Tested in combat, those who served the country are proven leaders in the engineering field.
By Richard Massey
U.S. Army Reserve Col. Jack A. Otteson, P.E., knows how to make a great pot of coffee — strong and served black in a porcelain mug at the kitchen table at his house on Lake Benbrook south of Fort Worth. It might seem like a small thing, a pot of coffee, but it can spark a big day when great things happen.
And that’s what Otteson’s hoping for. Working to establish a firm he founded in July 2017, he needs big things, positive things, to happen every day. And if it’s not big, then it at least needs to be a small step in the right direction.
So far, things seem to be working out, as Otteson and his firm, JAX Engineering, Inc., have landed a series of contracts, both large and small, throughout Texas. But that’s not necessarily surprising. At 54, Otteson knows how to grind, knows the AEC industry like the back of his hand, and has what it takes to run a successful business.
“At a minimum, a company should have a vision and goals that are clearly understood by every person in the organization,” he said. “And the first goal should be making a profit — this is the only responsible way to run a business. If you don’t make it a goal to make money and direct efforts and resources into making money, it probably won’t happen. This puts the company — and its employees’ livelihoods — at risk.”
And there you have it. Otteson wants to win, not merely survive, a recurring theme that started early in life. He served as student council president his senior year of high school in Sanford, Colo. He was captain of the football team, playing offense and defense. And he built bridges for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad when he was just a teen.
After a year as a Mormon missionary in Brazil, where he learned Portuguese, the seed of command germinated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where Otteson got his degree in civil engineering. Now in his 29th year of service, Otteson has earned, among many others, three bronze stars, four meritorious service medals, and two Army Commendation medals. He served in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and is currently the operations officer for the 100th Training Division at Fort Knox, Ky.
As a warzone engineer, Otteson’s prime duty was to plan and procure for base camps, something he did with the 1st Armored Division in Iraq and with the 420th Engineer Brigade in Afghanistan. Prior to those two deployments, he served as a platoon leader, providing security for construction of supply routes into Iraq during Desert Storm. Having tasted the dust, endured the heat, and heard the mortars raining down, Otteson knows the difference between what it’s like over there and over here.
“Every time I’ve deployed for contingency operations or training missions, I’ve come back with a greater appreciation for the blessings we enjoy by living in the U.S. — freedom, security, and opportunity,” Otteson said. “That’s what serving is all about and that’s why I’m proud to be a part of the greatest military on earth.”
His service comes to a mandatory end next year, in May, putting a well-deserved exclamation point on a distinguished military career. But even if he could rest on his laurels, Otteson isn’t going to do it. Instead, he has his AEC firm and is consumed with the competition for contracts, overhead, hiring the right people, diversifying his service lines, stressing over cash flow and capital, and figuring out how to grow his company to where it generates $10 million per year in revenue.
“It wasn’t panic, but it was a sense of urgency,” he said, referring to the process of founding JAX. “You need a bit of stress to function at your optimum level.”
The incorporation of JAX came after more than 16 years with a Fort Worth-based multidiscipline firm where Otteson was a partner. He and the firm, however, decided to part ways in July 2017. But Otteson, who shrugged off multiple offers from other firms, was prepared. Less than a month after leaving his old firm, his new one was open for business. Equipped with licensure in more than 20 states, a proven background in railroad engineering, and hard-won industry connections, Otteson spent little time looking in the rearview mirror.
He works out of his 3,000-square-foot home on Lake Benbrook, has a satellite office in Kansas City, and five full-time and four part-time employees. To Otteson’s advantage, four of his full-time people came over from his previous firm, giving him a near-instant team of trusted engineers.
“They liked my leadership style,” he said, referring to his method of rewarding competence, and to his inclination to treat people with dignity.
It didn’t take long for JAX to gain traction in the market. Just a month after opening his firm, monster Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas and Louisiana coasts, killing around 100 people and causing an astounding $125 billion in property damage.
By October 2017, Otteson had his first contract for oversight of a debris removal program in Aransas County and the city of Rockport, Texas, ground zero for Harvey’s first landfall. In November, Otteson was hired as a subcontractor for assessments and structural reviews at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, a project tied to Harvey. The prime on this contract was CH2M, which has since been acquired by Jacobs. Otteson, just a few months into his new endeavor, was subcontracting with one of the largest AEC firms in the world.
“[The Corpus Christi contract] gave me a toehold with the big dogs,” Otteson said.
In December 2017, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs verified JAX as a Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB); Otteson has a worn out back and knees, and hearing loss related to his military career. This is an important designation for JAX because government agencies have set asides for SDVOSB firms, and large companies such as Jacobs have goals to hire them for a certain amount of their contracts.
So, 2017 was good, but 2018 looks to be even better. In January, JAX won a piece — that of lead inspector — of Union Pacific (UP) Railroad’s $550 million Brazos Yard project in Robertson County, Texas. The new yard represents the largest capital investment in a single facility in UP’s 155-year history and will create the capacity to switch as many as 1,300 rail cars per day, making it one of UP’s largest yards in the company’s 23-state network. JAX’s contract, as the lead inspector for the entire project — grading, utilities, and construction — amounts to $400,000 in revenue.
For Otteson, Brazos Yard is particularly sweet. Pat Greenwood, one of the engineers who came over with Otteson from their former employer, had good connections with the Brazos Yard prime, Wilson & Company, where Greenwood had worked years earlier. And it is Greenwood who is at the Brazos Yard project full-time, serving as a liaison for the engineer-in-residence.
An expert in railroad engineering, Otteson sees funds opening up for capacity projects across the country, an industry trend that could feed his firm for years to come. Seeing what’s on the horizon, and how his firm fits into the equation, Otteson is optimistic.
“There’s money out there in the private and public sectors,” he said.
With his entrepreneurial career gearing up and his military career winding down, Otteson has no regrets. On the Army side of his life, he’s pretty much done it all, from West Point to Kabul, from mailing letters home to talking with family through Skype. Once his stint in the reserves is over, he’ll have all his weekends to himself. More time, perhaps, to go fishing, play his guitar, do a bit of wing shooting, or to read books.
“I’m looking forward to retirement,” he said. “I’ve had a good career and enjoyed every minute of it.”
Oct 1990 to March 1991, Desert Storm:
Second Lieutenant, vertical construction platoon leader, primarily provided security for platoons building supply routes into Iraq.
May 2003 to July 2004, Iraqi Freedom:
Major, 1st Armored Division, Base Camp Coordination Authority, building seven base camps in Baghdad to house over 33,000 U.S. military and civilian contractors. Airfield improvements, maintenance facilities, and core infrastructure. Based at Baghdad International Airport.
May 2008 to March 2009, Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan:
Lieutenant Colonel, design engineer, 420th Engineer Brigade. The Brigade had responsibility for command and control of two engineer battalions, one that provided mobility (primarily route clearance) and one that provided construction support for base camps, roads, and airfields. Had responsibility for base camp planning, design and procurement packages for contingency bases (primarily forward operating bases) for the entire theatre except for the more enduring bases (Kabul and Bagram) and civil works projects.
Family: Three children, Luke, Bruce, and Danielle
Leisure: Fly-fishing, wing-shooting, playing guitar, reading (history, business management and leadership). He has a passion for healthy foods and lifestyle.
Backstory: The last of eight children. His father, James Arthur Otteson Sr., was a WWII veteran who served under Gen. George S. Patton. Otteson’s mother, Nellie, 88, lives in a house he built for her on his property.
The Iraq-Afghanistan maelstrom is what Otteson went into and out of, all while juggling a family and a career. The same maelstrom also forever changed the life of now-rising civil engineer Shaun Theriot-Smith.
He’s 32, married, and a father of three. He works as a project engineer for Big Red Dog Engineering|Consulting’s commercial services team in Houston. Embedded in the commercial real estate development scene in one of the nation’s largest cities, Theriot-Smith is a busy man. And on top of that, he hosts the firm’s Unleashed podcast (http://bigreddog.com/category/podcast), which highlights the people, projects, and culture of Austin-based Big Red Dog.
A great family and a great job in a dynamic market, all with the added benefit of folding a personal passion — the podcast — into his professional life. Theriot-Smith, it seems, has it all, but he took a long and dangerous road to get there.
He was a sophomore in high school on Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center Towers came down. Like millions worldwide, the attack had a profound impact on Theriot-Smith, who has a history of military service in his family. But at first, a civilian life beckoned. He graduated high school, studied computer science in Florida, and worked an assortment of odd jobs — IT specialist, line chef, and video game tester. But he needed something more, and in 2007 an opportunity emerged. Then-President George W. Bush, mired in the Iraq War and facing harsh criticism at home, announced a troop surge of 20,000 reinforcements, the vast majority of which went to Baghdad.
“That galvanized my desire to enlist in the military,” Theriot-Smith said.
He joined the Army in November as a fire support specialist, and in May 2008, deployed to Baghdad, where he provided security for Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations until 2009. He returned to the United States, trained for his next deployment, and then went to Afghanistan, where he served in the Wardak and Logar provinces in 2010-2011.
While he was not destined to become a career soldier, in a way he found his life’s calling in Iraq and Afghanistan. Working alongside the U.S. State Department and USAID, an independent government agency, Theriot-Smith saw firsthand how infrastructure could improve lives. In Afghanistan, in particular, he provided security for those who were building schools, roads, mosques, and water wells. The experience — described by Theriot-Smith as what took place between the firefights — was profound.
“Working directly with civil engineers in these programs, I was able to see an idea grow from design to reality,” he said. “It was tremendously rewarding to watch as a rural village cut the ribbon on a piece of vital infrastructure. I knew I wanted to chase this passion for improving the quality of life for communities at home, much like we did overseas.”
In January 2012, when his active duty was over, Theriot-Smith honorably separated from the Army. He returned to his hometown of Houston and immediately started his engineering coursework at the University of Houston. With service to others at his core, he said it was a natural step to join student government and, ultimately, be elected student body president of a school with 43,000 students.
“Although I do not have any intentions or aspirations to public office, my passion for public service is still very much alive and will continue to play a major part of my career,” he said.
Theriot-Smith has been with Big Red Dog since May 2017. A progressive firm with a pronounced focus on the client, the firm also demands a high standard of care for fellow employees. Fittingly, when he was being recruited to join the firm, an Army veteran already on staff was the one who started the conversation between him and firm management.
Soon after the interview, he got the job. Now two-and-a-half years out of college and in his chosen field, Theriot-Smith knows what he and other veterans bring to the table.
“I believe all veterans carry unique skills that they acquire, either wittingly or unwittingly, during their service,” he said. “The power of ownership, thorough and precise communication, and the initiative to operate decisively in the absence of orders, can create powerful impacts on team and organizational dynamics. Coupling these skills with a deep commitment and focus on completing the mission and taking care of the team often make veterans excellent job candidates.”
May 2008 to January 2009, Iraqi Freedom:
Fire Support Specialist, cavalry scout squadron in Baghdad, providing security for Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations.
October 2010 to October 2011, Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan:
Joint Fires Observer with a scout team in remote outposts of the Wardak and Logar provinces.
Family: Wife Paige, twin girls, Jadzia and Mei, and son Rumi.
Leisure: Star Trek marathons, creating toys, clothing, and play spaces for his kids, podcasts and audiobooks.
Backstory: Enjoys home brewing and mead making.
Richard Massey, is director of newsletters and special publications at Zweig Group and editor of The Zweig Letter. He can be reached at email@example.com.