Economy Offers Mood for Thought

A down economy is always a downer. For most M/E engineering firms, however, the presumably weak business conditions are only affecting a small fraction of projects currently on the boards. Most consultants report being very busy, and there have been no announced workforce reductions at any of the major firms.

06/01/2001


A down economy is always a downer. For most M/E engineering firms, however, the presumably weak business conditions are only affecting a small fraction of projects currently on the boards. Most consultants report being very busy, and there have been no announced workforce reductions at any of the major firms.

Still, a down economy can get you down. It can also give firm principals pause to examine how diversified their practices are, and to consider expanding into areas that they might not have even shot a glance at during boom times. With certain key segments weakening—high-tech, hotels, retail and manufacturing, to name a few notables—some engineers think it's prime time to consider:

  • Going global. How about globalizing the firm's business? Now that the U.S. economy looks lame, the international card suddenly seems a possible play. Many engineering firms have followed foreign-born star designers to their native lands—India, Colombia, Russia, Ireland, the Phillipines—for the isolated project. Other firms ride on their clients' coattails to fairer shores.

  • Expanding services. Certain services are more in demand when the stock market nosedives. Notably, a few engineering/architecture firms have begun adding facilities-management and operations services to their portfolio with limited success. Other firms are more audacious, offering to help their clients with site selection, energy management and technology planning.

  • Adding new disciplines. Let's not forget expanding engineering and design services as well. During the recent boom years, many firms have added competencies in lighting design, telecommunications systems and building automation. The payback is often immediate: What used to be pass-throughs are now incremental billings.

Paradoxically, a softening market can be the best time to expand. And many sectors of the service economy are countercyclical, so it can never hurt to have a wider base of operations. Those few hours a week not devoted to grinding out M/E schema might be better spent crafting a strategy for the next dip.

We'd like to hear about other ways engineering firms reconcile the down market with their businesses. When you choose to expand, how do you do it? And how do you keep spirits high among new recruits and senior staffers? What steps do you take to effectively develop business during a slump?

Last year you probably didn't have time to send us feedback. This year, you may feel a bit more inclined to do so.





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