KCI provided landscape architecture services for a 50,000-square-foot addition to the 15,000-square-foot Cherokee Youth Center in North Carolina.
I started as a diver in 1998, joining the company with a coworker to form an underwater inspection division. We were diving together performing underwater bridge and pier inspections. Our niche was to put professional engineers in the water, eliminating the problem of having a diver communicate what they had seen or felt underwater to the design engineer on the surface. I had been a diver in the Navy, which is where I met Chris Griffith who was in charge of the Construction Management Group (CMG) and had started the diving initiative. CMG had a number of military officers at the time. Working in a group with others who shared my military background and experience helped make my transition easier, especially as I learned the terminology and financials of a private sector consulting firm.
One of the great things about KCI is how many opportunities are available to advance. Much of our senior leadership grew up in the company having started in junior positions. As I’m typing this, I am looking out the window on an icy snowy January day. When I started, we weren’t diving in hot water suits during the winter. On a day just like this about a year and a half after I joined KCI, I realized that dressing in the snow, chipping through the ice, diving in 32° water with no visibility, swimming up and down piles in the Baltimore Harbor might not be the long-term career goal I had in mind. Luckily, I also had a background in construction management from the Navy, so I talked to Chris, and he gave me an opportunity to transition into CM. I was in the right place at the right time, and some great opportunities came my way. Sixteen years later I still find it amazing that I landed in a company where I was able to advance from hard hat diver to discipline manager.
In CM, our team includes several former Navy Civil Engineer Corps officers, and many more who got their start in other branches of the service. The private sector is completely different from the military, but many of the lessons in leadership and discipline that are learned in uniform apply at KCI. My military training and experience have served me well, and so I too value military experience when hiring project managers, inspectors and leaders in construction management. Although military experience does not always translate directly into the private sector, my supervisors recognized what my background was and was not, provided the training I needed to grow, and had the patience to allow me to learn the private sector while unlearning public sector financial and project management. I try to do the same.
Not every company is a good fit for former military members. One of the biggest changes I noticed coming out of the military was a loss of mission. In the military, no matter what you do, no matter how big or how small, you can always tie it back to the greater good of the country and the people you defend. The mission is always much bigger than any individual. When I retired from the Navy, I had one short six month stint with another local consulting firm before I joined KCI. No camaraderie, no focus on social responsibility, I received minimal training, and the mission was to make as much profit as possible for the sole proprietor. I was disheartened, but I figured, hey, this must be the way it is everywhere. Fortunately, they didn’t like my approach any more than I liked theirs and I ended up at KCI. For me, two things stand out, the fact that KCI is an ESOP and KCI’s focus on giving back to the community. Together, they are closer to the mission focus I felt in the Navy.
Like any company, we have our share of challenges, but being an ESOP means that when the company does well, everybody shares in the financial success. It took me a few years to understand the true value of an ESOP, but when the numbers on my statement began to grow, I realized what a benefit it was. In fact, one time I sat down and figured out that my ESOP value after about 15 years at the company exceeded the present value I calculated for my military retirement. Where else can you find that level of retirement benefit?
The other thing that always impressed me about KCI is the focus from the very top of the organization down on social responsibility. I’m always overwhelmed by the number of people who volunteer and the number of programs that we support. I attribute much of this spirit to employee ownership. I always tell people that we’re an employee owned company, not a democracy, but one thing that does come out of employee ownership is a culture that focuses on people. The result is tremendous participation in programs that give back to the community. In my own case, as a leader in the company I was not only encouraged to support a nonprofit as a board member, but KCI worked with Baltimore Volunteers Unlimited to help me find a role with the Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity. It was an eye-opening experience to see the housing challenges faced by the working poor in the city, and helped me understand the ways a firm like KCI can empower its people to make a difference.