Can you teach an old firm new tricks?


    Across the AEC and environmental consulting industry, firms that have been around a long time get lulled into doing things the way they’ve always done them. That’s not always the best path forward — even when it’s working well enough. Following is a story of what happens when a firm that’s been around for 120 years starts thinking differently about its future. (In the interest of full disclosure, the firm highlighted is a client of Friedman & Partners.)

    Alden Research Laboratory (Holden, Mass.), a 100-person hydraulic modeling, flow testing, fisheries biology, and engineering firm has a clear market niche. Just two or three private firms in the U.S. do what they do and their workforce is comprised of highly specialized technical experts. For more than 100 years, they’ve built a business on trusted relationships and a passion for solving difficult fluid dynamics problems.

    But like many firms in the AEC and environmental consulting industry, that alone doesn’t insulate them from the ups and downs of the economy or the industry. That alone is not a plan for sustainable, reliable growth or for energizing and recruiting great talent.

    For Stuart Cain, Alden’s president, growing the firm’s business into its next century means doing it in a way that offers more control over their workload and deepens the firm’s sense of purpose as well as its profit margin.

    Adding disciplines and becoming an EA firm — an option they considered — didn’t fit the firm’s core purpose or its small firm values. It would also put them into competition with a portion of their client base. Instead, Alden is reinventing its value proposition from the ground up, transforming the business from back-end service provider to visionary engineering partner and technology incubator.

    “You have to take a hard look at how you’ve been doing business for the last 50 to 100 years and start asking, ‘What’s a better way to do this?’” Cain said. “Often we can solve a problem quicker and more cost effectively and help the end-user drive the design and construction process, and that is what we want to be doing.”

    To get there, Alden has embarked on a three-pronged strategic approach to future development, each of which is designed to build on the firm’s unique history, core mission, and current operations.

    Shifting the value proposition — While well-regarded for its ability to answer their clients’ tough challenges with strong, innovative solutions, Alden’s modeling, testing, and engineering services are most often requested well into the design and construction process. Yet Cain knows that his firm can best serve utilities and municipalities, as well as the EA firms who service them, when they’re consulting on the front-end to advise and influence facility design, construction, and operation.

    So they’re intentionally repositioning the firm to be that partner. For facility owners, that means shifting the value from buying modeling services to a more comprehensive solution: Identifying the needs that they may not realize they have, preparing and complying with changing regulations, and reducing cost and time by testing and modeling up front to determine needs.

    Sharing knowledge and education — In-house seminars, webinars, and professional articles are a part of the marketing toolbox at Alden. But rather than simply positioning the firm’s expertise, the focus has switched to knowledge sharing, advising, and engaging with clients on a more academic level as a leader in fluid dynamic consulting and education.

    “We’ve always followed the traditional marketing plan of visiting clients, conducting seminars, and attending trade shows,” Cain said. “We want to do it differently. We now see our role as teaching clients and helping them become more educated in areas they did not know would benefit their business, whether it’s identifying facility challenges before they become problems and adversely impact operations or helping utility owners minimize the impact of regulations on their bottom line.”

    Developing technology — Alden has a documented history of innovation, from the invention of the Alden dynamometer in the 1900s to the advanced hydro turbine technology it developed for the Department of Energy in 1998 and continues to refine to this day.

    “We come up with innovative ways to solve client problems all the time,” Cain said. “We’ve thought that we could be helping others with these innovative design modifications, instruments, and technologies in cases where we own the intellectual property, but developing that has not been a focus for us.”

    It will be now. By leveraging in-house technical skill and encouraging employees to incubate new ideas, Alden aims to become a global innovator of products and technologies that are essential to the industries they serve.

    Reinventing your firm’s mission and vision isn’t an overnight proposition, but Cain reports the effort has already begun to energize Alden’s staff. Three director-level employees have been tapped to champion each of the three strategy areas, with employee input. Another is tasked with leading efforts to financially invest in the firm’s bold vision. One staff proposal for a new technology product is already under evaluation. They’re also soliciting important external feedback through a comprehensive survey of key clients.

    When presenting the new direction to employees, Cain challenged them to think about where they see themselves fitting into the Alden of the future and invited personal discussions with those who weren’t sure where they fit in.

    “It’s got our people thinking in more creative ways and that is already proving to be great for our clients,” he said.

    Rich Friedman is president of Friedman & Partners (, a marketing and management consulting firm serving the AEC and environmental consulting industries.