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Two Decades of Employee Ownership

April 01, 2009 |

On December 31, 1988, as employees at KCI were ringing in the New Year, they were also celebrating the purchase of their engineering firm just weeks earlier from the British holding company Hanson Trust PLC. That purchase made the Sparks, Md.-based KCI (now KCI Technologies) the largest employee-owned engineering firm in the Old Line State. Twenty-one years later, with more than 1,000 employees, KCI still holds that distinction.

Employee ownership defines KCI's corporate culture. KCI is 100% employee-owned through an ESOP; no single employee owns more than 3% of the stock. As a result, says Terry F. Neimeyer, PE, the firm's CEO since 1999 and chairman since 2001, everyone has a vested interest in the firm's success. "We have the best business model going," says Neimeyer. "When we do well as a firm, our employees do well."

Employees have benefited from the firm's three decades of success:

Stock has appreciated more than 940% since 1988.KCI has expanded to 27 offices in 13 states.In 2008, KCI was ranked #33 in BD+C's Giants 300 list of the nation's top 50 engineering firms, with $20.79 million in building design-related revenues.KCI continues to add to its roster of professional specialties, including MEP, structural, and geotechnical engineering; construction management; telecommunications; cultural, natural and water resource management; security consulting; and sustainability services.

Employees are involved in all aspects of the firm's leadership. One employee owner is elected to the firm's board of directors, another to the board of trustees, for two-year terms.

The employee representative to the board of directors also serves a two-year term as chair of the Companywide Employee Committee, which meets bi-monthly and serves as a conduit of employee input to upper management. Numerous benefits upgrades have resulted from these meetings, including bereavement leave, domestic partner benefits, a Roth 401(k), and additional paid vacation days.

Employee representation on the board of directors also led to the creation of KCI's formal training program. The firm allocates about $1,000 a year per employee to continuing education. Employees participate in 40 hours of training annually, including conferences, seminars, classes, and lunch-and-learns. Neimeyer asks that each employee master a new skill every year. "When you add a new skill, you make KCI and yourself more profitable," he says.

The firm's extensive professional development portfolio includes:

Year-long mentoring program. New junior staff employees are teamed with employees with at least five years of industry experience.Project Management Academy (for mid-level staff). An annual one-day offsite where some 150 employees (both engineers and support staff) at three different levels receive instruction from senior KCI staff and outside trainers.Advanced, professional, and emerging leadership training programs. A two-year, invitation-only program designed to turn junior- and senior-level managers into KCI's future leadership.Tuition reimbursement. Employees are reimbursed up to $12,000 for work-related classes, undergraduate studies, or advanced degrees. (Employees with less than five years' tenure are reimbursed 80% up to $12,000 annually.)

KCI's unofficial motto: "Work hard, play hard." Every office is encouraged to host employee programs, such as golf outings, company picnics, casino nights, and kids' days. An annual awards banquet recognizes employees who have been promoted, earned degrees, professional licenses, or certification, or reached service milestones. Additional awards are given for KCI project excellence, safety, and administration.

Each year, the firm selects a charity, based on nominations from employees, which becomes the focus of a year-long fundraising effort run by KCI employees. Past beneficiaries include the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, Habitat for Humanity, and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. KCI employees raised nearly $20,000 for the American Breast Cancer Foundation one year, and more than $58,000 for the United Way another year.

KCI employees also volunteer their time in their communities. SVP Scott Lang is a diver at the Baltimore Aquarium, where he feeds the fish and answers questions from aquarium visitors. Employees have designed new football stands for Baltimore's Dundalk High School and a new boat dock for the historic Thomas Point Lighthouse, on Chesapeake Bay not far from Annapolis, Md., all pro bono. For their efforts on the Thomas Point project, the firm and KCI environmental engineer Chris Overcash, PE, have been honored by the U.S. Lighthouse Society.


Getting Greener All the Time

Sustainability is part of KCI's five-year strategic plan, which got a big boost when employees moved into the firm's new 120,000-sf green headquarters in December 2008. KCI helped design and engineer the facility, which is being submitted for LEED certification. New hybrid Toyota Highlanders were added to the firm's corporate fleet. Satellite offices are also going green: by the end of 2010, all office operations will have to be sustainable, with ramped-up recycling, source and waste management, and training in green facilities management.
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