Casual leader of engineering firm is doing what he wants to do, surrounding himself with smart people, and getting the job done.
By Liisa Andreassen
After 20 years of working for someone else, David Cocke founded Structural Focus (#1 Best Firm Structural for 2016) in Gardena, California. It was 2001 and he was ready to make his own business decisions, set a company culture, and have the freedom to pursue the types of projects that most interested him.
Today, Cocke is very active in the preservation of historic buildings and has made numerous presentations regarding the reuse of existing buildings using sustainability principles. He is also co-founder and managing director of SAFEq Institute which serves as a resource for post-disaster inspections and direct services to government entities and
business owners. He is a recognized expert in building business resiliency and continuity related to disaster risks, and believes that pre-planning and partnerships with cities can greatly reduce business interruption after an earthquake or other disaster.
A conversation with Cocke.
The Zweig Letter: How have you seen the company evolve since its founding?
DC: Structural Focus was founded with the mission “to provide exceptional engineering and superior client service in order to accomplish projects of which both we, and our clients, can be proud.” Through the years, we are very fortunate to have been able to develop loyal relationships with great clients who trust us. It is very rewarding to see the firm’s growth without compromising our mission. Structural Focus started with me as the lone structural engineer and my wife, Kate, providing administrative and accounting support (she had 19 years of project management experience at Bechtel). We now have 19 employees.
TZL: What are your key leadership strengths?
DC: Honesty, communication skills, and the ability to empathize with others.
TZL: What do you feel the key strengths are for an effective leader?
DC: Effective leaders must have a clear vision, demonstrate integrity, lead by example, and he/she must not be afraid to surround him/herself with smart people and listen to them.
TZL: How would you describe your leadership style?
DC: I am “casual” in my manner and I believe that humor is important every day. I am very collaborative and I expect mutual respect. I strive to manage with clarity and I require accountability.
TZL: To date, what has been a top challenge and how did you deal with it? What was the outcome?
DC: Structural Focus strives to develop a “work family” and although our turnover is very low, every time that someone leaves, it can truly impact our team. Every company has to expect that some employees will leave at some point to explore other opportunities. We have overcome this by showing our employees that change brings opportunities for growth and career advancement.
TZL: What is your vision for the future of Structural Focus?
DC: We are constantly working on becoming a leader in our industry. We want to design structures that we can be proud of, and be proud of how we do it. I want Structural Focus to have the opportunity to design or rehabilitate some of the best projects in the region.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project you are especially proud of and why.
DC: The historic renovation and adaptive reuse of Glendale’s historic Masonic Temple into CBRE’s new offices is one of my favorites. On May 1 of 2015 we were brought in to evaluate the historic eight-story concrete building, continued to design the seismic retrofitting and other structural modifications, and construction was completed by the end of December. The $16 million renovation was completed in approximately eight months from beginning of design to occupancy. The contractor’s thorough documentation of unforeseen conditions and the architect’s flexibility in design, coupled with our out-of-the-box solutions, are credited for the success of the project. The project has won numerous structural, architectural, and preservation awards.
TZL: How have you helped your firm to outperform some competitors? What do you feel sets your firm apart?
DC: Strong communication skills are essential in all aspects of our lives. My emphasis on great communication has been key to my success. At Structural Focus, we strive to become “trusted advisors” to our clients. Therefore, we hire top quality technical people with the personality and communication skills to develop strong relationships with our team and our clients. We strengthen our skills through continuous education, not only technical but also non-technical training.
TZL: Any news you care to share about Structural Focus projects or anything else?
DC: We are constantly looking to hire great engineers at all levels! We are currently working on great projects including the renovation of a large historic hotel in downtown Los Angeles and the design of new headquarters for a major entertainment company. Structural Focus is rapidly growing and I am very optimistic about our future! We are also very excited to have been named the #1 structural firm in the Best Firms to Work For list by the Zweig Group in 2016 and Top 5 Best Places to Work in Los Angeles by the Los Angeles Business Journal. It’s a wonderful feeling to have our staff validate that we have successfully created the firm that I envisioned at the beginning of this journey.
TZL: Are you married? Children? Pets?
DC: Kate and I have been married for 36 years, and we have two grown sons. We have always had at least one or two dogs in our house, currently a rescued French bulldog and a French/American bulldog mix – Ricky and Lucy.
TZL: What’s one thing most people at the firm don’t know about you?
DC: From age 16 to 21 I worked in the rides department at a theme park called King’s Dominion. I started on the kiddie rides and was eventually promoted to one of two park ride supervisors overseeing 26 rides. I can probably still operate any theme park ride out there. That job taught me several life-lessons, including how to handle “unhappy” people.
TZL: Best vacation spot? Dream destination?
DC: Every year, we meet our extended family at a small beach in North Carolina – my family has been vacationing there since I was a teenager. Several years ago, Kate and I sailed the Greek islands with good friends for a couple of weeks. It was very special. We now dream about living in Tuscany for several months when we get a chance. We’ll see.
TZL: Last book read?
DC: An American Caddy in St. Andrews by Oliver Horowitz. I love golf and was lucky enough to go there this past summer with some friends. Good to Great is also a very meaningful book for us, especially in the early stages of the firm’s growth.
TZL: What’s the last movie you saw in the theater?
DC: Hacksaw Ridge.
TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you’ve ever received?
DC: It was from my father. “Always hire people smarter than you.”
TZL: Who is a leader you admire? Why?
DC: Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee – sounds strange, doesn’t it? They both found themselves in incredibly difficult situations and never lost their integrity.
TZL: What advice would you give to someone interested in starting their own firm?
DC: Don’t start anything if you do not have the ability to develop client relationships. In addition, have a clear vision, hire only the best, have adequate capital to get you through the cash flow issues, become a sponge for advice and then make up your own mind. You are going to fail frequently at some things, learn from those failures and move on.
TZL: When you’re not working, what types of activities do you enjoy?
DC: I ride a road bike three times a week and I love to play golf (my father taught me to play when I was 7 years old). I also love to travel and spend time with my wife and my family.
TZL: Favorite lunch?
DC: Anything. As long as I don’t have to eat too late.