JLG Architects is a 100-percent employee-owned full-service architecture firm, founded in Grand Forks, ND in 1989 by Lonnie Laffen and Gary Johnson. Today, the firm has grown to nine offices in Grand Forks, Fargo, Bismarck, Minot, Dickinson, Williston, Brookings, Alexandria, and Minneapolis—with nearly 100 full-time employees. JLG Architects specializes in urban design, master planning, and architectural design for sports/recreation facilities, universities, K-12 schools, aviation facilities, medical centers, and mixed-use/multi-family housing. The firm became a Circle of Excellence (COE) member in 2015.
It was nothing less than growing pains that led the JLG to seek advice on how to effectively manage their business, according to JLG Architects COO Michelle Mongeon Allen. “When I joined JLG, it was a 12-15 person firm, and when you are a small firm like that, it kind of runs itself,” she recalls. “But as you grow, if you don’t get more disciplined, the business can start running you. The problem back then was financial performance and financial controls—being in control of managing our business.”
Consequently, JLG’s sent their firm leaders first to PSMJ’s A/E/C Project Management Bootcamp, and then to the A/E/C Principals Bootcamp. About the same time, JLG firm leaders were starting to talk about ownership transition.
According to Allen, JLG firm leaders went home with two takeaways: “We saw a sample buy-sell agreement that we could actually read and understand, which made us realize that it can be a usable tool, “ she says. “And #2, we realized that we had a bunch of stuff we needed to do first. The first thing on the list was strategic planning, so we engaged PSMJ.”
JLG did their first strategic planning in Fall 2009. With PSMJ’s guidance, they identified the most important things they needed to work on. These included: 1) an organizational model as they were starting to branch out to new geographic markets without a sense of how to work together, and 2) how to become a project management-based company. “We also talked a little bit more about ownership transition,” Allen says, “But the biggest thing was that we came out with was a three-year business plan—and that all the action items were going to support us getting to where we needed to be (financially) by 2012.”
That was not only JLG’s first step in planning for financial success, but also it was their first introduction to a category of yellow columns down the middle of the strategic plan that said Circle of Excellence (COE), i.e. the key benchmarks or metrics that top performing firms pay attention to in how they perform.
In 2013, JLG updated their strategic plan, setting their 2016 financial goals with metrics that pushed them forward until, in 2015, they achieved Circle of Excellence (COE) member status. “We continued to constantly evolve and become better managers of our business, and our project management processes,” Allen explains.
Moreover, a number of key initiatives also enabled JLG to attain COE member metrics: 1) their expansion into new geographic areas, and 2) their transition in December 2014 to a 100% employee-owned firm.
“Even back in 2013, it was unbelievable that we could be in the company of Circle of Excellence firms in three years,” Allen says. “But, you know what, in 2009, we didn’t believe we could do it either, so we said ‘let’s just keep on doing what we are doing; let’s make the hard decisions; and let’s work toward it.’”