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Building principle Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

Bob Bowen’s fingerprints are all over Bowen Engineering Corp. As the founder, chairman and CEO, Bowen has always taken a lead role in setting the company’s vision and solving problems when they arise. “If there was a problem, I fixed it,” Bowen says.

The world has changed over the past 40 years, and so has his company. As a result, Bowen himself has had to change the way he manages.

“If you’re going to build a great company for the future, you’ve got to have a lot of problem-fixers,” Bowen says. “You can’t have just one.”

That’s not always an easy proposition to accept for someone who built his company from the ground up and has always had a hand in most, if not all, aspects of the operation.

“If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re probably a lot like me,” says Bowen, the company’s founder, chairman and CEO. “You’re a doer. You’re task-oriented. You’re good at what you do, so you continue to do that.”

In today’s world, Bowen says it’s all about bringing others into the mix.

“If you’re going to be a great president, you have to bring people up,” Bowen says. “You have to build people up. You have to encourage people and promote people and give people an opportunity to step up and provide leadership, and you have to train them.”

Bowen Engineering was founded as a water and wastewater treatment plant contractor before shifting to a contractor that specializes in earthwork, concrete and mechanical work in commercial and industrial markets.

The business grew from around $6 million in revenue in the early years to nearly 1,000 employees and about $170 million in revenue in 2006.

The key to this recent success has been Bowen’s ability to work through his own uneasiness about relinquishing control of the company and to see the potential gain of developing employees into leaders who can carry the business into the future.

“It’s a culture change,” Bowen says. “Everybody here is focused on leadership training and leadership mentoring. ... Everybody knows that they have an opportunity to be the best they can be. There is no limit to what anybody can be in this company.”

Building confidence

Bowen developed the Compliment-A-Day Club to help drive home a feeling of camaraderie and commitment at the company that would encourage people to take on leadership roles.

“I compliment people probably 50 times a day, probably to a fault,” Bowen says. “One of the goals here in this company is everybody here is supposed to be a member of the Compliment-A-Day Club. If you have a meeting, how many people did you compliment today? Five of 20 will raise their hands. The more you ask it and the more you do it and the more you compliment people, the more you see everybody else complimenting people.”

Bowen says the concept is not a cultural gimmick, but rather something that he takes very seriously as a tool to keep the company growing.

“This is part of our management strategy,” Bowen says. “You’ve got to be a member of the Compliment-A-Day Club if you’re going to be a serious leader or manager.

“We’ve had some senior managers that weren’t good team players, and they are not here anymore. We had one guy that at one time I was grooming to take over the company. He was an I/me guy. My other employees hated him. He’s now running a business of his own. He’s a competitor. But I know that my company is better off without him, even though he’s a true entrepreneur. We’re a better company because we build team players, and we care about people.”

Bowen implemented an in-house leadership program that takes the top 15 leaders in the company and puts them in a position to mentor the next 15 leaders, who are viewed as protégés, the up-and-coming managers in the organization.

Bowen is using a model called “The Leadership Challenge,” which was developed by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner.

Sessions are held every two months in which guest speakers come in and talk about leadership, team building, engagement and vision. The sessions are led by three senior managers, with one person in charge and the other two providing assistance.

“All of a sudden, everybody in our company is involved in the teaching,” Bowen says. “Most of the senior managers are mentors. It’s a great team-building exercise. It’s almost more team building than leadership training.”

Students in the program are handpicked by senior management and selected based on their readiness for leadership training. Standards include productivity, work ethic and success in their job.

Initially, students had a mentor selected for them, but the company has found better results by letting them select their own mentor from anyone in the company.

“Some of our matches weren’t exactly made in heaven,” Bowen says.

While students benefit from the knowledge they receive in the classes, the senior managers gain a lot by making the presentations.

“It’s good experience for them,” Bowen says. “It’s great image-building for the people to see their leaders up holding classes. You engage more senior managers in the presentations. Even an average presentation, it is still very good for the company to have your senior people up making presentations and having the responsibility to get up in front of people. I happen to believe that making presentations is a great training tool for building leaders.”

In-house development is the best way to develop the bench strength you need to keep your company growing.

“If you’re going to survive in the long term, that’s the way to do it,” says Bowen. “You build leaders. You force everybody all the way down to the lowest level in your company. Everyone has to take a step up as leaders.”

As the program endures, past protégés will become mentors to the next batch of new leaders, and the cycle will continue, allowing more and more people to receive the valuable training.

“It’s engaging everybody into the vision of our company,” Bowen says. “Now the mentors in the group are not the old-timers, it’s the group that just went through the program. (The new protégés) are being mentored now by young leaders that have been here a little longer than they have, probably not a heck of a lot older. They are now doing the leadership training, the mentoring, the team building.”

Continuous training

A program of continuous education on leadership skills can also help a company and its leadership adapt to changes both within the company and in the business environment of the day.

Bowen reflects on his own evolution as a leader as a prime example of the need for leadership training.

“In the past, I’d step in and give people advice and often-times fix the problem,” Bowen says. “Today, the boss does-n’t do that. He holds the people involved accountable, and he helps them, but it’s still their responsibility to step up and get the problem resolved. We’re teaching a whole lot of people how to solve problems now. ... If you’re going to build a great company for the future, you’ve got to have a lot of problem-fixers. You can’t have just two, or you can’t have just one.”

When people feel comfortable with their co-workers and see them as more than just co-workers, they will be more willing to share both the good and the bad that occurs each day in the workplace and work together to solve the problems.

“I tell people here, ‘Don’t go down alone,’” Bowen says. “If you have a tough problem, share it with your team. Share it with leadership and your management. We don’t want you going down alone. We’ve got a family and a team and all of a sudden, problems aren’t so devastating. Everybody takes responsibility and works through them together.”

Employees will be more encouraged to share their problems with a leader who is not looking to assign blame for whatever it is that went wrong.

“I tell people around here, ‘If you’re involved in a problem job, we all need to take ownership. Every person is involved, even Bob Bowen, chairman.’ What can I do? We can lose $1 million on a job. I’m not going to sit here and blame the project superintendent or the project manager. I tell them, ‘I hope you’re asking what you can do different on the next job to prevent this from happening.’ I ask myself that. We hopefully try not to lay blame but try to find answers.”

Continuous improvement

A big part of the leadership training sessions is teaching people to constantly be looking at their own role at the company and what they can do to make the organization better.

Such an attitude is important for all employees, but especially for those serving in a leadership capacity.

“If a project manager leaves here, it’s like, ‘Whoa, what happened?’” Bowen says. “People leave because of their direct supervisor. We’ve had three managers leave here. Two engineers and a project manager left in the last two or three years out of 150 or 200 people. Those were events that our company had to step back and say, ‘Wait a minute. What do we need to do different? What did we do wrong here?’ We believe in all three of those cases, we were not providing those people with the engagement and the opportunities they really needed. We’re now working with their supervisors on what you need to do differently.”

Leaders should feel a responsibility to be cognizant of the company’s future not only for themselves, but for their employees who are making their own plans for their future and that of their family. Giving employees a dose of leadership training and providing opportunities for them to move up in the company is a good way to provide some peace of mind.

“Their careers are going to be impacted by how this company survives in the future and how it succeeds,” Bowen says. “They want to know.”

Bowen Engineering is expecting 2007 revenue of around $250 million, and Bowen says the future has never been brighter.

“I can’t wait to get to the office in the morning,” he says. “You see people growing and loving their job. I walk through this office and they are all engaged. ... We’ve created an environment and an engagement, and we somehow passed that all the way down to the most menial person in our company.

“We know that I’m no better than our lowest-ranking laborer on a job. He’s working just like I am. They know that they are part of the team. They know they are part of the planning, and if they do a good job, they know they’ll get a nice bonus.”

HOW TO REACH: Bowen Engineering Corp., (317) 842-2616 or www.bowenengineering.com