President and CEO of Wallace Engineering (Tulsa, OK), a structural and civil engineering consulting firm that believes in being active citizens, in both our profession and communities.
By Liisa Andreassen
Hendrick has experience with educational, entertainment, and retail buildings throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. He says the relationships he builds with not only clients, but employees, are the most important part of his job.
“We have a lot of great people who are passionate about architecture and the application of engineering to the built environment,” Hendrick says. “They enjoy what they do, and they have fun doing it. Employees feel appreciated and part of something. They’re happy with the compensation, particularly overtime pay and frequency of raises (every six months). The culture is second-to-none and allows everyone to have a good work-life balance.”
A conversation with Tom Hendrick.
The Zweig Letter: How has COVID-19 affected your business on a daily basis?
Tom Hendrick: All of our office locations are under shelter-in-place orders, so it’s advised that employees work from home. However, we’re considered an essential business in each location, so we are allowed to work from the office, if needed. We also have a couple of letters from clients doing essential business requesting that we work and continue to assist them. Approximately 85 percent of our 170 employees are working from home though. Our IT people had us prepared to work from home prior to the pandemic, so we have not experienced many technical issues. I have personally checked with each of our employees since this started and found that communication has been fantastic, both with clients and with each other within the offices. We have been using Google Hangouts for communicating within our office for quite a while and have continued to do so more frequently with so many employees now at home.
TZL: You were asked to become managing principal in 2002. What do you most attribute that to?
TH: Our previous managing principal left the firm to start his own company. Someone was needed to fill that role. A big responsibility of the managing principal was to hire employees. I had always taken an interest in potential employees when they interviewed, so the former managing principal always made stops at my office with new employees. I believe on his way out the door he recommended me as a possible replacement. Additionally, and probably more importantly, my partners recognized I had leadership qualities, was trustworthy, and was someone who did what he said he was going to do.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
TH: My family, especially my wife, has always been extremely supportive of my career and it started from the beginning. Mary and I married when we were in college and she quit school to work and support me in finishing both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. When I started my professional career, she accommodated me working nights and weekends when needed and understood that traveling was also part of the job. She is a rock star in that regard! I think it’s nearly impossible to completely separate work and family. I bring work home on a regular basis and Mary and I often discuss what is happening at the office and what I do each day. Mary also has always been a good sounding board to bounce ideas off of.
TZL: Are you seeking some kind of financial assistance during the COVID-19 crisis? If so, what type?
TH: We increased our credit line at the bank and we applied for a small business loan as part of the stimulus plan. We have already been approved and we are supposed to receive funding today.
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
TH: For the most part, I would say I am a democratic leader – that is, I get thoughts and feedback of team members, then I make final decisions. But I also have a servant leader mentality whereby I try to share power and put the needs of the others first.
TZL: Do you still run? How do you make time? Tell me a little about your routine and why it’s important to you personally and professionally.
TH: I do still run some, but I am walking more than I run these days. I have a goal each week of 15 to 20 miles running, walking, or a combination thereof. I logged 825 miles in 2019, and I estimate 30 percent of it was running. I believe that exercise is important, not only for your physical being but also your mental and spiritual being. Running (and now walking) has always been my “classroom of silence” time – a time when I can be alone, think, and really come to know who I am. It is part of my routine; it’s who I am.
TZL: What novel approaches are you bringing to recruitment, and how are your brand and differentiators performing in the talent wars?
TH: We try to use our culture to find the right person. We look for people who align with the company’s core purpose (why we exist) and our core values (how we behave). We set up our interview with creative questions that will determine if they share our core purpose and core values. Example questions we might ask prospective employees include: “What three qualities would you want to be known for if you were defining your personal brand?” or “What business values are most important to you?” Additional questions might include: “What is your impression of our culture and what do you like/dislike about it?” Or “What is it about you that you think you could bring to our company that would mesh well with our culture?” I don’t know if we are any more successful than other firms on getting the quantity of people that we need, but I believe we are getting people that identify with us and want be here, which cuts down on turnover and the need to hire replacements.
TZL: You joined Wallace just a few years after the firm opened. Since you joined in 1988, what have been some of the most significant changes you’ve seen take place?
TH: We were a 20-person, single office, structural engineering firm when I started. Our founder, Tom Wallace, was the sole owner. The most significant changes have been adding:
- Civil engineering services
- More offices (six in my 31 years)
- Additional owners (currently 26)
To me, these growth changes had positive impacts on the culture and created opportunities for employees.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
TH: The biggest pitfall to avoid is waiting until it is too late. At Wallace, we were very fortunate that our founder, Tom Wallace, was more interested in being a small part of something big than he was of being a large part of something small. He started transitioning ownership in 1992 when he was just 40 years old. He just completed the last sell of his stock and 2019 was his last year as a shareholder. So, we have had an ownership transition plan in place that works for a number of years.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
TH: We have always let employees work from home for short periods of time on an as-needed basis. Obviously, we have never had so many working at home, nor have we had people at home for such a long period of time. We have not talked about any policy changes at this time but I suspect that we will continue to have the same policy that we had, but will be more flexible with all employees going forward.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
TH: Keeping the employees happy. If I am able to do that, they will take care of everything else.
TZL: What do you think makes Wallace a Best Firm To Work For?
TH: I don’t think there is any one thing that makes us a Best Firm To Work For but a combination of many things. We have a lot of great people who are passionate about architecture and the application of engineering to the built environment. They enjoy what they do, and they have fun doing it. Employees feel appreciated and part of something. They’re happy with the compensation, particularly overtime pay and frequency of raises (every six months). The culture is second-to-none and allows everyone to have a good work-life balance.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
TH: We treat people professionally and try to provide a fabulous culture so that they don’t want to go anywhere else. It seems to be working. Our employee turnover is regularly less than 5 percent and we have 23 percent of our staff (38 employees) who have been here more than 20 years and nearly 10 percent (15 employees) who have been with us more than 30 years.
TZL: On your firm’s website it says each of your offices is “designed to inspire creativity and promote collaboration.” Can you explain and provide a few examples of how this happens?
TH: Our offices are designed with wide circulation areas and breakout spaces to encourage people to stop and talk to each other. Conference and meeting areas have full-height marker board and tack surfacing, allowing teams to meet easily and work collaboratively. Our workplace modules seat six employees in a group with tall central lay spaces that allow standing meetings and common storage of project materials. Everything is designed to allow our folks to meet easily and work together.