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INSIGHTS: Culture - A company’s most important resource for weathering the COVID-19 storm

March 27, 2020

Giovenco P resume

Pietro "Pete" Giovenco, PE

President & Chief Executive Officer

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In the last 30 days many firms have been rocked to their core by the Coronavirus.

This “black swan” event came out of nowhere. Literally weeks before the virus landed on U.S. soil, most companies were experiencing the best years in recent history. We are still in the middle of this pandemic, which will leave a lasting impression on our economy and society, so it’s still early to predict the totality of the impact on businesses. This is a unique turning point for many, where companies are all scrambling to adapt and survive. The question I keep coming back to is “how are companies pivoting during these challenging times, and what resources are they using to succeed?”

Many will argue that technology will be the savior for most. Companies that quickly leverage platforms that allow business to be conducted online and employees to work from home will be able to keep their businesses operational. I would place Bergmann in that category. However, in my mind, technology is just a coefficient that magnifies a variable in our equation for success.

The Value of Culture

At Bergmann, the equation for our success is simple Culture + People + Clients = Profitable Growth. It’s easy to say that variables such as people and clients are the most important - without them a business could not exist. Could a business exist devoid of culture, or even with a bad one? My strong belief is yes, and there are companies out there that prove this, churning through people and clients to simply drive up shareholder wealth. This is not sustainable and becomes a risk when forced to react to a business-changing event like the Coronavirus.

Culture Quote

As a full-service consulting A/E firm, our only assets are our people and the relationships we form with our clients. We don’t have huge investments in equipment or machinery, which are typically bolted to the floor and don’t walk out of the office every day to go home. I believe the only way to get our people to return to work every day with confidence is to create an environment that allows them to be successful as individuals and professionals. In return our people work hard to service our clients and support each other. This environment we create is defined by our culture.

Everyone knows Peter Drucker and his famous quote “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I believe this wholeheartedly, because even the best laid strategic plans, processes and procedures are meaningless without an underlying culture to execute them.

Cultural Transformation

Over the last 3 years at Bergmann, we have developed a culture around change, which I believe positioned us to weather the Coronavirus situation. As a new CEO with a new Leadership Team, we recognized the need to transform our company from a “slow-to-change” and monolithic enterprise to a dynamic and entrepreneurial company, a necessity to catch up to the needs of our clients. We developed an aggressive three-year strategic business plan with the goal of transforming our company. The rate of change was, at times, chaotic. Our people often voiced their concerns about the speed at which we were evolving. Piece by piece we changed the culture of the firm - our people developed a tolerance for change and learned how to adapt and thrive in it. Little did we know how valuable that would be today.

I sit here just one week after we realized we needed to transform our business to adapt to the pandemic. In a matter of days, we went from a largely in-office workforce of 450+ people across 15 office locations, to a majority work-from-home setup, requiring everyone to learn new technologies and habits for working efficiently and effectively. I have to say, our people responded incredibly well. Individuals and teams came together quickly and developed innovative solutions to problems we were facing. We did all of this while staying true to our cultural pillars of client service and quality work.

Thinking back to Peter Drucker’s quote - when faced with an unforeseen challenge like we are today, what comes first, the strategic plan or the culture? I believe the most successful strategic plan is built on the strengths of your culture. At Bergmann, our cultural strengths are client service and quality work. We modify aspects of our culture, that are no longer aligned with our strengths. As our environment and clients’ needs quickly change, so can Bergmann.

Months and years from now, new case studies will be written about companies that struggled to survive during the great Coronavirus pandemic. These studies will focus on all aspects of a company’s balance sheet, strategic plan, emergency response plan, etc. I would venture to guess that the companies that survived and flourished after the event focused on their culture, to get them through.