3 CEOs Reflect on the Secret to Successful Projects

May 2, 2017

A successful project is more than the result of technical execution. A successful project comes out of a great relationship. Is there a formula for a great relationship between client and consultant? 

In this roundtable discussion, three former SEH CEOs sit down to discuss the formula for client-consultant relationship success, their favorite stories about working with clients, words of advice before embarking on infrastructure projects, and more.  

The CEOs

Sam Claassen

Sam Claassen, PE

From 2010 to 2019

Mike Kraemer

Mike Kraemer, PE

From 2006 to 2010

Gary Gray

Gary Gray, PE

From 1997 to 2003


What is the secret to meaningful and fulfilling relationships between client and consultant?

Sam Claassen:

You want to do what you tell the client you’re going to do. And there’s a little subset to that — get it done when you said you would. I think the biggest way you can lose a client’s trust is if you miss a deadline, and then you don’t tell them about it. In my experience, if circumstances arose and I knew I wasn’t going to meet a deadline, I always told the client. And I also apologized. Because of that approach, I’ve never had a client say, "I’m not going to work with you anymore, Sam." They understood, and then they asked, "OK, when is it going to be done?" Then I gave them a new date and I met it.

Mike Kraemer:

Trust. Part of what we do is building relationships and trust. That’s the foundation to great client-consultant relationships. There is truth in the statement: “People want to know you care before they care what you know.” 

Clients want to know you have their best interests at heart before they entrust you with critical decisions. Clients rely a lot on our technical expertise and have to wholeheartedly trust the motives behind our recommendations. Trust is fragile, and should never be taken for granted. It takes time, commitment, effort and continued reinforcement on both sides. This trust has to be on all levels of both organizations. Trust promotes endless energy, innovation and achievement while distrust undermines even the simplest decisions.  

Gary Gray:

If you have a problem, don’t run away from it. Face it head on. It’s the same thing in your personal life. Go after it instead of letting it fester. You’ll be better off in the long run. You also have to be sure to identify anything that you might think is wrong, and really question it. You have to be proactive. You can’t be afraid to bring things forward, for fear of getting in trouble, or the problem won’t get fixed — and that’s what’s critical.

What’s one thing you always told clients before starting on a project?  

Mike Kraemer:

We have often suggested clients approach the project decision process from a "once in a generation" mindset. The decisions we’re considering will impact a city’s operations and finance for years to come.

  We encourage them to consider “what’s the legacy we want to leave?” Most of the projects we’re involved in are once-in-a-generation projects.
–Mike Kraemer, Former SEH CEO

We encourage them to consider “what’s the legacy we want to leave?” Most of the projects we’re involved in are once-in-a-generation projects. For example, the 40-year life expectancy of a new roadway has to include the commitment to fund timely seal coat and overlay maintenance going forward. The design of the 40 to 60-year wastewater treatment plant has to consider possible changes in treatment standards and flexibility to be expanded, or modify operations.

Sam Claassen:

We always discussed how communications would flow when we started a new project. Without good communications with the client and within the project team, something will go wrong – usually something big. We agreed to a “chain” of communications, the frequency of communications, the record keeping or documentation of communications and the types of communications. It was always very important that the decision makers be well informed and that we were communicating with the right decision makers.

I remember early in my SEH career, the city staff kept adding new things they wanted on a project, which added cost. However, the staff was not informing the city council about the changes they had requested. When I appeared before the city council with a revised and much higher cost estimate, the council was surprised and unaware of the changes. There was a breakdown in communication. I learned a painful and valuable lesson, and the project got shelved.

Gary Gray:

Good communication is key to a successful project. How the communication is handled varies with each client and has to consider the skills and traits of the client team. Communication with long-term, ongoing clients has usually developed over time and succeeds as a result. When someone on the team changes, they have to be brought into the mix and the communication process updated. When dealing with large, complex projects or with new clients, the communication process has to be discussed during project planning and needs to be revisited as the project and client relationship progress. The communication plan has to work for the entire team and make sure they’re receiving the information they need.

What’s your favorite thing about working with clients?

Gary Gray:

Working with the clients really is the best thing about the job. The communication aspect of the work becomes really apparent when you’re interacting with clients every day. Sure, you get to do all of the technical aspects of the work, but it’s the human connections throughout it all that really makes it special. I love the involvement with other people. If you love people, and you love the technical aspects of consulting — it’s really the perfect job.

Sam Claassen:

First of all, I value the relationships that develop over time working with clients. Next, I would say I like being a part of something that contributes to society.

  They do good. They help people. It’s very rewarding.
–Sam Claassen, Former SEH CEO

Our Company core purpose is Building a Better World for All of Us — and that’s what we actually get to do with our projects. We’re designing highways and bridges, airports, water treatment facilities, wastewater treatment plants, the list goes on and on. We also get to work with these wonderful clients on challenging projects that you get to see built. They do good. They help people. It’s very rewarding.

Mike Kraemer:

It is so great to be in this business where our goals and clients’ goals are the same. Our clients are caring principled people, with real needs, who are trying to do the best they can with what they have. 

What’s one feel-good story about working with clients you’ll never forget?

Mike Kraemer:

The feel-good stories are many. They include the words of appreciation after we have helped a client fight through a flood or major storm. It’s the letters of appreciation from parents and coaches thanking us for the level of detail we built into a park or playground. It’s the messages of thanks from property owners and businesses next to a construction project thanking us for keeping them in mind during the design and making the difficult projects progress as efficiently as possible. It’s the pride of driving a new roadway or drinking the water from any faucet in a city and thinking I helped make that happen. What a great business we’re in!

Sam Claassen:

A feel-good story in particular that I can think of is that I’ve personally done a lot of work with the Metropolitan Council Environmental Services — they’re in charge of wastewater treatment for the Twin Cities. There are several people there that I have worked with since the 1970s. When you work with people that long, they’re not only your client, but they also become your friends. I started playing golf with one of the guys that I worked with from there years ago, and we still maintain that friendship to this day.

Gary Gray:

The feel-good stories are all tied up in the long-term relationships you develop with clients.

  When you deliver on the promises you make, great relationships are formed.
–Gary Gray, Former SEH CEO

Take cities like New Richmond, Wisconsin, for example. We’ve worked with them for over 50 years. Relationships like that are built over time, and with trust. We’ve worked with Chippewa Falls (Wisconsin) for decades as well. The way that you maintain those relationships is through good communications, and mutual trust. When you deliver on the promises you make, great relationships are formed.

Give readers a few words of advice when building infrastructure projects.

Sam Claassen:

I would recommend to someone building an infrastructure project that they hire an engineer they can trust and has the right experience. Then rely on the engineer’s years of experience to guide them and give them good value. I’ve witnessed projects that an engineer was hired based on saving money on engineering. It can end up being a very expensive decision. The owner got a project that was very different than what they really needed and it cost them a lot more money in the long run.

Mike Kraemer:

Sustainability! The sustainability focus has to influence everything about infrastructure projects. Sustainability considerations should be included in not only the designs, but also the operation, maintenance and replacement of any capital improvement. You have to think about those things at the initial design stage, not in-between. The initial design costs are just a fraction of the long-term project cost. Great design can save on operation, maintenance and replacement costs — and great design comes with experience.

Gary Gray:

Hire a firm that has the right kind of experience to do the work. A lot of times, firms think that they can do everything. If you don’t have the right experience, it’s hard to do a quality job. And you also want a relationship where you can trust the other partner. Experience and trust go together to make great projects.

Bringing it together

When it comes to the formula for successful projects, a lot of elements enter the mix, including understanding of technical limitations and knowledge of opportunities for innovation. But, as these CEOs remind us, you can go far when you stick to age-old fundamentals — trust and communication.

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