Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography and courtesy of Houston Engineering
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 21 percent of businesses make it to their 20th anniversary. In today’s age of mergers and acquisitions and startups, businesses come and go. When a business marks an important anniversary, it’s a reason to acknowledge their accomplishments and ask: What made them last the long term?
To celebrate their 50th anniversary, we talked with Houston Engineering President and CEO Jeff LeDoux about what other businesses can learn from their continued growth.
1. There’s no secret formula to make a business last the long term.
“I think there are many ingredients that’s part of the secret sauce. First of all, you have to do really good work. We do good work and we treat our clients fairly. That’s the first key. We wouldn’t be in business if we didn’t do a good job at what we do. The second thing is creating a healthy culture for success. I think one of our biggest differentiators is creating a culture for people to succeed. We always try to find the best people to fit our culture.”
2. You stop growing, you start dying.
“We always have to be in a constant state of change and adapting to the economy, our industry and to our clients’ needs. That’s probably one of the more critical things. If you become complacent, you dry up and start dying as a company… George Houston, our founder, said this since day one. ‘You have to constantly grow or you’re going to die.’ A company is like a living organism, in fact, there’s a book to that effect called ‘The Living Company.’ It talks about how you have to be in a constant state of adaption and learning.”
- 1968: Company founded by George Houston in Fargo
- 1972: Corporation formed
- 1980: Expands to Barnesville, M.N. and now have 30 employees
- 1997: Lawrence Woodbury elected President/CEO
- 1997: Opens office in Maple Grove, M.N.
- 2002: Opens office in Bismarck
- 2002: Founder George Houston retires
- 2005: Opens office in Thief River Falls, MN and now has 65 employees
- 2006: Opens office in Minot, N.D.
- 2008: Jeff LeDoux becomes President/CEO
- 2012: Opens office in Dickinson, N.D.
- 2015: Opens office in Grand Forks and now has 185 employees
- 2018: Opens offices in West Des Moines, I.A. and Sioux Falls, S.D. and celebrates 50th anniversary with more than 200 employees
3. Respect your employees and they’ll respect you.
“It’s hard to describe but we try to create a culture of responsible autonomy. There’s a number of different cultures and management styles. There’s the old ‘command and control’ style, which is really dead. We try to create responsible autonomy where we give people and teams the freedom, within boundaries, to think independently, be creative, come up with new ideas and they will succeed. We have to accept that sometimes we’re going to fail, but we know that we’re going to have a lot more wins than failures. We give people a lot of freedom to do some really neat things for our company.”
4. Your employees are one of your most valuable assets.
“I don’t take a lot of credit for our growth and success. It’s a team effort. We wouldn’t exist without our staff. As part of our culture, we try to be humble, hungry and smart and be the best team players. On the humble side, we try to hire people who have no egos. They’re looking for what’s best for the company. They’re hungry and always trying to improve themselves, looking for more things to do, more responsibility and trying to improve themselves. They’re also smart. Not necessarily book smart, but people smart. They know how to deal with people in an effective way. We try to focus on those characteristics and traits when we hire people.”
5. As you expand your footprint, recognize that each office will have its own personality.
“We try to promote a one company culture but each office really has its own personality, but as long as we’re heading in the same direction, that’s the important part. Obviously, our culture in our Minneapolis office is going to be different than the culture in our Dickinson, North Dakota office. As long as we know where we want to go as a company, that’s the most important thing. You have to accept that offices are going to have different personalities and people, which is good…You have to work with that.”
6. Embrace technology and never stop innovating.
“One of our goals and one of our differentiators is that we want to always stay on the cutting edge of technology. For a 200-person firm like Houston Engineering, we probably have more technology than any firm I’ve worked with or seen. We have a number of tech-savvy engineers, scientists, surveyors, programmers and software developers. We try to incorporate their knowledge in how we do designs and how we work internally. Also, we use that technology for our clients’ benefits. We’re creating tools that makes their lives easier on managing their responsibilities and making them more successful. We have a lot of different types of technology that a lot of the big firms don’t have. I’m really proud of that.”
7. Play the long game.
“We just went through another strategic plan this year where we identified our goals and where we want to be in the next five years as a company. The goals talked about improving client service even more and also the culture we want as a company. It’s been harder as we’ve continued to grow. We’ve identified some of the geographical areas we want to expand in. We just opened up offices in Iowa and South Dakota. We want to focus on growing those offices, as well as supporting our existing North Dakota and Minnesota offices.
“We’re also looking at a number of new services that we’re currently not providing. They will be a benefit for our clients and an advantage for us. As I mentioned before, we always want to be in a constant state of change and I think part of our success is that we’re always looking to improve and create a culture that allows our staff to do that.”
8. A long history with a company isn’t always a good thing.
“The older you get, you might get complacent, so you have to keep fresh and stay hungry. The benefit is that we’re established but the challenge is that we can’t take that for granted and we always need to continuously change and get better as a company.”
9. Employee retention goes back to culture.
“I think (the reason we have low turnover) is because of that culture we created as a company. We’re probably a fraction of the turnover rate expected for a company like ours in the industry. It has to do with the kind of culture we created for our employees and making it a good place to work.”
10. The role of the CEO is making sure your customers are happy and your employees have a healthy workplace.
“I try and have a lot of contact with our clients and making sure we’re meeting their needs and finding out what keeps them up at night, how we can make their lives easier and get their thoughts about the future. I also feel it’s important to have a lot of contact with our employees. When I started, we only had one office with about 30 employees. Now, we have nine offices in four different states. I think it’s really important to be at those offices, meet with the people to help foster that one-company culture, making sure we have a healthy workplace and that the staff has the right tools to be successful. It gets more difficult the bigger you get.”
With nine offices in four states, Houston Engineering works with water resources, environmental issues, water supply, water quality, municipal, transportation, railroad, surveying, land and site development, waste management, urban planning, GIS and web/mobile technology.