An Interview with Brad Strittmatter CEO, Olsson Associates By Alex Heimes and Sean Kroeger, Creighton University MBA students
What do you like most about your work? Least?
Mr. Strittmatter enjoys the engineering of his projects, from beginning the designs to final product walk through and being able to see how they have met their customers’ needs. The least appealing aspect of his work is being taken away from the engineering and having to spend time doing business administrative tasks.
Can you define ethics and tell us what ethics means to you?
Brad said that to him ethics was more of a common sense thing, and related to how people are brought up. He said that ethics are principled approaches to doing things that you are willing to defend if/when they come to the light, and doing things that are not at the expense of others.
Do you think there is a difference between ethics in general and ethics in business?
No, not really, if you can’t do it home or in your personal life why would you do it at work?
Is there a formal ethics program at your firm?
There isn’t a formalized program. It’s been something they’ve paid attention to since he’s come into executive positions since ’07, and has been there before he’s moved up in the company.
Is there ethics training?
They have ethics trainings, as engineers and organizationally. Being in engineering, he said that much of what you say is taken at face value based on a trust that the client has for the engineer. This is a huge area that ethics plays a major part in.
What were some challenges along the way?
The challenges come at the project level, in terms of those in the field and working on the actual structures or projects. The oath you take as an engineer includes protect the public’s safety. This is a major challenge they find when it comes to ethics because it may not always fall within what the client wants.
With regards to business ethics what is tolerated and what is not?
Olsson Associates is very focused on meeting their customer’s needs, but it is not an acceptable practice to move forward with designs that go against public safety.
How is ethics infused in your organization?
Engineering is very complex and it can be hard for customers to understand the entire processes that must take place before their projects are complete. Brad makes sure customers receive scopes of work that not only meet the client’s needs, but also provide an honest cost estimate up front so they are informed of regulations and requirements that will need to be done. Sometimes this makes them lose business because they will add things they know is required of the project; this can make them appear higher in cost and less competitive than a company who is not willing to provide a comprehensive estimate but instead only the exact quote a client asks for.
The Ethical Omaha Project of the Business Ethics Alliance has identified the Omaha business core values to be the following: Accountability, Community Responsibility, Financial Vitality, Integrity, and Moral courage. Can you elaborate these core values fit your organization and what do they mean to you?
Brad stressed that all of the core values are important for a business to identify and strengthen their own ethical values, he said, in reference to previous answers, that moral responsibility, in particular with clients, to make sure they know exactly what they’re getting, and not backfilling expenses is a major pillar, as well as accountability which he said he’s never had a problem with when it comes to Olsson’s engineers.
What was an ethical situation in business you have faced that was relatively easy to handle?
Olsson Associates was working on a project where they had to remove the rock that was on the build site and bring in a different type of rock to fill what was removed. The contractor building the project talked the owner into using the rock that was already on site as a cost saving method, Olsson Associates accidently had someone approve that request before it had been brought to Brads attention. Brad had a similar experience with this type of onsite rock and it did not work for the last clients that attempted to use it so he had to call the owner of the project, admit they should not have approved the request and explain his position as to why. In the end the owner appreciated Brad’s honesty and followed his recommendation to complete the project as they had originally designed.
Can you describe an ethical situation in business you faced that was hard to handle?
Olsson Associates was involved with a client who, in a strange move, bought an Engineering company in India, and wanted to “save money” by outsourcing their work, and wanted Olsson to essentially start it up to 20-30% completion, and send it to this Indian firm, who would in turn, send it back 90% completed and Olsson would finish it.
Originally, they went with the plan, and the work came back and was not anywhere near up to code, so Olsson re did all of it, and didn’t charge any extra. Then the clients wanted it done again and Olsson was faced with the problem of do we do this again and potentially eat more profit or worse, put out plans that are not up to code?
In the end the situation required that Olsson Associates fired this client because it didn’t make sense business-wise, or align with their core ethical values. It was a difficult decision because if you are known in the engineering world as someone who fires clients, you can show yourself out of business very quickly.
Why did you call the previous situations ethical?
Engineers give a stamp of approval on the projects and plans that are provided to customers. Providing the customer an efficient project plan is a focus but not at the sacrifice of professional integrity. And that was what was on the line in the previous situations.
How does it feel talking about ethical quandaries you faced? Or talking about them in the firm?
Brad said it’s something that is never steered away from and is really necessary to talk about so that everyone is on the same page. They talk about it when things like the previous difficult situation come up, but he said there’s never uneasiness or discomfort when it comes to speaking about ethics or ethical issues.
Have you had any ethical mentors?
Brad mentioned that there had been two. The first was the founder Mr. Olsson who served as the chairmen after he retired and recently just passed away. Starting out, Brad said Mr. Olsson was always a ‘door is always open’ guy who he could go to with issues. The other was the former CFO Brad Korell who essentially was an extension of help just as Mr. Olsson.
As you move up in the organization, how have ethics played a role in decision making?
Ethics have simplified the decision process for Mr. Strittmatter; he instantly said, “Doing the right thing is easy” and from the examples he provided us it is clear that Olsson Associates are willing to make tough decisions even when the right thing might cost them.
What are the biggest ethical challenges that you think face the younger business professionals today?
One of the biggest ethical challenges is the upcoming and current advancements in technology. He stressed that he was not “anti-technology”, however, he did say that they abundance and accessibility of knowledge and information today can cause issues, such as the fake news epidemic we’ve recently encountered. In a sense, technology has supplemented communication between individuals. He said that younger engineers are more worried about ‘googling’ information rather than going to senior management and asking them, as he learned to do when he started out.
Brad stated “ personal communication and learning through mentors together with technology and all it offers at our fingertips is a powerful combination for younger professionals to learn how to be successful. In today’s fast paced environment, going “too fast” using only technology is dangerous and individuals can be well served by taking the time to work with mentors to help them understand how to put all their knowledge and experience to work. I am an advocate of maximizing the value of technology and together with human interaction, an individual can be very successful in our industry very quickly and at a young age.”
Brads advice for young professionals facing ethical issues is to try and use best judgment and always go back to the idea that if you’re not willing to defend it, don’t do it, and to try and use common sense at every available instance, and that there will never be a resource that completely replaces people and interpersonal communication.
© 2017, Kracher & the Business Ethics Alliance