Greg Graves: Leadership that matters


    At the end of this year, after a nearly 37-year career with Kansas City, Mo.-based Burns & McDonnell — including 13 years as chairman and CEO — Greg Graves is retiring from the employee-owned engineering, architecture, construction, environmental, and consulting firm. As only the sixth CEO in the company’s 118-year history, Graves’ tenure at the helm is second only to one of the co-founders. Under his steady leadership, Burns & McDonnell has grown from about 1,500 employee-owners and annual revenue of $387 million to more than 5,300 employee-owners and $2.6 billion in revenue.

    During this time, Burns & McDonnell has received numerous local and national accolades as a “best place to work,” the Burns & McDonnell Foundation has grown from $4.5 million to $30 million, and Graves has been recognized personally for his community involvement and philanthropy.

    In a recent Q&A with Civil + Structural Engineer (C+S), Graves offered the following perspective on his career and Burns & McDonnell.

    The Burns & McDonnell Foundation invests in science, technology, engineering, and math education — for example, by supporting Science City, Kansas City’s science center at Union Station.
    The Burns & McDonnell Foundation invests in science, technology, engineering, and math education — for example, by supporting Science City, Kansas City’s science center at Union Station.

    C+S: What was it like as a young engineer at Burns & McDonnell in the mid-1980s when the firm became employee owned?

    Graves: The mid-’80s were tough. We saw the collapse of the power generation market and Burns & McDonnell was on life support. So, after witnessing the personal sacrifice our company leaders went through to transform Burns & McDonnell into an employee-owned company, it was almost like earning the right to vote for the first time. We knew it was an incredibly empowering moment that came with great responsibility.

    No one really understood what employee ownership was going to be like, but by the early ’90s we were starting to act as true owners of the company, which was beginning to transform our culture. Plus, we were seeing the financial benefits in our stock and ESOP accounts.

    C+S: In what ways has employee ownership defined Burns & McDonnell’s culture and how is that nurtured?

    Graves: Employee ownership is at the core of who we are as a company. It’s not just another benefit, it drives our success and guides our decisions as individuals and as a team. Because we own the company, we approach our jobs differently. It means opportunity, stability, and teamwork. Our hard work leads to client success, which leads to our company’s success.

    From day one, employee-owners are told and shown what employee ownership means here. It’s evident in everything from our communications to our level of transparency to our celebrations to our quality of work to the benefits we offer.

    Burns & McDonnell opened its new world headquarters in May 2016 — a four-story, 310,000-square-foot facility that is the third building on the firm’s 37-acre campus.
    Burns & McDonnell opened its new world headquarters in May 2016 — a four-story, 310,000-square-foot facility that is the third building on the firm’s 37-acre campus.

    C+S: Burns & McDonnell has been recognized repeatedly as a “Best Workplace” by both national and local organizations, and in 2016 made Fortune magazine’s lists for Best Workplaces for Recent College Graduates, Millennials, Gen Xers, and To Retire From. How does the company create a best workplace for professionals over such a broad career span — from college graduates to retirees?

    Graves: Regardless of age, role, or experience, our team of employee-owners embrace our culture of ownership and accountability. Most importantly, everyone has one common goal — to make our clients successful. When one employee-owner succeeds in this, we all succeed. This builds a strong sense of camaraderie, teamwork, and community and makes all the difference.

    Employee ownership allows us to decide who we want to be as a company and to offer benefits that improve the lives of our employee-owners. Throughout the past several years we’ve developed a more robust wellness program, added numerous onsite amenities such as a pharmacy, health center, fitness center, and childcare center. We also enhanced our benefit offerings and implemented flexible work scheduling.

    Ultimately, our people are our most important assets. By striving to be a best place to work for them, we see increased innovation, higher productivity, lower turnover rates, and greater employee satisfaction.

    An open design and “gathering stations” in Burns & McDonnell's new headquarters building illustrate the firm's “passion for partnership and collaboration,” said Greg Graves, chairman and CEO.
    An open design and “gathering stations” in Burns & McDonnell’s new headquarters building illustrate the firm’s “passion for partnership and collaboration,”
    said Greg Graves, chairman and CEO.

    C+S: Today, how is Burns & McDonnell organized and managed — i.e., geography, service line, or other — and how do you share expertise and workload across the organization?

    Graves: Burns & McDonnell is structured in a very flat, decentralized manner so it’s difficult to compare ourselves with many of our competitors.

    Over the past 10 years, we have expanded rapidly throughout North America and today more than half of our nearly 5,400 employee-owners work in locations outside of our headquarters in Kansas City. Our regional offices operate very much like our business divisions, with a great deal of autonomy, responsibility for profit and loss, and encouragement to take prudent risks in entering new markets. It’s become a national network with different regions supporting one another in pursuing larger and larger projects. By sharing resources, we protect against regional economic downturns by keeping everyone busy.

    C+S: Within the last few years, how has technology impacted your operations, service offerings, and staffing?

    Graves: Technology has certainly impacted our operations but I believe the greater impact has been on our clients. Every sector we serve has been impacted by some advance in technology, which means they need us to provide engineering solutions to some new technology-driven business challenge.

    For example, the power industry is facing major transformations because of the introduction of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. More and more businesses and even some residential consumers want to generate their own power, and technology today makes that a reality. But this creates a nightmare for utilities who still have to provide reliable power to all their customers. Solving this problem requires advanced technology and really smart engineers who can design the systems to keep the lights on.

    In our business, technology enables us to deliver projects faster and with greater precision than ever before. But even with technology advancing rapidly, the human factor has never been more important. We may be able to make quicker design changes, thanks to 3D BIM models, but it still takes experienced, knowledgeable engineers and construction managers to make the right decisions based on the data.

    As for staffing, I would say technology is driving us to hire more people, not fewer. Every engineer or construction manager we hire has to be proficient in programs, systems, and software that weren’t around just a few short years ago. The wave of technology can be overwhelming to clients, so they need our support like never before.

    The MacKids Learning Academy, a 20,000-square-foot childcare center inside Burns & McDonnell's new headquarters, can accommodate 144 preschool-aged children and focuses on STEM education.
    The MacKids Learning Academy, a 20,000-square-foot childcare center inside Burns & McDonnell’s new headquarters, can accommodate 144 preschool-aged children
    and focuses on STEM education.

    C+S: Briefly, what was your path to your current position as CEO and chairman at Burns & McDonnell?

    Graves: I accepted a job at Burns & McDonnell in 1980 immediately after graduating from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Before my wife and I moved to Kansas City where Burns & McDonnell has its world headquarters, I wanted to visit my favorite calculus teacher, Doc Weger. He told me something that affected the way I approached my career – and really life – from that day forward. He said, “The only thing that matters in life, is to matter in life.” Powerful words. From that moment on, I made a conscious effort to make every position I took on in my career to matter.

    I am really grateful to have held a variety of positions from stack tester to design engineer to marketing manager. With each opportunity, I would look for additional responsibilities within the firm. In 1997, I was promoted to general manager of Burns & McDonnell’s Energy division, and in 2001, I was promoted to president of the division. In 2004, I took on my final role as CEO. I’m extremely proud of that position. Within Burns & McDonnell’s 118 year history, there have only been five other CEOs, and I have the second longest tenure behind the co-founding McDonnell family, who held the position more than four decades ago.

    C+S: As you retire at the end of this year, what achievements at Burns & McDonnell are you most proud?

    Graves: We take on some of the world’s most complex challenges. We work long hours. We spend a lot of time in airports and on the road traveling. So, we may not be the easiest place to work, but I’m extremely proud of the unique culture that we’ve developed and nurtured at Burns & McDonnell that’s helped us become the 16th Best Place to Work in the country according to Fortune magazine.

    I’m proud that during my tenure as CEO, we’ve been able to grow jobs for our firm and our communities. The number of employee-owners has more than tripled from approximately 1,500 to more than 5,300 today.

    I’m also proud to be able to promote and grow our employee-ownership. Each employee acts as an owner on the first day of the job — because they are one. We have been able to grow sales at our firm by more than 570 percent from $387 million in 2003 to $2.6 billion in 2015.

    To provide even greater client services, we’ve also been able to grow the number of regional offices within the United States by nearly 30 percent during my time as CEO, combined with development globally that included the launch of an international division with offices in India and Canada.

    When I interviewed for CEO, one of my stipulations was to increase the amount of money we gave through our foundation. I’m incredibly proud to have grown the Burns & McDonnell Foundation from $4.5 million to $30 million while CEO. In 2014, the employee-owners made their largest contribution of $2.5 million to the University of Kansas Hospital paired with a personal donation of $1 million from my wife and me. That was a really proud moment for all of us.

    C+S: What have been some of the most effective ways that you, as a representative of Burns & McDonnell, and the firm as a whole have been involved in the communities in which you operate?

    Graves: Kansas City (KC) has been good to Burns & McDonnell and my family, so I committed to doing all I can for this community. In 2011, I had the great privilege to serve as the chairman of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and led a groundbreaking initiative called The Big 5. Our goal was to look for ways to make KC even better — elevating it onto the world stage and make it one of the best places to work, live, start a business, and grow a business.

    A team of the area’s top business leaders met with hundreds of Kansas Citians to identify the five most crucial areas of focus to build on the strengths of the region. They include:

    • building KC’s workforce of tomorrow through kindergarten-readiness;
    • revitalizing our urban neighborhoods through the Urban Neighborhood Initiative (UNI);
    • making KC America’s most entrepreneurial city;
    • growing KC’s medical research from discovery to cure; and
    • moving the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s (UMKC) world-class arts programs to a new downtown location

    Burns & McDonnell committed to donating $250,000 to the UNI over the next five years. The donation helped fund the Dolly Parton Imagination Library at Faxon Elementary that would provide every child under the age of five in the UNI with a new age-appropriate book each month to promote early childhood reading.

    Additionally, Burns & McDonnell donated $400,000 to support UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance to its future home, a planned Downtown Campus for the Arts.  My wife and I donated an additional $100,000.

    In 2011, the Burns & McDonnell Foundation developed and funded Battle of the Brains, the country’s most robust K-12 STEM education competition, to address the declining number of students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The prize is a $50,000 grant for the winning school and the chance to work alongside Burns & McDonnell engineers, architects, designers, and other professionals as they bring their proposed exhibit ideas to life.

    This is much more than a science competition; it’s an adventure we go on with area students that spans two years. The first year they dream up an exhibit. The second year, their winning idea serves as inspiration for a million-dollar exhibit Burns & McDonnell builds at our Science Center at Union Station. More than 10,000 kids have participated in the program. Our goal is to inspire in students a spark and a passion for STEM topics that will resonate throughout their lives and inspire the next generation of STEM professionals.