Episode #212 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud
Sarah Steimer: Welcome back to our special series, celebrating Cushing Terrell’s 85th anniversary. I’m Sarah Steimer, and on today’s episode, We’re focusing on the present specifically, we’ll take a look at how the firm has built on the foundation that our previous guest, Gene Kolstad, described. One of the biggest takeaways I hope that you’ll note from this episode is that the organization has stayed true to its original values and intentions, but it’s modernized its work and its efforts for its clients, its employees, and simply the world that we live in today.
Producer: Today’s special guest:
Greg Matthews: Hi, I’m Greg Matthews, the current president and CEO of Cushing Terrell.
Sarah Steimer: Greg, first of all, thank you so much for taking time out of your very busy schedule to chat with us today about this for our special series. Uh, so today, I mean, you’re the perfect guest, of course, to talk about the present.
But this is really, this is so much more than just sort of a state of the union and where are we now? Uh, it’s really about how the firm has stayed on the cutting edge, how you guys have been a leader in this space. So let’s start. One of the first things when you and I were sort of brainstorming about what we wanted to discuss today, you brought up this great phrase, which I love, that we’re gonna talk about: The commitment to being a knowledge-driven firm.
What does that mean, Greg? Tell me a little bit about that.
Greg Matthews: Yeah. You know, about four years ago, the firm made a significant, uh, decision and a significant investment in really driving the firm’s knowledge. We understand that the reason clients hire us, the reason they hire any design professional is for the knowledge.
The edge that we possess both as a firm and as individuals. And so this idea of becoming a knowledge-driven firm is really all about being committed and being very intentional to make sure that we are both growing and sharing the knowledge that we have with the world.
Sarah Steimer: And so now there is, a little bit of an acronym that you guys are using for this. So this knowledge management strategy that you have, which, you know, when we’re talking about the word — it’s the word ATLAS. That just takes us straight into it. So, tell me, Greg, tell me what ATLAS stands for. And you know, as you’re going through each of those words, each of those phrases, just give us a little bit about what that means for the organization.
Greg Matthews: Yeah, sure. So when we first came up with this idea, you know, our Chief Knowledge Officer, Jim Armer, came up with this acronym called ATLAS, as you mentioned, and it’s really a term that helps us all embrace and understand where the firm is going with the strategy.
And so ATLAS stands for… The A stands for Account. We want to account for the knowledge that we already know. We want to collect it, we want to capture it and we wanna organize it. The T stands for Train. We want to train for the knowledge that we need to know. The L stands for Learn. We want to train and we want to learn the things that we want and need to know. The A is Apply: We want to apply our knowledge. We want to be able to apply it in real-world scenarios, on projects, and we want to review it, check it, and always be in this constant state of improvement with our knowledge. And then the last piece, the S in ATLAS stands for Share. And that is really an opportunity for us to communicate and share with the world our knowledge, because like I said, at the end of the day, that’s what clients seek out.
And so we’ve made a big commitment, uh, both through our communications team and through our social media channels to make sure that we’re sharing our knowledge with the world. So, the ATLAS acronym is really, it kind of couples it all up into one, easy-to-understand acronym and I think it’s definitely one of the things that’s keeping us on the cutting edge as a firm.
Sarah Steimer: So something that we talked about in the first episode of this special series, you know — Gene and I discussed really this focus, this foundation that the firm has built, being about the client, being about client services and addressing their needs, things like that. This idea of really being such a knowledge-driven firm.
It feels like it’s deepening that focus on the client. It’s really kind of going, okay, not only do we wanna make sure that we’re serving you, but we want to take all of this expertise that we have, all the individuals at the organization, everything that we’ve learned as a community of people and our history and bring it back to the client.
So can you tell me a little bit about how, you know, really investing in the knowledge, investing in this concept, ATLAS, has kept you so relevant over the years and kept you really leading the pack as well?
Greg Matthews: Yeah, it’s a great question, Sarah. As we heard from Gene, you know, we have always had a really strong client service culture at Cushing Terrell, and last week we just celebrated our 85th anniversary as a firm.
So we’re pretty proud of our history and our heritage. But everything we do is really focused around providing exceptional service and care to our clients. And ATLAS is no exception to that. You know, the knowledge that we can deliver to clients in the way we are designing their facilities, in the way that we’re helping them make strategic decisions about their business and how they’re going to grow is all really culminated through this knowledge-driven mentality that we have as a team. So at the end of the day, it’s all about our clients, and providing them with the best service and the best knowledge that we can.
Sarah Steimer: I wanna talk more about maybe who some of those clients are and how you present them with, hey, we’re the people who know how to do this best, and we’re the people who know how to listen to you best. So if you could give me some examples of who the clients are and how you are meeting them with this information, with this depth of knowledge.
Greg Matthews: Yeah, so, you know, our client list is extensive, having roots in some of our communities for 85 years. We have legacy clients in many of our communities — everyone from community and local banks to community hospitals, to schools… And then on a broader, more national stage, we’re working with large corporate and large retail clients, such as Google, Amazon, you know, some of the other major clients that you might expect. So, you know, we are delivering our knowledge to those clients regardless of who they are and the size they are.
It’s really being applied very specifically based on what type of business they have. So, for instance, our firm is organized around vertical markets, and when I say vertical market, it’s retail, education, healthcare, government… So we tailor our knowledge and our expertise within those vertical markets.
For instance, if you’re a local community hospital, we have healthcare professionals who are living and breathing and studying healthcare on a national stage, and we’re able to bring that knowledge to that local client to make sure that we’re providing, like I said, the best, most exceptional care, and the highest level of knowledge to those clients based on what they do.
Sarah Steimer: Something that, you know, I’ve found pretty interesting, the more I’ve gotten to know the organization over these past few years that I’ve worked with you folks is, as you’ve grown, you haven’t just chased bigger fish. You know, like you just said, you work within the market and yes, you’ve worked with Google, things like that. But, you know, I’ve also talked to team members about work that you guys have done with mom-and-pop grocery stores. You know, it’s not just all about these big names as you guys have grown that you just kept chasing after larger and larger. Of course, you have gotten those big fish of course, but how do you sort of tailor what you know to the client in the sense of, yes, we can help with these big major projects, these big, major corporations; but yes, we can also sit down over a cup of coffee and help you with these smaller just as important needs? You know, how has the information, the library of what you know, kind of changed and how do you pull the right books, is what I’m gonna say?
Greg Matthews: Oh, that’s a great question. You know, we like to … One of our taglines is “design meets you.” You know, we want to deliver the knowledge and the design solutions to the clients wherever they are, whether they are a large corporate client, whether they’re a small nonprofit startup in one of the communities that we live in. So, you know, it’s the same approach regardless of scale. And I think that’s one of the things that keeps us a little bit grounded is we’ve never been concerned with growing onto large stages; we’ve always been more focused on expanding our knowledge and creating a deeper toolbox so that we can continue to serve those clients. Again, keeping the client service at the forefront of our focus.
Sarah Steimer: Okay, so if you’ve ever listened to other episodes of this podcast, you know that I love an analogy. And one of the things I keep thinking about as you’re talking is like, yes, you’re building this toolbox, and yes, maybe you’ve gotten to the point where you can use these, you know, fancy, expensive tools for the bigger, massive corporations; but you also know when to pull out the needlenose pliers that you’ve had, that were passed down from generations, to just get into the fine details for, you know, a very small project. I mean, does that sound apt?
Greg Matthews: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
Sarah Steimer: So, I also wanna talk about, you know, while we’re on the concept of clients and just being able to use all of the resources that you’ve built over time, this library over time… I know that there has been, and Gene mentioned this, too, when he and I spoke: an emphasis on pro bono work as well.
You know, it’s not just about pitching and getting the paid clients and so forth, but really making sure that you’re helping out regardless of scale, but kind of getting your hands dirty and helping the community and helping those who just need it. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how that’s also helped you guys maintain your role as a leader in this space as well?
Greg Matthews: Yeah, that’s a great story, Sarah. We’ve always been very community-minded and we’ve always contributed to organizations who need our help, a lot of times, regardless if they’re able to afford our services or not. But in the last few years, we have become very intentional about going out of our way to seek out those folks in our communities who need our help.
And we established a pro bono program where the firm has committed a certain percentage of our annual revenues or profits to set aside to serve those who need us most. And our pro bono program has been incredibly successful and it’s allowed us to, make connections with organizations, like I said, that need our services, who might not be able to afford it.
So we’ve actually got an application system on our website where organizations can log in and submit a request for pro bono services, and then we review that internally to see if it’s a good fit — you know, do we have the knowledge that this client needs? And if we do, then we organize a team to serve that client. And it’s been incredibly successful. We’ve done everything from helping the local Girl Scouts out with a new building to house their Girl Scout cookies — you know, who doesn’t love Girl Scout cookies? — all the way to some of the most historically relevant structures in New Orleans.
So it’s been really rewarding and it also gives our team members the opportunity to find their sense of community and belonging within our communities. Because a lot of times, our team members may be working on projects, you know, from afar. And so it’s a win-win situation. It gives us the opportunity to satisfy that urge to work on local projects and help folks out.
Sarah Steimer: So, you touched on something right there that I also wanted to discuss. We’ve seen reports recently, career reports, you know, it’s important to especially younger professionals that they’re working for an organization that has a sense of helping others. And so it can certainly be a huge determining factor for many people in terms of who they wanna work for and whether or not there is that community service aspect. Can you talk a little bit more about what else Cushing Terrell has done to really draw some of the best of the best to come and work for them?
Greg Matthews: Yeah. So our commitment to our people is actually one of the five strategic pillars within our strategic plan.
And under that people pillar, we have gotten really focused on how we become the best place to work for our team. And a large piece of that is making sure that we’re providing a very rewarding experience. And we understand that today’s workforce, and especially the younger professionals that are coming into this industry, they’re motivated by different things than maybe my generation was.
And so we’ve taken the time to understand what it is that really creates a meaningful place of employment for these folks. And a lot of times it’s things that you wouldn’t expect. You know, maybe it’s not all about the dollar and maybe it’s not all about the glory of doing large projects. A lot of times it’s just feeling like you belong and feeling like you’re part of a team. And so we’re developing initiatives and strategies to make sure that we provide those opportunities for our team members because we really do want to be considered one of the best places to work in our industry.
Sarah Steimer: And you feel like where you work, you wanna give your best work. So that, I mean, that’s always encouraging to hear, certainly, and then I know that you guys have also been this … it’s the buzzword of, I feel like the last three years: There has been a commitment to flexibility, too, which, I mean, who at this point can live without it? You know, we all have lives and we’re all aware of that. And I believe you gave me a statistic. What is it? One-third of the workforce there is actually remote.
Greg Matthews: Yeah, that’s correct. A third of our team is a hundred percent remote. The other two-thirds of our team, works a flexible schedule where it’s generally three days in the office, two days remote. So we have certainly embraced this change in our culture and society of flexible work coming out of COVID. The one thing it has done on the positive side is it’s given a case study in support of flexible work. We have found that it does work, and so we’ve embraced it wholeheartedly, and it’s given us the ability to go out and recruit the best talent we can find, regardless of geography. So it’s been very successful for us.
Sarah Steimer: That’s awesome. And so, we can’t have a conversation about staying on the cutting edge and the present without at least touching on the future because, of course, everything that we do today is going to affect tomorrow.
And you know, I wanted to get an idea from you about what investments you guys are making today that are going to have a very big effect. I know we’ve talked about strategy, but tell me a little bit about what that looks like moving forward and how, of course, it’s not about just throwing money in different places and seeing what sticks. So tell me about kind of the plans to make sure that you’re setting yourself up for success even further down the line.
Greg Matthews: So we, just last month, rolled out our five-year strategic plan. And so the leadership of the firm over the past two years has done a lot of homework on trying to define what does that strategy look like and what are the key ingredients to ensuring that our future is very successful. And, just to give you a little taste of what’s in that strategic plan, I mentioned the five different pillars and I mentioned the people side. So the areas we’re gonna focus on are Growth, because we know as a business that we need to grow in order to provide opportunities for our people and in order to grow our knowledge for our clients.
So Growth is one; Client Service is another. Our People is our third pillar. Our fourth pillar is all about Technology and being able to embrace the changing technological picture that’s influencing what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis. Everything from artificial intelligence to the way we produce our work. And then the last pillar that we think is absolutely critical to the future success of our firm. That is our commitment to Sustainability and being good stewards of our environment. Every time you look at the newspaper, you see more information about sustainable practices that are influencing business and the way we operate.
And so, those are the five pillars of our strategic plan. And I think if we can complete the initiatives and be successful in the pursuit of some of the goals that we’ve identified in each of those pillars, that’s really what’s going to ensure that we’re successful in the future.
Sarah Steimer: Awesome. And Greg, I’ve got one last question for you if you would humor me. I love a story, so if you would, do you have any stories and, you know, take a beat to think about this, of course. Do you have any stories that you think are really a great illustration of how the firm has really, sort of, been a leader in the space? Like, have you ever been maybe with a client or at a conference or just talking to a colleague and kind of gone, oh wow, have we really been the first to think about this? Or have we really been the first to kind of step up and do this?
Greg Matthews: Oh, that is a good question, Sarah. And I’m just gonna go from the top of my head and give you… I don’t know if it’s a story or just a really good example. It amazes me quite often, the depth of knowledge and the depth of innovation that’s happening within our teams. And one really good example is: We have two electrical engineers and they happen to be a father and son team, Alan Bronec and Nathan Bronec from our Missoula, Montana, office.
They have developed a really unique level of expertise in the design of microgrids. Microgrids are small electric grids that are produced by sustainable means, typically through solar, where they’re providing power to remote communities. And I don’t know if you remember the big, devastating fires that went through the state of California that really showed the weaknesses in California’s electrical grid, leaving a lot of the rural communities and the folks who lived in the rural areas of California without power.
So there’s been significant investment in the development of these microgrids, and Nathan and Alan have developed a national level of expertise in being able to design these. So they’ve been on some big stages. They spoke at the Greenbuild Conference. And so that’s just one good example I think where our team is really out there in front and doing some amazing things to help steer the industry. And so that’s the one that I can think of.
Sarah Steimer: And they’ve been on this podcast, too! They’re such a fascinating duo; and the fact that they’re father and son only makes it like 10 times more interesting to me. But, I’m glad you brought up the wildfires because of course we’re now seeing… I just saw something today, I read something today, about how it’s almost the new normal, which is of course heartbreaking to think. A horrible, horrible thing. I guess the thing that’s at least heartening within all of that is that we’re already working to make sure that there are solutions for keeping people safe, getting power to them, making sure that you know, whatever medical needs are being met if, you know, a grid near a hospital is affected, or grocery store, things like that. So, hearing stories like that, I think is really important because yes, these things are happening in the world, but everyone is doing their best to, hopefully, not just keep pace with the issues that exist, but have solutions at the ready.
So, to know that the organization is a big part of that is, of course, huge and super heartening. Well, Greg, this has been such a pleasure to finally get to chat with you. You and I have never been able to sit down and chat before, so this has been really nice.
But is there anything else that you wanted to add, especially since you guys are in the thick of this anniversary? Anything that you’ve thought about recently as it relates to that?
Greg Matthews: You know, I just… looking back on even my years with the firm, and I think this spring I’ll celebrate 28 years with the firm. You know, just looking back at my time in the history of the firm, I just get a lot of pride in knowing that… when the firm was first established, the values that were established, the culture that was established, are still very much alive and well today.
And actually, I would say, it’s flourishing. It’s just flourishing in a different way. You know, as the firm has matured, as the firm has adapted over time, some of the constants have never wavered. And that is our commitment to client service, our commitment to people, and you know, our commitment to doing the right thing.
So as I reflect, that’s maybe a couple of other thoughts that I wanted to share with you.
Sarah Steimer: Fantastic. Awesome. Well, Greg, again, thank you for taking a little bit of time to chat with us today. I so appreciate it — and happy anniversary!
Greg Matthews: Thank you, Sarah. It was great talking to you as well.
Producer: Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold. And a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit thoughtfulhosts.com. Thanks for listening.