This month marks an important new chapter for Larson Design Group (LDG). David Martin, COO and President since 2016, has taken the reins as CEO, and Keith Kuzio, who served nearly 20 years as President and 15 as CEO, will transition to an advisory role. Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Keith and David about LDG’s past, present, and future.
Keith: What was the industry and LDG itself like when you started in your leadership role nearly 30 years ago?
In 1992, the economy wasn’t great, and the architecture and engineering industry was in a slump. I was working as a civil engineer in New York when Ken Larson contacted me. I was excited to hear the company was establishing a presence in my hometown of Williamsport. I was impressed by LDG’s strong vision for growth and clear values around clients, employees, and communities, working for everyone’s mutual success. I thought Ken had the “secret sauce” for igniting passion in people to do their best work. I wanted to be a part of that.
Keith: What do you think has changed most between then and now as far as major trend shifts and company highlights?
While technology has improved employee speed and productivity, it’s also introduced process burdens from a regulatory and permitting standpoint, making the project delivery process more complex. Also, infrastructure funding is more competitive, leading to different ways of funding projects like public-private partnerships and design build. LDG has navigated this by embracing innovative approaches.
In addition, we’ve expanded from Ken Larson’s original vision of a 100-person multidisciplinary firm based in Williamsport to having offices across five states with almost 400 people. But what’s really satisfying is that our foundational principles of employee ownership and our core values relating to client service haven’t changed.
Dave: Tell us about the evolution of your time at LDG. What was it like to work with Keith as a leader from the beginning?
Previously, I worked at publicly traded companies, so LDG’s employee-owned structure was initially a unique experience. From the beginning, I appreciated how approachable Keith is. He wants your input in decision-making. He really cares about the needs and opinions of employees. Again, that’s the employee-owned company ideal where you do what’s in the best interest of all employees.
Also, I really respect that when Keith doesn’t know something, he’ll tell you. And, if he sees a deficiency somewhere, his approach is to tackle it head on and fix it.
Dave: How would you describe your leadership style and what you’ve learned from Keith?
I’m very goal driven. I know my vision for the company, and I want to work with others to make it happen. I also have a good grasp of the financials and the business aspects of leading a company.
I’ve learned a lot from Keith, especially that “secret sauce” for inspiring people. Knowing how to understand people and relationships and how to successfully work in a team is often more important than knowing all the dollars and cents.
Dave: For the last 30 years, you’ve focused on growing companies. What are some evergreen strategies you’ll be pulling from as you grow LDG in the coming years?
Much of what LDG is doing goes back to basic principles of business. We’ve developed a strategic plan for the company to grow, and now we have to invest in the plan. This includes hiring the best people out there to execute it.
Our strategy is to expand our national presence. You have to be creative, whether that means building relationships with other firms or with joint ventures or other avenues. It’s just charting the course, being diligent about what we do, making good decisions, and staying confident in what we’re doing.
Dave: Before we pivot back to Keith, how would you say LDG differentiates itself from or sets an example for the industry in terms of culture? What milestones have we achieved that you’ll be aiming to build on and even exceed in the future?
First and foremost, this is an employee-owned company with a clear vision and core values. Sometimes you may have one or the other of these characteristics, but this company has them all and it’s our greatest attribute. When we make decisions, we know what we want to do, but we don’t always make what might be the best business decision. We make the best decision financially, business-wise, and for the employees of the company. This is something we always want to do.
Keith: How would you describe the people and culture at LDG as a company in your time here and how has it helped the company excel and deliver on its promises to clients over the years?
Our employee owners are dedicated, hardworking, and loyal to the vision and values of LDG. That’s what’s allowed our culture to stay consistent over time and solidified our reputation as an organization that’s friendly and responsive, with a real focus on meeting each other’s needs as well as our clients. The culture has a family feel to it.
As we’ve scaled the business, we’ve made intentional efforts at times to slow down and reconnect with one another and our vision for employee ownership, client service excellence, and community service. In turn, our employees responded with strong engagement and continued commitment to high quality work for clients, community stewardship, and service to one another. From the client perspective, this all translates to feedback that LDG is responsive, communicates well, and is easy for clients to work with. Our people and our culture are instrumental in delivering client service excellence, which we see as our driving core value.
Keith: LDG has always been headquartered here in Pennsylvania, but LDG serves a national as well as global client base. What has the geographic expansion experience been like? How has the company overcome challenges and leveraged new opportunities from this expansion?
The geographic expansion has been exciting and challenging at the same time. Our people have gotten to share their technical and project talents with more clients and communities, allowing them to grow their career experience. We’ve extended our employee ownership vision and values to entirely new employee pools in different regions.
We’ve scaled sometimes very rapidly across geographies. Growth can get ahead of the internal capacity to communicate effectively. That’s when we take those intentional pauses to refocus and get back on track.
We’re doing that now, as we look at project delivery processes and systems that will allow us to work more efficiently with multidisciplinary teams dispersed across multiple offices and states. Our investment in collaboration platforms helps, but we’ve also adopted a mindset that as we get bigger as a company, our processes and procedures need to get simpler, so everybody understands them. Ultimately, our philosophy is to make ourselves more effective and efficient in creating a competitive advantage, so we take full advantage of those opportunities in our new geographies.
Dave: Could you tell us about how the company will continue to have a significant focus in Williamsport and in Pittsburgh, what project or growth plans there are for either or both cities, and what sort of presence you have planned for other cities and states?
Williamsport will always be LDG’s headquarters, and we just went through an office renovation to make a long-term commitment there. As a company, we expanded into New York, Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Arizona to grow and to diversify and minimize risk when certain areas are economically down and others are up. Obviously, there are many opportunities in Pittsburgh right now, but we stand committed to all of our offices.
I can attest to that commitment. As we open a new office, whether out West or in the Southeast, we’ll try to maximize its potential. Ultimately, our plan to is to work share across all those offices and diversities of economies.
Keith: What do you see as Dave’s greatest strength in leading the company forward as CEO?
Dave has many strengths, but perhaps his greatest strength in leading LDG is that he lives to build excellence. He’s an extremely intelligent and business savvy person who finds great satisfaction in delighting clients and competing as an underdog to create jobs and give passionate people the opportunity to set ambitious goals and win for the company. He’s a builder of leaders. He knows that as CEO, your company succeeds when you surround yourself with people who are passionate about personal growth and the company’s vision for growth.
Keith: What are your plans after this transition?
I was named the LDG Board’s vice chair, and my plans are to stay on the board for several more years. I’ll also work as a leadership advisor for the company, supporting Dave and the team as needed and assuring that continued progress occurs with our leadership programs and strategies for growth and sustainability.
Outside of LDG, I am vice chair on the board of a private technology company. I also look forward to working in community philanthropy with several organizations, including the Susquehanna Health Foundation. Beyond that, I look forward to spending more time with my family, enjoying exercise and the outdoors, reading, and perhaps writing so that I can continue to grow personally. And, I plan to keep bottling and sharing maple syrup produced from the woods at my home.
Dave: We’ll end this conversation with some final thoughts from you. What would you most like clients and employees to know as you move into the CEO position?
The biggest thing I’d like clients to know is that as we grow, we’re never going to be too big to care. Whether we’re in Williamsport or Pittsburgh or Phoenix or elsewhere, LDG is a company that partners with clients and provides value-added service. We have many long-term clients that we’ll continue to support in this way and hopefully grow that service with them nationally.
For our employees, growth creates career opportunities for everybody to take that next big professional step. This then presents new options for the company.
One thing I’d like to leave everyone with is that I take this job very seriously. I like to have fun, but I understand there are 400 people relying on me and the senior leadership team to make sure we’re doing all we can to ensure they have good paying jobs with benefits and that we keep a sustainable company that’s ready to grow for the future.
Founded in 1986, Larson Design Group is an award-winning national architecture, engineering and consulting firm with 12 offices in five states and a vision to elevate client relationships, enrich the careers and lives of its employee-owners, and enhance the communities in which it operates. For more information, visit www.larsondesigngroup.com.
The health and safety of our team members and clients is our top priority. Click here to read about LDG’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.