HELIX CEO Michael Schwerin headed into the New Year with double-digit profits and a strong book-to-bill ratio.
By Liisa Andreassen
In 2001, Michael Schwerin started as an assistant environmental planning group manager with HELIX (#4 Best Firm Environmental for 2016) a 120-person firm based in La Mesa, California. Over time, his management responsibilities increased, and he went from assistant group manager to group manager to vice president. In 2008, the firm’s founder and first generation CEO retired. By that point, an internal ownership transition via an employee stock ownership plan was in place and he was selected from a final pool of internal and external CEO candidates.
With plenty of years of leadership under his belt, Schwerin reflects on how the firm has grown since 2001, both geographically and in terms of service diversification.
“When I joined the firm, we primarily provided environmental impact assessment and biology
services in Southern California,” he says. “Shortly after my arrival, HELIX started a wholly-owned subsidiary that installs and maintains native habitat. We’ve also added cultural resources (archaeology), air quality, greenhouse gas/climate change, and noise impact technical expertise over the years – organically and through acquisition.”
HELIX has also evolved from a first-generation firm – with a founder who still owned a vast majority of the stock and served as CEO – to a second-generation firm. Its ESOP now owns half of the company stock, and the remaining shares are owned by 17 key employees, none of whom owns more than 12 percent of the total.
A conversation with Schwerin.
The Zweig Letter: What are your key strengths?
Michael Schwerin: Self-appraisal is tough. I think my ability to communicate with all levels of
employees, through good times and bad, is a core strength – this includes our three all-hands meetings each year, a weekly CEO blog, and walking the halls to talk with employees. I’ve also learned the importance of hearing all sides of an issue before making a decision. Finally, a CEO needs to personally exemplify core values, such as treating employees with respect and consideration. And at a firm our size, the CEO also needs to be involved in winning new contracts and building and maintaining client relationships.
TZL: How would you describe your leadership style?
MS: I prefer to set goals and give wide leeway to my leadership team and other employees in terms of how those goals are met. As long as we are providing great service to our clients, remaining profitable, and growing the firm, I’m less concerned about how that’s being accomplished within each of our divisions. That being said, there is a non-negotiable requirement for HELIX employees to treat everyone with respect.
TZL: To date, as CEO, what has been a top challenge and how did you deal with it? What was the outcome?
MS: Less than four months after I took over as CEO in 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and the U.S. was in the Great Recession. At that point, 85 percent of our revenue, and an even greater percentage of our profits, came from private development projects. HELIX’s clients were halting projects or, worse, going bankrupt, and we had just committed to repaying the multi-million dollar loan that our ESOP had used to buy the founder’s stock. We reduced staff, took salary cuts at the senior leadership level, and carefully managed expenses. We also worked hard to shift to an “everybody markets” mindset. During the pre-recession boom, all we had to do was answer the phone, and enough work would come through the door to keep us profitable. Now we expect even junior staff to have business development responsibilities, albeit tailored to their experience level. The outcome is that our ESOP paid off its loan in 2014, we are now larger and more diversified than we were before the recession, and we headed into 2017 with double-digit profits and a strong book-to-bill ratio.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project you are especially proud of and why.
MS: The Mast Park habitat restoration project. HELIX is restoring 12.7 acres of wetland and riparian habitat in the San Diego River. Initial grading and habitat installation were completed last year, and we are now in a multi-year maintenance period while the 15,000-plus native plants become established. The habitat restoration work, which required permits from several state and federal regulatory agencies, is being implemented on publicly owned land and is providing mitigation for six separate projects. Accordingly, in addition to the technical challenges associated with installing and maintaining native habitat in an active river system, this project has been complex from a project management/contracting side. We invested years coordinating with the various involved parties, without a guarantee that the groundwork would pay off, so our success during the initial phases of the habitat restoration effort (during an El Niño rainfall year, no less) has been a big relief. It’s
satisfying to know that we are providing mitigation for six separate clients in a manner that improves the region’s natural resources.
TZL: Any news you care to share about HELIX projects or anything else?
MS: We’ve recently brought in Senior Fisheries Scientist Tom Keegan to build a fisheries practice at our firm. In our early years, the majority of HELIX’s work was in San Diego County, where not even all of our “rivers” have water year-round, and fisheries expertise just wasn’t that important to our work. Now that HELIX works throughout California and beyond, the ability to provide fisheries expertise has become much more important to our clients. We also see our growing fisheries practice leading to more habitat restoration project opportunities for our company.
TZL: Are you married? Children? Pets?
MS: My wife, Laura, and I just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary, and our son is turning 13 this January. Although my wife and I consider ourselves dog people, our two pets are a cat and a tortoise.
TZL: Best vacation spot? Dream destination?
MS: I am a big fan of Paris, New Orleans, and the Florida Keys. My dream destination is a Botswana wildlife safari (for photos, not trophies).
TZL: What’s the last book you read?
MS: I’m a fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books and just finished Night School, the 20th book in the series.
TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you’ve ever received?
MS: My father told me, “Never do a half-assed job.”
TZL: Is there a leader you admire? Why?
MS: In many ways, it’s George Washington. What he was able to accomplish under severe adversity as the leader of the Continental Army is impressive, but even more admirable is what he accomplished after victory. He could have quite feasibly taken on a role as a dictator, or at least president-for-life. Instead, he presided over the Constitutional Convention and, as our first president, took pains to establish precedents that limited the power of the presidency – among them, serving only two terms and openly tolerating opposition.
TZL: When you’re not working, what types of activities do you enjoy?
MS: I love traveling with my family. It’s not just seeing new sights, but planning the trip as much as a year in advance, the adventure of the trip itself, and then preparing photo-books that document key moments afterword.
TZL: Favorite lunch?
MS: Pollo asado.