Greg Graves’ days at Burns & McDonnell are numbered — 361 by his count, he said Monday morning in an email telling the Kansas City engineering firm’s employee-owners that he will retire as chairman and chief executive officer at the end of the year.
Graves, who came to the firm in 1980 as a mechanical engineer fresh out of the South Dakota School of Mines, will leave a record of robust growth, along with increased civic involvement for the firm and for himself.
Graves, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City in 2011 and its Kansas Citian of the Year in 2015, pledged to do even more in retirement to improve the region he likes to call “big Kansas City.”
“I absolutely love my job,” Graves, who will turn 58 later this month, said in an interview last week. “I’m very proud of all we’ve accomplished. But it’s someone else’s turn.”
That “someone else” is expected to be announced Jan. 11, after a final round of interviews this week of three finalists, all from inside the firm. Graves told the Burns & McDonnell board members of his retirement intentions last spring, “and they were very gracious” in accepting his timetable, he said, which allowed several months to choose his replacement.
Since Graves became CEO at Burns & McDonnell in 2004, it has grown from 1,492 employees and $387 million in annual revenue to more than 5,300 employees and $2.6 billion in revenue. It was the 17th largest U.S. engineering design firm based on 2014 revenue and No. 15 on Fortune’s list of 100 Best Places to Work — rankings Graves hope to improve further during his “sprint to the finish” this year.
“Our focus was never on how many people can we grow this year,” Graves said. “Our focus was on being this great deliverer of services, being focused on the right markets. Being successful in our projects. Being a really safe company. And being one of America’s best places to work.
“And through that we’ve grown a lot. We’ve averaged 10 to 15 percent growth every year I’ve had this job.”
Graves also credits the firm’s employee ownership setup and the spirit of hard work it promotes.
“We work on hard projects, and our people have to work incredibly hard at them,” he said. “Everyone pretty much has their game face on every day.”
One current project he’s most proud of, Graves said, was being “the program manager for Kansas City’s combined overflow project, which is a 25-year, multi-billion-dollar program which will improve the water quality exiting Kansas City for centuries to come.”
Along the way the company’s foundation also has grown, from $4.5 million to $30 million, and made substantial contributions to institutions such as Science City and the University of Kansas Hospital. Around $5 million total has gone to support three rounds of the Battle of the Brains, a competition in which area schools pitch ideas for exhibits at Science City — and see the winning entries become reality.
Graves also has been a force at the Chamber of Commerce, where he and outgoing chamber president Jim Heeter initiated the Big 5 program, which identified five goals for the region and is credited with getting various agencies and governments talking and working together.
“Greg Graves has left an indelible and positive mark on both his company and his community,” Heeter said. “Greg’s vision for ‘Big KC’ resulted in the chamber’s Big 5 goals, bringing new energy, drive, and focus on five areas key to growth in both our economy and our quality of life. …
“I know that his retirement from Burns & McDonnell does not mean a retirement from his community activism and altruism. I look forward to his next chapter.”
Graves noted that one Big 5 goal had been checked off, promoting the Animal Health Corridor from Manhattan to Columbia, “and I think we’re about to reach another,” moving the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s conservatory downtown and establishing an arts campus there. “Starting the Big 5 also gave me a chance to talk with leaders all across the area, and to get perspective on how strong the area really is.”
And with that perspective, Graves said, he and his wife, Deanna, are committed “to moving Kansas City from a top 25 city to a top 10 city.”
Their efforts will focus on KU Hospital and the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Graves is board chairman for both institutions, and in 2014 he and his wife contributed $1 million to the hospital, and the Burns & McDonnell Foundation gave $2.5 million.
“I think KU Hospital is already obviously a top 25 institution,” he said, “with far more patients wanting to get in than it can accommodate — patients from all 50 states.” And with a few more improvements, he said, it could be a top 10 academic hospital and compete with the very best.
Bob Page, the hospital’s president and chief executive officer, said, “The University of Kansas Hospital is fortunate we will continue to benefit from his guidance and foresight. … Greg and his wife, Deanna, will also continue to lead the fundraising effort for our new Cambridge North patient tower. Our hospital and our community are fortunate to have Greg on our team.”
As for their other focus, Graves said: “Kansas City has become this booming arts and theater community. The Kauffman Center (for the Performing Arts) was a part of that. I think the best way to develop that further is for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre to explode into a top 10 theater company.
“It already has a top 10 artistic director in Eric Rosen. Now it needs top financial support and a commitment to being a best place to work.”
Graves knows something about workplace culture and benefits. Burns & McDonnell has made the Fortune list of 100 Best Places to Work four years in a row and five times total, rising to 15th place last year. To do that, Graves said, “You have to really work at programs that make your place better,” and each year the firm examines what it will do next.
A recent focus was making it a better place for working mothers, and that resulted in more flexible work hours and, Graves said, “this spring we will open our first ever child care center with space for 144 babies and toddlers.” The firm also will add an on-site pharmacy.
As for his own family, Graves will have at least a little more time for his three children and five grandchildren, most of whom live in this area. And he and his wife, who live in Stanley, have bought land south of town for a small cattle ranch, where he said they hoped to establish “incredible environmental stewardship” for water use and other resources.
“I don’t know where we can get the talent for that … maybe around here,” he joked, given Burns & McDonnell’s experience in water projects.
So Graves said retirement, though a year off, was already causing a lot of excitement for him, though admittedly mixed with “some melancholy creeping in … and a touch of sadness.” But he has no doubt the firm will be in good hands, he said, whichever candidate the board chooses to succeed him.
“One of the things I like most about these three is that they’re all very different from me in their experience, in their management style,” he said. “It’s time for that next leadership and that next leadership style.”