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Work that matters: Woodard & Curran CEO Doug McKeown puts employees and environment first

PHOTo / Tim Greenway Doug McKeown, CEO of Woodard & Curran, in his office in Portland. Since becoming CEO in 2007, the firm has doubled its revenues and its workforce.
PHOTo / Tim Greenway Doug McKeown, CEO of Woodard & Curran, middle, discusses an office expansion with Jen Andrews, director of marketing, and CFO David Remick in their office in Portland.

At the start of 2014, Woodard & Curran President and CEO Doug McKeown launched a major reorganization of the company around six strategic business units. “It was a bit of a sea change,” he admits, acknowledging that it didn't surprise him to see uncertainty on employees' faces initially. Change, after all, is typically stressful.

By mid-year, McKeown says he knew the company was on the right track when the new leadership teams began to take ownership of their divisions with confidence and enthusiasm. By year's end, the company had posted a 16% increase in revenue, closing at $167 million and reaching an all-time high of 850 employees. It also opened a new office in the St. Louis area, bringing the company's national presence to 16 offices and 45 contract-operated facilities nationwide.

McKeown, 53, leads an environmental services company that's doubled its revenues and number of employees since he succeeded the company's co-founder, Al Curran, as CEO in 2007. The company's strong 2014 performance recently earned it a “Business Achievement” award in the large firm category from the Environmental Business Journal, which highlighted the company's “strong top-line growth,” a more than “40% improvement in profitability,” its focus on safety and the reorganization as benchmarks of a rising star.

Woodard & Curran, which celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2014, also reached all-time highs on industry lists such as ZweigWhite's Hot Firms (29), Engineering News Record's Top 500 Design Firms (84) and its Top 200 Environmental Firms (67). So why the major reorganization when so many things are obviously going right?

“We had to change in order to stay strong,” McKeown replies, explaining that although Woodard & Curran got through the recession by staying the course without laying anyone off, the environmental engineering markets had become lean and mean in the post-recession years. “If we don't change to compete effectively in those markets, we'll be like the buggy whip manufacturing plant.”

Reorganizing the company according to different business verticals, he says, has facilitated internal planning and the timely identification of trends. Each division's leader, he says, is empowered to identify new market opportunities — as well as areas where performance lags — and then devise strategies for capitalizing on both fronts. In a nutshell, McKeown says, the reorganization gets back to the company's mission statement and a corporate culture he inherited and embraces: “Give people a chance to succeed.”

'We stay strong together'

For a company whose mission statement explicitly states protecting the environment trumps all other interests, it's not surprising that McKeown's office at Woodard & Curran's national headquarters near the Portland International Jetport has the feeling of being placed, visually if not literally, in the woods. A wall of large windows offers unobstructed views of a mixed-growth forest, which, on a cold February day, is animated by nuthatches and chickadees seeking food.

McKeown, who joined the company in 1992, says the company's environmental services initially were focused on helping municipalities and companies meet the 1972 Clean Water Act's requirements. Over three decades, those services expanded in response to newer environmental regulations, such as the Superfund law of 1980 that created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries to pay for cleaning up thousands of toxic waste sites across the country. Today, he says, the company offers an array of environmental services covering everything from transforming brownfield sites into usable properties to helping companies meet their environmental, health and safety obligations. The operations and management division alone has grown from one contract in 1992, worth $100,000, to $50 million and 250 employees today.

“With good insights from the board, we've tended to be a place where people could grow,” McKeown says. The corollary to that, he adds, is that Woodard & Curran's growth kept pace to the point where, in 2007 when he took over as CEO, it had become an $81 million company with 450 employees.

He recalls an early lesson in leadership that came out of a conversation he had with co-founder Al Curran, the CEO he was about to replace. “You had the hard job, I've got the easy job,” he remembers telling Curran. Curran shook his head and replied, “You've got it in reverse. It's going to be a lot harder for you to grow the company than it was for me to take it to this level.”

McKeown chuckles, saying Curran's modest retort proved prophetic: By the end of 2007, the national housing bubble burst, triggering a meltdown on Wall Street, the tightening of credit and a deep recession that hit the environmental engineering and construction industries particularly hard. There would be no resting on anyone's laurels; McKeown faced a leadership challenge without precedent.

What got him through it, he says, was the company's mission statement, which held up “growth, freedom, challenge, recognition and reward” as important objectives that would attract talented people and allow them to excel at their work and, in doing so, help Woodard & Curran thrive. In his first “state of the company” address — delivered in March 2008, a practice he's continued every March since —McKeown says he told employees: “We stay strong together.”

“We were full blown in recession,” he says, recalling those difficult times. “We stayed the course. We never did a layoff. We were committed to balancing the financial interests with what was best for the employees.”

That proved to be the right call, given the company's expansion during a time when many other firms were contracting. In recent years, McKeown says, the company increasingly has been competing against upper-echelon environmental services companies. Out of that, he says, came the question: “Are you a dabbler, or are you serious about your business?”

Taking it to the next level

To answer that question, he says, the company benchmarked itself against the country's top environmental engineering firms. It took advantage of published data, such as Engineering News Record's annual Top 200 environmental firms list, which helped McKeown and his leadership team identify how their primary competition was doing in different markets in comparison to Woodard & Curran.

“If the average growth [in a given market] is 6% and we're at 10%, that means we're taking market share from someone else,” he says, adding that the benchmarking effort has helped the company strategically target sectors that played to its strengths, or prioritize markets that were not heavily saturated with environmental engineering firms fighting for limited dollars (e.g. transportation).

Out of that process came the goal of becoming one of the top environmental engineering firms in the country — which seems well within reach, given the company's steady climb up the ranks of Engineering News Record's annual lists of top environmental and construction/design firms. In the last three years, Woodard & Curran has acquired firms in Pennsylvania and Montana and opened its first Midwest office, near St. Louis, to enter new markets and geographies. In particular, says McKeown, the 2013 purchase of TREC Inc., an 80-person company based in Bozeman, Mont., gives Woodard & Curran a significant entry point into the key markets of mining, energy and oil and gas.

But McKeown is careful to qualify that lofty goal, saying, “I want this company to be measured not by its 'bigness' but by its 'greatness.'”

Last year he elevated employees' health and safety from being simply a “priority” to being a core value of the company. Likewise, the Woodard & Curran Foundation, a nonprofit launched by employees in 2010, is building an endowment in order to make “meaningful grants” to worthy causes within communities where its offices are located.

“One of the reasons why I love the business is that at the end of the day, what we do matters,” he says. “I can honestly say, 'I make a difference.' I always felt my job is to leave this place better than when I got here. … As a society, we take so much for granted, like clean water. The price of water hasn't changed much in 20 years. Compare that to your cable bill: It's grossly underfunded.”

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