a lot of times there's just this whole idea that some things are best left translated or shared in different modes. The technology that you're mentioning, Microsoft Teams, I've noticed a lot of design firms are using that now, and Bluebeam. There are all these tools that are available to us, and they keep getting better. That's the thing about it for the work that we do in the design industry and what is required of every design professional, there are iterations of tools that are coming out that just affords you the ability to do your job more efficiently. So there's no need to try to put a square peg into a round hole when there are plenty of square holes all over the place for you to put that into and there's an opportunity for you to take advantage of that. So, I just keep encouraging people to embrace the technology that is there. I was having this conversation back in the day when we were talking to firms about doing websites and it was heresy. It was like, well, what is this? We don't have time for that. Or talking to marketing departments about really ramping things up. You've embraced a lot of what we're talking about here to the point where you even started a podcast called, The Creating Structure podcast. And I'm curious because I mean, this is something obviously near and dear to my heart as somebody that's producing more than 1000 podcast episodes himself. Whenever I see somebody in the design industry space that's doing a podcast, I can think of Michael Rasika, the young architect podcast, and Mark LePage, and there are just so many outstanding podcasters in this space. I'm curious to know what was your inspiration to actually start a podcast? It wasn't like you already didn't have a ton of things you had to do, to begin with, but you said, you know what, in addition to Wheaton Sprague and being the CEO here and going out and trying to continue to build this company, I'm going to start a podcast. What was your inspiration to do that?

John Wheaton [41:00] That's really good. Thanks for that. I had been thinking about it for quite some time. First of all, let me drop this bomb but this is partly who I am. I'm of the opinion that every firm in the design profession really should be positioned as a marketing firm that happens to do design and engineering and architecture or a communications company that happens to do this. First of all, I view any enterprise I am involved with. I view it as a marketing and advertising-based company that happens to deliver a particular thing because I think that's where we lacked the most. What we lacked the most in AEC is visibility and awareness. I primarily did a podcast because I wanted to do it because I like it because I love to talk to people and I recognized that it was a very quickly emerging trend. I enjoy listening to podcasts. I get a lot from them and I just saw a gap out there. I thought, ain't nobody doing this in our business plus my son is a certified audio technician, a producer from Sound Institute of America, whatever the name of the group is, but he actually can get in a recording studio and produce audio. He's got all the tools and equipment for it. He actually said I'm like, we should do this. And he said I'll figure it out for you. So he's the one that introduced me to the Buzz Sprout platform. I said, tell me what equipment I need, like just spec it all. And he did it and we got going on it. I would be disingenuous if I said, you know, Randy, I started it because I really wanted to emphasize our brand and bring that to the world. And, yeah, it points to our brand and my brand but I did it because I wanted to do it. I did it because I wanted to give customers a voice because there are a lot of customers that have a lot to say, and I wanted the world to hear i and I just love doing it so those are the reasons. Randy Wilburn [42:53] This is a shameless plug here because I get a lot of pushback from people in the design industry space that hey, you know, I don't know if the market is right for us to do a podcast. I'm just putting it out there. Everybody, every company, every organization, every business, for-profit, non-profit, needs to have an aspect of their story told through voice, which is the medium that we're using now. This is the platform that we're using. We are using voice. You're listening to our voices, whether you're on a run, walking the dog, washing the dishes, in traffic, whatever, you're listening to our voices right now. It's one of the most intimate settings that you can create. It's a lot different than watching a video. It can be much different than reading a blog post or even reading a Twitter post. The bottom line is that the voice is so profound, and it has such a natural connection. It's funny because as I started doing the Zweig Letter podcast people would act as if they knew me, but it was just because they were listening to the podcast all the time and they heard my voice and they were like, we felt like well-worn friends. And that's one of the unintended, really positive effects of a podcast. What you're saying is so true, right? If you're a design firm, every client that you work with all has a story.

Interview them. Tell their story. Learn more about them. Understand their why. Why did they do the things that they do? We've spent almost 45 minutes here with John talking about his why for Wheaton Sprague but, I mean, clearly he has kind of set it up where he's been able to have conversations. And I got to tell you this, there's not a person out there that doesn't like to talk about themselves. I tell people all the time, John, I've never been told no, I don't want to be on your podcast. Sometimes it might be a timing issue scheduling stuff like that, where it's like, I want to do it, I just got to find the right time. But no one has ever told me no and that's the one thing that I sold to Mark and Chad when we originally wanted to start and do this podcast. I was like, listen, it's going to be valuable, let alone for the simple fact that we can get in front of potential clients and our current clients and maybe just build a better relationship with them in a different way because the heavy lifting is really done by the person conducting the interview, right? Because I've got to do all the prep and all this other stuff. You just have to show up and talk and you don't have to worry about anything else. You don't have to write 600 to 1000 words and have it proofed and go back for three or four edits and all that stuff. You just have to show up and talk and go from there. And if you're in front of the right interviewer, you can really be made to look great. That's just the way it works. John Wheaton [45:38] I couldn't agree more, of course, as a pod fellow part-time podcaster. Seth Godin says this really well, he says you got to decide what you're going to do for free and you got to decide what you're going to do for money. So Seth Godin blogs for free every day, three or four or 5000 days in a row. But if you want him to speak, he has a fixed fee and he always speaks for money. I podcast for free because I want to put value into the marketplace and I am so gratified. I do it for me and for us and for the company. I tie it into the company but I've been so gratified. I've had people send me notes of encouragement. Hey, John, I'm so and so you don't know me literally this message. My son was on your podcast. I never heard clearly what he really did until you framed it on the podcast and let him tell his story. I understand it better. Thank you for putting my son in the limelight. I had a guy say to me, that I was looking for something I didn't know what it was and I stumbled on creating structure podcasts and I found it. It is exactly what I wanted. It’s exactly what I want to have. But let me echo your statement but let me make it even bigger. As the world gets flatter, and technology gets more accessible, if we as design professionals do not have a focus on telling our story, through print, website, video, and audio, there are fewer and fewer ways to differentiate and I'm going to frame it as a no oriented statement. Go ahead, please don't start your podcast. Don't blog. Forget about it because as AI and technology get more and more sophisticated, some of what we do will no longer exist but there will always be a story to tell and there always be value to give to the marketplace and there will always be some things to do whether statutorily required, or whether because a client wants a cool thing. But please don't podcast,

because there's so much power to it, it just leverages those other companies in a more powerful way. Again, however you tell your story, it has to be told.

Randy Wilburn [47:44] It really does and I thank you for that. I'm the choir, you're preaching to me. It's easy. I tell people this all the time. So it's one of those things where hey, you need to be uncomfortable for a minute and just try it out because you'll find that this is a lot easier. It's almost therapeutic is what I've heard clients say and everybody that I've worked with and actually done podcasts for them because I do some external and internal podcasting for other companies but a lot of what I've done was based out of and born out of what I'm doing here with the Zweig Letter podcast because the goal with the Zweig Letter podcast is to extend the brand externally to the world and tell them what we're all about. Not everybody knows who Mark Zweig, Chad Kleinhans, or Jamie Claire Kaiser are and that's fine. Not everybody is going to know them, that's just the way life is. Not everybody is going to know John L Wheaton but there's a chance that you could get your information out there into the nether regions and the interwebs. And the way things are nowadays, where Google is now parsing and allowing you to search audio, and because of that in the next few years, when you do searches, a lot of this information is going to come up and it's already coming up. I just think people need to think of it differently. That's all. This is my drum that I beat every day. But, I'm telling you, anybody listening to this that's even halfway on the fence or kind of thinking about it, just do it. Just try it out and you'll see the benefits of it. If nothing else, you get to know some of your clients better and you can tell your story, John Wheaton [49:24] In the end, we have a lot to do right as design professionals and as leaders of design professional firms. We've got book work, get work done, bill revenue, create work in progress, make a profit, and retain staff. There are all these things, but the podcast piece has this therapeutic element to it. The other thing I would recommend if people are thinking about it if they're on the fence is I think something like 80 percent of the podcasts on Apple podcasts has five episodes or less. People get started and they realize, this is tough. Have a topic, have a focus, have a guest list, have somebody to produce the audio content, and have a platform. Because as you mentioned Randy, as an interviewer you're emotionally fatigued at the end of a podcast; you build that emotional muscle. I can't tell say how many people I’ve heard said I’m going to start a podcast. You never hear from them after one or two or four. I don't want to ever start anything that I don't want to keep going. So we're on podcast 31. We're ready to start probably season three, but season one just went on for a year and

three quarters. So get it in the queue and you got to keep at it for at least a year and see how it goes.

Randy Wilburn [50:44] I agree with that 100 percent and you're right, most people do hit pod fade. We hear a lot of stories. There may be 2 million plus podcast shows on Apple podcasts but I think actively there are less than 450,000 active podcasts. And those would be podcasts that are recorded with some regularity in terms of the cadence of when they produce the show. But yeah, you're absolutely right. Everything that you said is 100 percent spot on and then I would go one step further and say you want to probably have 10 episodes worth of content ready to go at the start because then that will get you over that hump. And actually, it's easier to create that content. It's easier than you think so take that for what it's worth. John Wheaton [51:29] And I do want to encourage people to like, well, John, that's easy for you. I mean, you've been doing this for 30 years and it's nice that you can do a podcast, but I don't have time. I still participate in leadership team meetings. I still help lead an engineering group, and I still review and seal calculations. I still review QC reports. I write a lot of proposals. I engage with a lot of customers. The podcast is a side gig like I just do that and blogging as a side gig because I like it and all the things I've said before. It is what it is. We have to run our businesses. That business comes first. The devotion to that business and the people in that business come first. So it's just a question of what are our priorities. That's all? Randy Wilburn [52:15] Absolutely. And trust me, we make time for the things that we really want to do so that's just the way it is. That horse is dead we beat it enough. But if nothing else, and I'm being funny, folks, but I was glad that when I knew John was coming on, I was like, I definitely want to have him talk about his podcasting journey, because it is important for people to hear that it is possible to do and so I'm excited that you get to hear first-hand from somebody that's actually done it that is a peer of yours in this space. And so I think we'll find that this is a great place for us to put a pen in this conversation. So as we wind up, John, if people want to reach out and connect with you, what's the best way for them to do that?

John Wheaton [53:03] Well, I try to put as many, you follow me and we follow each other on Instagram and Twitter and a variety of places. My philosophy is to have as many potential

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