A Giant Looks at 50

By Maggie Koerth, Contributing Writer August 1, 2005

In an ever-changing market, it’s hard to stay on top. So when a Giant turns 50, it’s time for a well-deserved celebration. But golden anniversaries are also the perfect opportunity to ask how the firm got so successful to begin with—in other words, what makes the Giant so jolly and its competitors green with envy?

This year, it’s TLC Engineering for Architecture’s turn to hit the half-century mark. Based in Orlando, TLC is a high-growth firm with more than 300 employees in nine offices located in Florida and Tennessee. To understand TLC’s success, you first have to look at the three basic values that the firm’s management decisions revolve around: building client relationships, having a forward-thinking outlook and investing in internal improvement.

Honor thy client

The real linchpin here is client relationships. “Essentially, we are a service business,” says Debra Lupton, TLC’s CEO. Making the most of that fact means developing a sense of trust with clients. But for TLC, establishing client relationships also means finding clients—both architects and building owners—who share their unique vision. “We aren’t sub-consultants,” Lupton says. “Rather, we’re leaders in our field who partner with the architects. We want to work with clients who embrace that.”

Having a CEO who really understands the client’s perspective goes a long way. Both Lupton and her predecessor, John Benz, are registered architects and members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). No one decided that TLC must have an architect in charge, and Lupton notes the trend wasn’t necessarily a mandate for the future. But she does feel that this unusual fluke in engineering management has been beneficial. “It brings a perspective of how architects think into our internal structure,” she says.

Under Benz, TLC experienced massive growth. After coming on as CEO in 1991, he opened offices in every major geographic area in Florida except the panhandle. Annual employment grew by 18% and annual revenue climbed an average of 20%. Lupton, who worked with Benz at his old firm, joined him in 1993 and was groomed to be his successor, taking over last year. The experience taught her that building leadership in younger employees is as important to client relationships as it is to the employees’ skill sets. At TLC, financial information and management plans go out to all the staff, a remarkably open-book approach that gives more employees a chance to get involved and share their ideas. Lupton has also promoted internal leadership training, all with the goal of ensuring that clients, years from now, will be able to trust that the people in charge of TLC already know what they want.

Being the Purple Cow

Once a relationship is established, TLC believes, maintaining it means staying on the cutting edge and working hard to set the company and staff apart from the crowd. Lupton bases this strategy on the key idea in Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow : Brown cows are boring and boring is bad, so companies should strive to be remarkable.

Over the years, TLC has set itself apart by being an early adopter of innovative ideas. The company picked up on the growing interest in improved communications and technology systems more than 25 years ago. “We saw the train coming down the track with the headlights shining,” says Tom Munson, principal and director of the firm’s communications and technology division. This division provides security, communications and data network engineering to projects spearheaded by other TLC divisions. It also takes an active role in educating clients and the rest of TLC on new electronic technologies. “It makes sense to have a group of people whose job it is to be on the cutting edge,” Munson says.

TLC is also at the forefront of sustainable engineering. The company’s focus on large institutional and commercial buildings pushed it to find high-performance systems, especially energy-efficient HVAC and lighting, long before it employed a single LEED-accredited engineer. Kim Shinn, head of TLC’s Nashville office and principal and director of sustainable design, said this made it relatively easy to be green. Today, the firm has more LEED-accredited professionals than any other firm based in Florida, and though they currently tailor their sustainable design division toward high-end clients who both own and use their own buildings, they’re also preparing for 10 years from now, when, according to estimates, nearly a quarter million projects nationwide will be LEED-registered.

The company is remarkable in other respects as well. Each office has a special focus. The Nashville branch, for instance, focuses on health care, while Cocoa Beach’s forte is cruise terminals. TLC’s engineers have a deep knowledge of their respective market segments and are able to pass that expertise to clients in a way a more generalized M/E/P engineer couldn’t. In the health-care market, for instance, Michael Sheerin, principal and director of health-care design, coordinates with architects and building owners so that hospitals can maximize use of current technology systems while preparing for the future with master plans that allow for new developments. He’s also been educating hospitals about the need for improved emergency electrical systems that will keep chillers running even during an extended outage—a big problem during last year’s series of hurricanes.

In the aviation group, Tampa division director Kevin Keiter deals with the continued fallout of 9/11. Naturally, this means adapting M/E/P and technology systems to meet changing Transport Security Administration security requirements, but it also means making those systems more flexible. With many airlines going bankrupt, airports now want more common-use terminal equipment, so gates and ticket counters can be used by multiple airlines (see “Meet the New Boss,” CSE 02/05, p. 28). Airports are also putting an increased focus on concessions and other non-airline sources of revenue.

Keiter said that energy-efficient systems were also increasingly important to aviation clients. With the ever-rising cost of fuel and electricity, airports and airlines are looking to minimize operating costs wherever they can. TLC has made its clients more efficient by adding central aircraft cooling systems (which cool the aircraft while it’s parked at the gate), automated building and lighting control systems and life-cycle cost analysis-based system selections such as VFD-driven chillers, pumps, cooling towers and air-handling units.

On the home front

Finally, a Giant needs to look after its own. At TLC, this means preparedness programs, employee training and improved management systems. Being a Florida-based company, hurricanes are a major issue, especially after last year’s tumultuous season. With each storm that hit, TLC had three to six offices temporarily out of commission. Yet the company was able to keep up with workloads. The centralized Internet system with collaborative LAN made it easier for offices to move work to another location and came in handy when the entire Cocoa Beach office had to move to Orlando for two weeks following Hurricane Frances. Simple plans, like phone trees, helped as well by making it easier for engineers to keep in touch, even when communications systems were spotty.

A company isn’t at the top of its game unless employees are at the top of theirs. So continuing education programs, like the firm’s leadership training seminars, are a big deal. The company also developed e-learning seminars that keep engineers up to date on CADD, marketing management and technical engineering issues, and they also pay for employees to study for and take the LEED accreditation test. TLC also knows that the ups and downs of day-to-day management provide ample learning opportunities. When Hurricane Frances damaged the Jacksonville office last year, the landlord refused to let anyone inside to work until the building could be assessed. Instead of going home, senior engineers partnered with juniors and went out to study projects on-site.

None of these things would be possible, however, without a solid management backbone. TLC is turning toward technical solutions for management problems—building a bionic management, if you will. Chief among these endeavors are two computer applications created in-house. One implements a rigid process of review for RFIs and shop drawings, decreasing the risk of mistakes and litigation. Another, still in beta testing, promises to change the way TLC works, beginning when employees turn on their computers. New personal home pages for each employee will show deadlines, action items and meetings for the coming week. “We use too much paper in our reports and they’re so voluminous that they lose their readability and usefulness,” says Winston Gardner, principal and chief operating officer. “This single page will solve a lot of that.” The personal home pages will save the project managers time by automatically linking to information in finance, scheduling, RFI applications, project web pages and their customized to-do lists with a streamlined process requiring only a stroke of the keyboard.

At the heart of these values and the innovations they spawn is a company built on diversification and expansion. Lupton’s goal is to continue TLC’s tradition of growth while maintaining the same values that helped it grow to begin with. “We want to solidify our position as a national firm,” she says. “Our challenge is how we create a strategy for that while enhancing our commitment to clients, innovation and employees.”