an Editorial by Milo S. Ketchum, Editor
Structural Engineering Practice - Volume 1, Number 2, 1982

Many structural engineering firms are established by a single owner and remain that way. Others start with one person and become a partnership later. In these cases, the owner usually feels that he needs help with management, that can not be obtained from hired employees. Still others start out as a partnership, often as young engineers who feel that together, they can make the business go if they have help and companionship. Even if later incorporated, the relationship in most firms is still essentially a partnership. There are always problems with partnerships, and this editorial is a discussion of some of these difficulties.

Partnerships like marriages are made in heaven, only it is easier to get out of a bad marriage than it is a bad partnership. In a marriage, you have a male/female relationship, with usually a dominate/submissive pattern, though this pattern is now changing. The wife rules her husband by indirection and not by direct command. All of you married people know how this is done. In an engineering partnership, you have two dominate individuals. Who is in command and who makes the decisions? If an older, established engineer takes a partner, then there is no question who makes the final decisions, because the young engineer must bow to the greater experience of the older. This is why the younger man was brought into the firm. The partnership would not have been formed by the older engineer unless he saw that he could still run the firm.

For firms?that start with partners, often both are of the nearly the same age, and it is important that their skills and personalities be complementary. If they are both nearly alike, or if they are entirely different, then there may be problems. one typical arrangement of duties is to have the first handle the outside, promotional, and client relationships, and the other the everyday solution of engineering problems and the creation of a strong, efficient staff that produces quality designs and working drawings at a reasonable cost. In a structural firm working for architects, it is very important that either or both of the partners like to work for architects. Not all engineers can do this. Of course, the above division of skills and talents is also important in the senior/junior partnership.

Another type of firm is one that is, actually, several firms under one roof, each headed by a partner who does all of his own client contacts and design supervision. The staff is the back up to furnish engineers, drafters, and secretarial help to each of the component firms. There are some very large architectural firms that are very successful with this arrangement. obviously this arrangement also has its problems, but it may be the only solution to harmony and creativity in some offices. I have heard of offices in which the partners mutually hate each other, and do not speak to each other except as necessary, yet the firm has been going on successfully for years and does quality work.

So there is no correct pattern for ownership of an engineering office, and I am sure that management consultants throw up there hands in disbelief when they are confronted with the management structure of some small engineering consulting firms. Engineers are problem solvers and the formation of a partnership is just another problem that must be solved in a creative way and not necessarily by the book. To engineers, there is no final solution. A management system must be maintained as well as designed. A perfect system has never been designed.

From the above observations, I have come to the following general conclusions and proffer advice on the formation of partnerships:

  1. Partnerships are made in heaven, so keep this in mind and do not rush into arrangements that may seem acceptable at the time, but you know somewhere deep in your psyche that the arrangement will not work. It takes time to get the problems into the open where they may be studied. There are too many emotional factors to be considered and they cannot be solved quickly.

  2. Your talents should be complementary and you each should have abilities and interests that make the team a whole operating unit.

  3. You must respect the abilities, the integrity, and the engineering and financial judgement of your prospective partner and be willing to turn over some or all of the management and engineering details when you are not available to make decisions together. There is the old cliche that partnerships are based on trust.

  4. Do you communicate with your prospective partner? This a very important factor, and one that needs all of the exploration, thought, and creativity, that you can give it, before you commit yourself to a partnership. There are many kinds of communication, verbal, non?verbal, and written and all must be used.

  5. Love makes the world go round and this is true for partners as well as marriages. of course we assume that the partnership is purely platonic.

Do any of you readers have further thoughts on this subject or on other management problems. Write a letter to me or, better, write an article.


If you read this issue, you probably have subscribed to the journal. I hope that in the coming months, that it meets your expectations. It will take time to bring it up to mine. There are more features to be added. I would like to see advertisements that will intrigue our readers. There are many topics to be explored.

It is difficult to get papers from practicing engineers, but I try to make it easy to write for the journal. Final, clean manuscripts are not necessary, and I can take your notes and write an article to be approved by you. This means a lot of work for me, but if it makes the journal a success, then it is worth it.

It has taken much effort and investment on the part of the publisher, Marcel Dekker, Inc. properly to publicize the journal. The mailing list for the flyer includes about 70,000 names of individuals and of libraries. It is too soon to tell now many subscription have been obtained.

I hope that many of you can contribute article or letters. It is only in this way, that this journal can be made into a publication that will truly contribute to the structural engineering profession..

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