We Cannot “Buy” Growth: How to Create Lasting Value and Not Fall Prey to the M&A-only Myth

Peter C. Atherton, P.E
Posted on: 12/11/23
Written by: Peter C. Atherton, P.E

Growth is good, healthy, and essential for life. It is also essential for business. 

Growth in a work context is needed to stay in business, create opportunities, and to realize more of our mission. However, how we define and achieve growth is important if we want to enjoy next-level success over the long-term. 

Do we define it in a way that’s attractive to others and accretive to our teams and organization?

Do we achieve it in a way that’s actually healthy and considered good?

Growth versus Size

There are lots of ways to get ‘bigger’ but only one way to truly grow.

You can get bigger as an organization by buying another firm, but that is not the same as growing.

“The fact is, we cannot “buy” growth – we can only create it with the right type of resources, time, and attention.” – Peter C. Atherton, PE

The fact is, we cannot “buy” growth – we can only create it with the right type of resources, time, and attention. This is especially true in professional services and the engineering and architecture space.

Organizational growth, like profits and a thriving culture are ‘outcomes’, not inputs, activities, or outputs.

Firm Success and Farming

Buying a farm at the ‘right time’ might bear some immediate fruit, but it doesn't make us farmers.

Buying a firm is like buying a farm.

We may get a near-term ‘revenue bump’ from purchased contracts, accounts receivables, and work-in-progress, but that doesn’t equate to real or sustainable non-purchased revenue and profits moving forward.

What would make us ‘farmers’ after the purchase is being able to actually grow and produce ‘fruit’.

To produce fruit, vegetables, or anything else of value in an actual farm context requires the following:

  • Access to the right land with the right attributes and resources,

  • Clearing the land; conditioning and tilling the soil,

  • Planting the seeds,

  • Watering the seeds (or praying for rain!),

  • Patiently watching for seedlings while removing the weeds,

  • Nurturing and protecting the seedlings from animals, the wrong kinds of insects, and disease,

  • Waiting for the ‘fruit’ to ripen,

  • Protecting the crop from theft,

  • Harvesting at just the right time,

  • Celebrating and giving thanks,

  • Reconditioning the soil, and then…

  • Starting the next crop with, possibly, even heartier seeds.

With the right amount of ‘wonder’ and ‘invention’, this process can be an analogy for engineering and architecture – just replace:

  • Land with the marketplace,

  • Attributes, resources, and protection with leadership,

  • Soil with culture,

  • Seeds with employees,

  • Conditioning and nurturing with teaching, coaching, and mentoring,

  • Fruit with completed projects, and the

  • Harvest with overall firm success.

Going a bit deeper:

  • Attributes can be analogous to our problem solving and value producing expertise,

  • Resources as our on-going projects, go-by’s, and tools, and

  • Protection as our standards, processes, quality control, and assurance that there’s a viable market for what it is we are trying to produce.

As someone who’s helped grow a firm threefold ‘organically’ (i.e., growing “one great employee and client at a time”) and who’s help build an actual plantain farm from scratch with a few social enterprise friends as part of my parallel non-profit service sector life, I can tell you firsthand about the challenges and the beauty of being part of this kind of growth and long-term value creation.

The M&A (Merger and Acquisition) Only Myth

Much of the talk about ‘growth’ in engineering and architecture, unfortunately, focuses only on mergers and acquisitions – the buying and selling of firms to one another.

Why? … three reasons:

  1. It seems easy – a financial transaction with some due diligence and ‘presto’, a bigger firm.

  2. We keep being told it’s what we need to do.

  3. Those whose business models rely on or profit the most from others’ M&A seem to be the loudest voices.

Bigger could mean better in some ways, but not without effective integration.

“If you quietly ask most firm leaders who remain, they will confess that the merger or acquisition did not live up to the hype or spoken expectations.” – Peter C. Atherton, PE

If you quietly ask most firm leaders who remain post-transaction, they will confess that the merger or acquisition did not live up to the hype or spoken expectations.

The most successful M&A transactions take many months on the front-end to know that they are right. They also take many months, if not years, on the back end to make them work.

A successful ‘marriage’ is much more than a desired and celebrated ‘wedding day’ – and it’s the same for professional services firms.

M&A can be a very powerful growth tool – but it is not true growth.

What Attracts Talent and Produces True Growth

Those who can ‘farm’ attract and retain the best talent.

Why? … because those team members are placed in a thriving culture where they are nurtured, protected, and positioned to win.

They are also appropriately celebrated each time they work through all those “cold, dark, wet, and lonely periods” to bear something of value – an idea, solution, or asset that leads to a client’s success.

My advice to leaders, leadership teams, and firms looking for true long-term success:

  1. Whether you are building or buying, be a ‘farmer’.

  2. Even if you’re looking to leverage the tools of AI and advanced technology, be a farmer, and

  3. Be wary of those who only know how or choose to buy, maximize near-term results, and then move on to the next firm for more – this is erosive and does not produce tangible long-term value.

True growth and lasting value comes from effective teamwork and integration under the right conditions – this is the same for both smaller and larger firms.

As leaders, we must leverage our expertise and resources to ensure our organization’s better future.

The best way to do so is to understand more about what it means to actually grow and produce a long series of celebrated harvests – this is what most stakeholders would consider to be healthy and good.

You can check out the original blog for access to more resources and to join the pre-launch community for my new book, The Team Success Ecosystem, gaining early access to key new concepts (like those included in this article!) and events.

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About the Author: Peter C. Atherton, P.E. is an AEC industry insider with over 30 years of experience, having spent more than 24 as a successful professional civil engineer, principal, major owner, and member of the board of directors for high-achieving firms. Pete is now the President and Founder of ActionsProve, LLC (www.actionsprove.com), author of “Reversing Burnout. How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! A Blueprint for Professionals and Business Owners”, and the creator of the I.M.P.A.C.T. process.

Pete is also the host of The AEC Leadership Today Podcast and leads several AEC Leadership Masterminds.

Pete works with AEC firms to grow and advance their success through modern and new era focused strategic planning, executive coaching, leadership and management team development, performance-based employee engagement, and corporate impact design. Connect with him at pete@actionsprove.com.

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