A time to build up

How Bob Higgins set about revitalizing Barge Waggoner

“I’ll be the first to eat crow…”

The email to Bob Higgins came out of the blue on Oct. 29, 2009, almost six months after he had taken over as president and CEO at Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon, the downtown-based engineering and architecture firm with nine offices in three states. But the note from one of Barge’s architects in Birmingham was a good surprise and one of the clearest signs yet that his plan to rejuvenate the firm had a shot at succeeding.

Higgins had joined Barge as an intern in the late 1990s with a civil engineering degree out of Vanderbilt University. He grew up with the firm, moving into the management of projects and departments before going in-house with one of his clients — the city of Franklin, Ky. — for almost two years. After returning to Nashville and Barge in November of 2007, he ran the firm’s water services unit.

In early 2009, he was told he was in the mix for the CEO position. The brutal construction downturn was buffeting Barge and just about every one of its peers. Costs needed to be cut and individual jobs needed to be run more efficiently. The market was demanding major changes.

But the struggle for Barge had deeper roots, too. After more than 50 years in business, the company’s compass had cracked. A number of its top leaders had become entrenched and its culture had stagnated. The employee-owned firm itself was begging for change.

“Some people had gotten too focused on ‘me’ and had lost sight of the broader company goals,” Higgins says. “They were about protecting what they had, not moving forward.”

 
Back to that email.

Higgins had first heard from the Alabama architect in May, soon after stepping into the CEO job. He had embarked on a tour of Barge’s offices to deliver the same presentation — the same mandate for change — that had led the board to install him in the corner office. He talked about overhauling parts of the leadership team, taking out costs — including some salaries — and redeploying part of those savings into recruiting and training.

Up popped the architect during a question-and-answer session, prefacing his remarks by half-jokingly saying he hoped they wouldn’t affect his employment status.

“Why should I get behind you?” he asked. “You haven’t done this before. You haven’t run an organization this large.”

Fair question, Higgins responded, following up with an answer that essentially amounted to, “I’m asking you to trust me and to trust the plan.”

Come late October, Higgins heard again from the architect after the firm’s employee shareholders had been sent a financial update. The mea culpa said many of those part-owners had grown disenchanted in previous years over the lack of input they felt they had in the firm’s direction. He had stopped investing in the firm’s stock a while ago.

But things were changing, the architect wrote. Yes, times were still tough, but he was seeing things in the firm’s new strategy and daily operation that had convinced him he was ready to buy more of its stock.

“I’ll be the first to eat crow…”

 
After being told he was in the running to be CEO, Higgins had set out to make his case. He made the rounds at the firm, talking to rank-and-file staffers as well as board members and other employee-owners. But he wasn’t lobbying. He was taking the pulse, asking his peers and others what they would focus on to get to the roots of Barge’s struggles, where they thought the firm was missing out on opportunities.

“You can look all day at a dashboard and say, ‘I wonder what people are thinking,’” he says. “Well, go find out what they’re thinking! Oftentimes, an organization knows what it needs to do. The people living, eating and breathing at this firm knew what ailed us.”

And those early talks were likely crucial to steering the ship in a new direction, says local leadership consultant Debra Fish. The most important factor to consider in making an organizational sea change is to respect and pay homage to what has worked in the past while making the case for new approaches. Getting the input — and hopefully, the buy-in — of managers and front-line workers is vital, she added.

“You can get good input through either individual or group interactions,” Fish said. “But the lip-service approach doesn’t cut it. If you ask for people’s opinions and you don’t use them, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”

Higgins didn’t hurt himself. His plan tackled the thorny personnel issues at the head of the firm but it also turned Barge’s org chart sideways, replacing a geographic structure with a clear industry-driven approach. No longer would the market leader in Knoxville be the only one overseeing an industrial design project in East Tennessee. Now the leader of the firm’s industrial group would take charge and draw on the brains of his teams from Dayton, Ohio to Dothan, Ala.

The move more efficiently deployed staffers across Barge’s footprint. It also enabled Higgins to roll out a system that rewarded successes before end-of-year bonus time. If a project met its objectives and both the client and firm leadership were satisfied, the check was in the mail. Last year, a handful of teams received such rewards.

Another way Higgins sought to turn the tide for Barge was to invest in his team. He could have set aside that cash but was adamant that Barge show it could shave a little bit from the present as it prepared for a brighter future.

“We built a plan in which everyone could find themselves,” Higgins says. “The plan was about finding your spot, your trajectory as a person. Growing the company can give people a reason to grow personally, to find a trajectory.”

 
Those early conversations, before he got the job, set the tone for much of what Higgins has done since to get Barge back on track. Often borrowing from stories from his youth and his service in the Air Force — and occasionally featuring well-known names such as R.A. Dickey and Mike Krzyzewski— Higgins has built trust by opening up and listening, by collaborating and sharing.

“We communicated like crazy. We really had to,” he says. “Keep in mind the headlines in 2009 and 2010, they were terrible. We communicated those but we also shared the good news.”

That steady flow of information also has helped the Barge team cope with the inevitable hiccups that come with major change. Some of those stumbling blocks were relatively trivial — an early companywide video message from Higgins was unable to be opened by most of the company’s desktop computer users before IT intervened — while others, including the quick exit of COO Ken Zyga after he didn’t mesh with Higgins and others, caused bigger headaches.

But the progress has been steady: Revenues have grown 30 percent since 2009 to $65 million and 2012 was one of the three best years in firm history. That has allowed Higgins and his team to shift gears from recovery to all-out growth. Coming this year are new offices in Houston and Georgia, a build-out of its staffing subsidiary Resource Tech and expansions of the firm’s industrial and water/wastewater groups.

Fish says being able to pivot like Barge is doing brings with it a whole new shot of energy that can sustain the momentum. Among other things, it allows a group to stop talking about what it’s leaving behind.

“So now you can say, ‘Imagine what we can do when we look boldly to the future,’” Fish says. “That’s a great golden carrot.”