President and CEO of Ghafari, a big Michigan firm, has broadened its services, allowing it to weather tough times and maintain an era of growth.
By Liisa Andreassen
As president and CEO of Ghafari (Hot Firm #11 for 2016), a more than 500 person global engineering, architecture, process design, consulting, and construction services firm based in Dearborn, Michigan, Kouhaila “Ki” Hammer, has successfully advanced a diversification strategy that not only helped Ghafari weather the Great Recession but has also enabled the company to experience steady growth.
An accountant by background, Hammer began her career in the audit division of a major public accounting firm, one of the “big eight.” During that time, she was able to gain managerial experience which has helped her to take on the many roles she’s had at Ghafari.
She joined Ghafari as CFO in 1986. She has served as president and CEO since 2000.
“My transition from CFO to CEO came about from my ability to holistically comprehend all aspects of the business,” Hammer says.
A conversation with Hammer.
The Zweig Letter: How have you seen Ghafari evolve over the years?
Ki Hammer: When I first started with Ghafari, there were only three employees and the firm was heavily involved with the automotive industry. Since then, we have grown and diversified tremendously and now specialize in a number of key industries in addition to automotive such as aviation, corporate, education, healthcare, industrial, and manufacturing.
TZL: What are your key leadership strengths?
KH: My ability to work with a variety of people from different industries and backgrounds is key. I can also build strong teams that will support our clients through their respective businesses.
TZL: How would you describe your leadership style?
KH: Collaborative, yet straightforward. I take pride in working with our team to find solutions to the challenges that our clients and business face.
TZL: To date, as CEO, what has been a top challenge and how did you deal with it? What was the outcome?
KH: The severe downturn of the automotive industry – where two of three of our biggest clients went into bankruptcy – during the last recession was tough not only for our clients, but for our employees as well. We worked really hard to diversify our client base to secure a better future for Ghafari and our employees and that helped us to persevere through those years.
TZL: What is your vision for the future of Ghafari?
KH: To be a growing and diversified firm. Our vision is centered on our values, which are to be an AEC firm of the highest reputation, one that is profitable, client-service focused, and committed to developing strong employees both professionally and personally.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project you are especially proud of and why.
KH: The Woodward Headquarters and Manufacturing Campus in Fort Collins, Colorado. Woodward, a longtime supplier of the aerospace industry with a celebrated history, wanted to transform a 100-acre site into a campus encompassing a new corporate headquarters and additional manufacturing and support facilities. This project granted us the opportunity to apply our full range of capabilities, from process design to architecture and facility engineering, to deliver a campus that will help Woodward achieve their goals: growing their business, attracting top talent, and creating jobs in their local community.
TZL: How have you helped your firm to outperform some competitors? What do you feel sets it apart?
KH: We have always managed the company from a holistic business perspective predicated on outstanding client service with sound financial principles. To enable us to do that, we have taken great measures to provide a comfortable and happy work environment for our team members. In addition to helping us retain talent, we are also able to position ourselves as a destination firm for prospective employees. Our belief is that employees who feel appreciated and valued are those who are able to perform better in a field that can often be demanding. We offer several resources to help our employees balance their personal and professional lives.
TZL: Is there any news you care to share about Ghafari projects or anything else?
KH: Yes. Our firm has experienced a great deal of growth and diversification over the last decade, entering new industries and geographic markets. As we have grown, so have the ways of representing the firm to our clients and even to our employees. Due to that fragmentation, we recently went through a comprehensive rebranding initiative during which we clearly defined a brand promise that unites our organization. We developed all-new messaging and visuals, including our logo, corporate website, and all of our marketing materials that allow us to better communicate this promise internally and externally.
TZL: Are you married? Children? Pets?
KH: My husband and I have been married almost 30 years, and we have three independent grown children, two sons, and a daughter.
TZL: What’s one thing most people at the firm don’t know about you?
KH: I love to play card games; one of my favorites is Euchre.
TZL: Best vacation spot? Dream destination?
KH: I enjoy any place that is conducive to walking and discovering.
TZL: What’s the last book you read?
KH: It’s Your Ship by D. Michael Abrasho .
TZL: What’s your favorite movie?
KH: I enjoy old movies. One of my favorite movies is Sabrina, the original with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn.
TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you’ve ever received?
KH: “Don’t walk around with a chip on your shoulder.” One of my first supervisors out of college told me that and it has always stayed with me.
TZL: Is there a leader you admire? Why?
KH: Mary Barra. She was appointed to a difficult position as CEO of General Motors having to face Congress to respond to situations she did not create, and has handled the position with confidence and dignity.
TZL: When you’re not working, what types of activities do you enjoy?
KH: I enjoy working out and spending time with my friends and family.
TZL: Favorite lunch?
KH: One of my favorite lunches is tabbouleh (a Middle Eastern salad). I also really enjoy potatoes − all kind. Baked, mashed, fried, you name it.