David Evans and Associates: Leading for a change

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Archives - March 2006
Wednesday, March 01, 2006

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At David Evans and Associates flexibility is paramount, but so is planning for the future.

By Christina Williams

Back in the very early days of David Evans and Associates, the land use planning and engineering firm worked out a plan for a residential development in the small city of Durham.

“The site was a magnificent 70 acres of trees,” says David Evans, chairman of the 30-year-old firm, recalling the 1976 project, a development called Kingsgate. A mature fir forest, abandoned nursery stock and a small filbert orchard made up the diverse population. Before planning the development, DEA surveyors mapped out all the trees and fit the residential site plans, a total of 260 units, to keep as many of the trees as possible.

“I made a lot of builders mad when I said their house plan would not fit on the lot because of the trees,” Evans says.

Kingsgate, near the new Bridgeport Village shopping center between Tigard and Tualatin, is a fitting metaphor for the corporate leadership at DEA. It illustrates the need for careful planning, connecting the past to the future and preserving vital attributes.

Like many Oregon companies, David Evans and Associates (the No. 8 Large Company on the 2006 100 Best Companies to Work for in Oregon list) has wrestled with its own growth. What started with two guys and two desks in 1976 has ballooned into a nationwide firm with 20 offices and 850 employees. The firm’s expertise has diversified beyond land planning into services around transportation engineering, water resources and energy services. The growth, happening in fits and starts that match economic cycles, came with acquisitions — some 20 of them — and a steady stream of new hires. And officials say DEA has been profitable every year save one: 1982, when interest rates shot up and development work all but shut down.

Ask Evans, the 67-year-old chairman of the firm, to what he attributes such a strong track record and the plainspoken civil engineer says, “We hire great professionals and we try to let them do what they can do well.” Then he admits, “It gets more complicated as you get larger.”

EVANS DESCRIBES HIS COMPANY as a collection of little firms — individual offices that generally have their own areas of expertise — that can act like a big firm when the project calls for it, as it does, for example, with current jobs with the Manhattan Transportation Authority and re-engineering the I-5 Columbia River crossing.

But in addition to pulling together on the occasional project, DEA offices are expected to adhere to what is essentially the company mission statement, says Evans. Abiding by a stated core purpose (“to improve the quality of life while demonstrating stewardship for the built and natural environments”) and a set of seven core values (attributes such as honesty, involvement, entrepreneurial spirit and financial security) allows for company culture to vary some from office to office without any erosion of overall quality.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter company,” says Cindi Chandler, senior vice president and director of human resources, who joined DEA just over three years ago after stints with Shilo Inns and Banfield Pet Hospital. “We don’t even own one.”

In addition to sharing core ideals, DEA workers also share ownership in the company. Through an employee stock ownership plan, employees of every level have the opportunity to own stock, either by purchasing the shares outright or acquiring them via a company match in the 401(k) plan. As a result, employees own nearly 50% of the company, with closer to 20% in the hands of the founder.

“The ESOP is one part of a culture that is very much involving of the employees,” Chandler says. “Employees act like owners. They’re very entitled.”

Through employee surveys, the company is constantly gauging employee satisfaction and getting worker input on policies and benefits. Chandler says plans to replace the vacation and sick leave policy with a single pot of paid-time-off days were ditched when it became clear that employees wanted to keep the distinction between sick time and vacation time.

A new initiative, DEA University, will also involve employees in ongoing training in classes on topics including business development and situational leadership. Such training is important for a company filled with engineers who have strong technical training but sometimes lack the so-called soft skills that are often taught in business programs. Chandler points out that it’s also important for DEA as a company without an organizational chart and with relatively few levels of management.

“How do you help people continue to grow when we’re so flat and there aren’t 20 promotions waiting for them?” she asks. “This training is a leverage point.”

AT A FIRM THAT HAD A HAND IN planning such developments as Central Oregon’s Sunriver, Portland’s RiverPlace, Pioneer Place and Forest Heights and Bend’s Broken Top Resort, it should come as no surprise that plans for transitions in leadership have been carefully considered and mapped out well in advance.
Last year, Evans walked away from the CEO title, appointing Ken Wightman, a 20-year veteran of the company, to take his place. Considering it was the first time Evans had given up the controls at the company he founded, the change was met with little fanfare.

In part, the smooth transition was rooted in the fact that Evans made it very clear that Wightman would be taking over and involved him in decisions prior to the shift.

“It’s almost a non-event,” says Wightman, who is 60. He’ll be a different CEO than Evans was, Wightman acknowledges. He’s more hands-on when it comes to people. But his attention is directed forward to the next transition. “The focus now is on building the company’s leadership bench. We’re working on ways to get them involved.”

Evans and Wightman have already lined up the next top executives for DEA. Al Barkouli, the Portland office manager, and Dave Moyano, who heads up the Salem office, have been tapped for the roles that Wightman and Evans play now with a target takeover date somewhere around 2010.

Barkouli, a native of Libya who joined DEA in 1988 as a young engineer, says he’s worked with the leadership team to assess what his strengths are and how they will be tapped most effectively in his upcoming role. “I’m already thinking about my successors,” he says. “You’re looking at the next generation and the next. Great people don’t grow on trees. You help people become great.”

The looking ahead doesn’t stop there. Daniel Heagerty, senior vice president in charge of strategic planning, regularly picks the brains of a cadre of future leaders, about 10 of them in each of the firm’s major offices. “I didn’t want to leave strategic planning just to the gray-hairs,” says Heagerty, who has two college-aged children.

Heagerty periodically asks his future leaders: “Define the company you want to work for 10 years from now.” The answers he gets help him form the company’s strategy, which is moving in new directions — toward renewable energy services, toward a design-build business that will keep DEA more involved in all phases of the projects it works on and toward more interaction between different divisions.

“Ultimately, we’re creating a whole new approach to the issues we’re having to face,” Heagerty says. “We’re getting further upstream and getting our clients to swim further upstream. The environment is creative tension, stretching that rubber band but not breaking it. You want people to maximize their creativity by truly challenging different disciplines to work together.”

AT DEA HEADQUARTERS, an eight-story building at the edge of the Willamette in Portland’s RiverPlace district, the atmosphere is charged with change. Employees spend their time thinking and talking about projects that will alter maps and change the face of communities. Clients come and go with armloads of blueprints.

For all their planning, the measure of successful leadership for the company as it matures will be maintaining the agility to keep up with the demands of the marketplace and to keep paces ahead of industry trends.

Bob Ames, former vice chairman of First Interstate Bank and a DEA board member since Evans added outside advisers to the board of directors in 1991, says keeping up and keeping ahead is one of the firm’s strengths. “Maintaining that edge is not inexpensive,” Ames says. “It’s a doggone effectively managed company.”

Planning around the trees in Kingsgate was one of Evans’ first projects and it set the tone for a firm that has grown up around values that were employed there — sustainability and creativity with an eye on the bottom line. Involving future generations of engineers in plotting a course for the business, Evans hopes the company with his name on the front door will be around long after he’s gone.


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