Kimley – Horn: How to Build the “People Drive Success” Culture

Putting employee's development at the heart of Kimley-Horn’s steady growth, this firm is fostering the philosophy that support its teams comprehensively.
Kimley-Horn female staff work on international airport project
Courtesy: Kimley-Horn
By | 10 min read

Kimley-Horn is a design consulting firm specializing in engineering, land development and environmental services, and is among those organizations mindful of making sure it is diversified in the industries it represents. Founded in 1967, this North Carolina-based company has more than 90 offices nationwide today.

For many years in a row, Kimley-Horn was named one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, most recently ranking 1st on the Best Workplaces in Consulting & Professional Services 2020.

“I’ve had great personal and professional interaction with everyone at Kimley-Horn,” says Ryan Martin, manager of facilities business planning and support at Bell Helicopter. “They really seem to both enjoy what they do, and they’re good at what they do. And that makes a difference.” Kimley-Horn has worked as Bell Helicopter’s primary civil engineer for more than five years.

“These companies stood out for heroic efforts to care for their employees, their customers and our society in a difficult year. Remarkably, our research found that employee experience scores rose at these workplaces overall last year—a testament to the resilience of their inclusive, high-trust cultures.” — Michael C. Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work.

‘Practice Builders’ Navigates Success

What makes Kimley-Horn unique in the consulting industry is the “Practice Builder” philosophy that this firm has been fostering to lead its internal practices. Providing the flexibility to exercise its entrepreneurial spirit to pursue clients and projects that they are truly passionate about, this philosophy allows its staff the opportunity to navigate their own career paths while having the support and technical expertise of a team.

Its Practice Builders range from civil engineers to environmental scientists and are committed to growing, mentoring, and developing younger staff to become future Practice Builders in the firm. This entrepreneurial “enterprise within an enterprise” approach that Kimley-Horn first implemented 50 years ago is still proving to be a perfect fit for today’s business environment.

Kimley-Horn project managers in a workshop
Courtesy: Kimley-Horn

People are at the heart of Kimley-Horn’s steady growth over the last several years. An employee-driven market strategy has brought both solid talent and more work to the firm. Since 2013, Kimley-Horn has grown its regional revenue from $84.39 million to $917 million in 2019, an average increase of $140 million per year.

“Our growth is almost exclusively organic,”– Aaron Nathan, Senior Vice President, Texas Regional Leader, Kimley-Horn. “The vast majority of our project growth comes from existing clients, who make up more than 90% of Kimley- Horn’s business.

“So, the markets that we serve are as much a function of where our practice builders take us as they are strategic firm initiatives,” Nathan explains. “There are certain markets that we’re interested in pursuing and targeting, but we need practice builders to lead us into those things.”

The resilient design market across Texas and surrounding states has further bolstered the company’s performance. But what makes Kimley-Horn unique is that its design portfolio is driven by its employees’ interests and specialties. The firm allows its “practice builders” to seek out opportunities in new or existing service areas. It has various specific strategies to push this philosophy.

#1. Expand the Employee Source

The growth model pushes the firm’s younger practice builders to find new market sectors to develop and attracts senior professionals to the firm as well.

The incentive-based approach appeals to many new engineering graduates, Nathan says. The firm invests heavily in training and mentoring young professionals over four or five years, and then they are ready to find new clients and opportunities on their own, he says.

“How are we able to grow without an acquisition or a merger? It’s because we have invested in people who are now stepping up into practice roles and serving their own clients, both existing and new,” Nathan says.

Kimley-Horn’s strength and stability as a privately held firm and seeing all the consolidation in the industry around it, has created opportunities not just to attract senior professionals to the firm but also creates consistency and stability with its clients.

#2. Increase Gender Balance

An increasing number of the college graduates that Kimley-Horn is hiring are women. Years ago, Kimley-Horn decided to focus on recruiting, developing, and retaining women in the practice. Company leadership discovered that the retention rate for women in the practice was lower than the retention rate for men, even though the number of women in engineering was increasing.

“We’re working to increase the rate of retention of women in practice so that ultimately more women can contribute in the way we know they’re capable of doing and are already doing,” Nathan says.

Kimley-Horn project lead work on project checklist
Courtesy: Kimley-Horn

Included in the program, called Lasting Impact for Tomorrow, or LIFT, is increased support for women during pregnancy, maternity leave, and the period after returning to work; career forums to facilitate networking and career development; emergency backup childcare; and career development workshops focused on topics pertinent to women.

“It’s not a social effort, it’s a business-based reason to develop our practice builders, and more and more so, those practice builders are women,” Nathan explains. “We’re not doing LIFT to get external validation. We’re doing LIFT because there is a clear business case to why we should add more support for this group of practicing professionals.”

The second full year of results from this program showed a significant decrease in the retention gap between men and women, and the number of women with practices of more than $1 million per year at the firm has increased by more than 90%. In 2020, Kimley-Horn named one of #23 in Fortune Best Workplaces for Women™

Diversity: The Power of Cooperation

Besides providing employees best policies to develop their career path, Kimley-Horn also is always committed to an inclusive environment where diversity is celebrated. This means the firm aims at creating and sustaining an environment, where employees feel they treated fairly and equitably and have an equal opportunity to flourish — no matter who they are or what they do. Prioritizing diversity and inclusion helps this firm all grow, by bringing broader perspectives, different points of view, and a greater understanding of the increasingly diverse client base and communities it serves. By this, it can fuel innovation and increase its competitive advantage within the marketplace.

This company has a unique way of setting its company vision. Rather than a “top-down” declaration, its vision flows from the collective input of its employees. Its vision statement summarizes the type of firm its founders imagined: A firm whose direction would be determined by the passions and inspirations of its employees. A firm that would embrace growth, collaboration, adaptation, and reinvention. A firm where every day, each employee could look at an opportunity and say,

“It all begins here”–while simultaneously embracing the notion that, “It can all begin with me.” – Kimley-Horn describes on its website. This firm’s employees are always supported to be initiative-taking, enthusiastic, driven to achieve, risk-taking, confident, hardworking, and able to connect with people.

Kimley-Horn engineers and project manager collaborate in a session
Courtesy: Kimley-Horn

How Teamwork Spirit Becomes Heart at Kimley-Horn?

At Kimley-Horn, teamwork is paramount to its success. Every team member, from its young professionals to its senior project managers, is an equally asset to its clients’ success. Everyone has responsibility and ownership in this firm’s projects, and the firm celebrate it accomplishments as a team.

“What Kimley-Horn does exceptionally well is work together. When I need extra help to complete a project, I get it, whether it is from another office or region. The best part is that by sharing all our resources, our professionals experience a wide array of disciplines and practices. “– Shared an employee Kimley-Horn

“Regardless of project type, all Kimley-Horn projects are managed as a team effort and all member firms of the team are fully integrated into the overall delivery plan.” – David “Charlie” Rice at Rice Associates, Inc.

This company also focus on providing its employees with resources to become a well-rounded professional, which can be listed as Technical Training, Major Training or Career Training. These programs are not only supported but also primarily facilitated by leaders at Kimley-Horn, including its president.

Project Handling: Key to Thrive

The internal cohesion – which leads to growth – would seems sufficient to qualify Kimley-Horn to be ENR Southeast’s Design Firm of the Year. But it is the way the firm managed these projects that has most impressed owners, particularly when having to address multiple, sometimes conflicting issues and challenges.

For example, years ago, Paul Morris, former president, and CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc., had credited Kimley-Horn for helping forge a new project delivery approach in partnership with the Georgia Dept. of Transportation that contributed to the $43-million, three-mile Westside Trail project in southwest Atlanta being able to qualify for a critical $18-million federal grant.

“A multidisciplinary variety of skill sets is always needed when dealing with highly complex, fast-track, highly politicized projects,” Morris says. “As the lead design firm, Kimley-Horn ensured that we would receive a gold standard of design excellence, with the responsiveness to keep the scope moving while also helping us deal with other issues. This kind of standard is now expected, and Kimley-Horn exceeded it.”

Or more recently, as the lead civil engineering firm, Kimley-Horn worked with the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority to relocate utilities, redo concrete paving, and design new bollard locations for this project, doubling the size of the concourse. The newly modernized Concourse B at Memphis International Airport not only updated a more than 50-year-old structure but added 23 new gates that allows the airport to continue to grow.

Kimley-Horn leadership team in a ribbon cutting ceremony
Courtesy: Kimley-Horn

In addition to making seismic enhancements and consolidating airline and retail operations into a single concourse, the airport authority is adding higher ceilings, more natural light, wider circulation areas and larger gate areas. Other improvements include more seating, moving walkways, charging stations in gate areas, a children’s play area, a stage for live performances in the rotunda area and additional lounge areas. “The building will be much more energy efficient and passenger friendly,” – added Scott Brockman, chief executive officer of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.

These increasingly coveted design consultant capabilities are also a direct result of Kimley-Horn’s Practice Builder model, asserts strategic marketing leader Brooks Peed, who recently became chairman of the firm’s board of directors.

“Practice Builders get to work on what projects they want, for the clients they want,” Peed explains. “That helps them focus on providing exceptional client service, which in turn, creates high expectations about quality, responsiveness and creativity. That results in a better experience for the clients, and for us.”

The Bottom Lines

Combining each employee’s personal drive to succeed with the firm’s training programs as well as culture, Kimley-Horn is creating an ideal working environment for its whole team – which proved by various of its award. This can not only increase this firm’s productivity but also enhance a positive culture.

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