Third-generation leader of multidiscipline firm embraces debate, seeks consensus, and likes anything with bacon.
By Liisa Andreassen
It started with his great uncle. Then his father. And now him. Firm president John Hiltz is the third generation of leadership at the Metro Detroit-based OHM Advisors (Hot Firm #15 for 2016), and that’s right where he wants to be.
“I started working at OHM before I even graduated from high school,” Hiltz says. “I did everything from landscaping to delivery and was grateful for the opportunity.”
A conversation with John Hiltz.
The Zweig Letter: How have you seen OHM evolve since its founding?
John Hiltz: When I started working here 33 years ago, we had about 35 people. We’ve grown organically through a series of small M&As – companies with similar mindsets. Today, we have 390 employees, but that number seems to change almost daily. We also started out as somewhat of a generalist firm. While our mission to advance communities has remained the same, we’ve grown our expertise, disciplines, and geographies and we now provide architecture, planning, and engineering.
TZL: What are your key strengths? What do you feel the key strengths are for an effective leader?
JH: Overall, it’s important to be a forward thinker, to listen to opposing ideas, and to have a good moral compass. Personally, I’m team focused, an activator, and enjoy putting people together.
TZL: How would you describe your leadership style?
JH: Consensus builder. I’m open minded to opposition. No good decision is made without debate.
TZL: What has been your greatest challenge to date and how did you deal with it?
JH: From 2010 to 2011 we had to balance an ownership transition and wanted to take care of staff during the transition. The economy was not good, but we pushed through and moved to more of a doer/seller model. We focused on growth through mergers. It was stressful, but our willingness to be bold paid off. We also had not overleveraged ourselves financially, so by 2012 we were in a shotgun position.
TZL: What is your vision for the future of OHM?
JH: I’m working on a plan called “Vision 2026.” It has a lot to do with keeping up with technology. It’s focused on smart cities and sustainability and being a trusted advisor and developing long-term, sustainable relationships. As a side note, we still have the same four clients that we had when the business was founded in 1962.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project you are especially proud of and why.
JH: There are two that I’d like to talk about. The first is the Northland Center Mall Redevelopment, in Southfield, Michigan. We recently completed the redevelopment plan for the 125-acre site of the former Northland Center. As the first suburban mall in the country, Northland was once an iconic regional destination. After falling on hard times in recent decades, the mall was purchased by the City in 2016 with the intent of turning the site into a mixed-use destination. As the lead planners for the multidisciplinary project team, OHM Advisors worked with the City of Southfield, the Southfield Downtown Development Authority, and community members to create a long-term phased redevelopment plan for the shuttered site. The final plan incorporates concepts that were identified by the public as important – including public space to support community programming – as well as prime uses for the area as identified through market study. The site is designed to include five distinct and unified districts that surround a new 10-acre central park with a water feature. Surrounding this central park are 850 residential units, a 125-room hotel, and close to 400,000 square feet of retail and medical office. The site is designed to be highly-walkable and connected to adjacent neighborhoods.
The second is the I-75 and University Drive diverging diamond interchange in Auburn Hills, Michigan. This area is known for its booming business climate, but a critically deteriorating bridge and roadway at the I-75/University Drive interchange, the gateway to its university and business district, had traffic backed up for miles. So in 2008, city leaders tapped OHM Advisors to lead a national innovative concept study of potential interchange configurations. Our response: a novel diverging diamond interchange that could alleviate the traffic problems and set the tone for the city’s vital business and higher education resources. It opened in 2015, solving a complicated interchange problem and making it faster and safer for drivers and pedestrians to get to and from Auburn Hills’ university and business district.
TZL: How have you helped your firm to outperform some competitors? What do you feel sets you apart?
JH: By hiring for talent, establishing a compelling vision and being open to opportunity and change.
TZL: Is there any other news you care to share about OHM projects or anything else?
JH: We’re devoted to attracting top talent through top projects. We stay focused on people and rely a great deal on word of mouth.
TZL: Are you married? Children? Pets?
JH: I’ve been married for 31 years. I have three children and three and a half grandchildren (the first boy is on the way!).
TZL: What’s one thing most people at the firm don’t know about you?
JH: I was in a fraternity in college and somewhat of a party boy. You could say I majored in “social dynamics.”
TZL: What’s your best vacation spot? Do you have a dream destination?
JH: Anywhere with my family that is warm and sunny. Someday, I’d like to visit Ireland.
TZL: What’s the last book you read?
JH: The Search for Unrational Leadership by Charles Fleetham. It’s all about leaving your comfort zone.
TZL: What’s the last movie you saw?
JH: The Intern.
TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you’ve ever received?
JH: There are a few. There’s no substitute for hard work; focus on the right things and the rest will follow; be open minded and open to change; and leave “comfortopia.”
TZL: Who’s a leader you admire?
JH: My dad. He was dedicated and had a strong moral compass. I also admire President Lincoln. He surrounded himself with people who were unlike him.
TZL: When you’re not working, what types of activities do you enjoy?
JH: Family trips and cruises, trout fishing (it allows me to totally disconnect), and following Michigan football.
TZL: What’s your favorite lunch?
JH: A BLT – actually – anything with bacon.