Business View Magazine interviews Barry Schuchard, CEO of KLJ, for our focus on Best Practices in U.S. Infrastructure Construction
What began as a small, family firm has evolved into a dynamic leader in engineering excellence. More than a traditional engineering company, KLJ is on a mission to improve the lives of people by engineering infrastructure, ultimately create a brighter future for generations to come. Headquartered in Bismarck, ND with numerous offices in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Colorado, KLJ is dedicated to creating sustainable communities by providing long-term solutions.
The business was founded in 1938 by Louie and Mary Ellen Veigel, who built a fine reputation based on a strong work ethic and commitment to customer relationships. Their company evolved over the decades from L.W. Veigel Consulting Engineering, to Kadrmas, Lee & Jackson, and is known today as KLJ – a national multi-disciplinary firm, specializing in the markets of aviation, environmental, funding resources, land development, oil & gas, power, public works, right-of-way, structural, survey, telecommunications, transportation, and water. No community is too small; no project too big. The KLJ team has the sophisticated engineering expertise for planning, designing, and supporting infrastructure projects of all shapes and sizes – from roads to runways, pipelines to parks.
Business View Magazine recently had the pleasure of speaking with KLJ CEO, Barry Schuchard; Tom Schneider, VP Client Services; and Kristi Spindler, VP Human Resources & Safety about the firm’s impressive growth, company culture, and vision for the future. The following is an edited version of that enlightening conversation.
BVM: How would you describe the evolution of KLJ?
Schuchard: “I just stepped into this role as CEO at the first of the year, (2021), but KLJ is really the only place that I’ve ever worked. I came here right out of North Dakota State University (NDSU) with a degree in civil engineering and have been here 38 years and it’s been a tremendous experience for me. Over that time, we have been and continue to be an infrastructure provider, providing the essentials in terms of engineering, surveying, and planning. We’re true to that in our nature; it’s like our lifeblood.
“But what has changed, in my mind, is that we’ve become more problem solvers for our customers. Providing all the services is still critical but they are looking for something more. And we know we’ve really arrived when we follow up with client surveys and we hear things like: “It’s really hard for me to put my finger on this but there’s something different about working with the KLJ team.” “Yes, we get tremendous quality and things are done on time and they’re really conscious about the budgets, but it’s the extras they do.” “They’re looking out for our interests and it’s not necessarily something we get a bill for the next day.” It makes us feel really good that we’re doing all those things that are expected but we’re doing so much more. And what really makes me feel good is when that’s happening, our staff is interacting and doing that without being directed. It’s just become natural.
“In the time I’ve been here, it’s become more complex but a lot more rewarding. And we seem to attract the talent that wants to work in that sort of an arena. They find it exciting, they have passion for it, which makes us all the better at it. We’re people-focused. That starts with our emphasis on our staff of 500 employees and it carries right on next into our concern and our care for our customers. And we believe those two things go hand in hand. If we’ve got exceptional people, we’re going to treat our customers in an exceptional way and they’re going to talk about the exceptional experience they’ve had working with us. That might not be what you’d hear from a traditional engineering firm, but I think it captures what we’re all about. And what we’re proud to be able to say that we deliver successfully.”
BVM: What territory do you cover?
Schneider: “We have 21 physical locations in seven states but we work across a bigger footprint with projects in private industries, like oil & gas and Telcom throughout the country. We operate within a combination of physical locations and remote staff, so even if you don’t have people in actual branch locations, we might be remote working in a different territory.
“We like to be close to the communities we serve and one good example of that is our recent expansion to Grand Junction, Colorado. It’s mid-sized community that fit a really good niche for us. We’ve hired a lot of local people there who can serve as project managers and engineers, and that’s given us really good traction right out of the chute in Grand Junction. That will be our new model for growth – to hire local people, get close to the community, make sure we know the market, and then ramp up quickly. Having the remote regional office concept has really helped KLJ move forward.”
Schuchard: “One thing I’m very proud of is how we evaluate moving into a new office, or a new location, or a merger or an acquisition. We do a very good job of reviewing how it went to develop lessons learned and advance those as best practices for our next endeavor. We have a plan, we execute it, and start seeing results so much sooner than before.”
BVM: Do the solutions you offer differ in various communities?
Schneider: “It depends on the location. The services we’ll start with in Grand Junction are more in what we call the public market – transportation, municipal, those kinds of projects. I anticipate later we will move into the private side in oil & gas, aviation, etc.
“Our marketing team did great work with creating awareness about the company in advance of opening in Grand Junction. In addition to networking efforts, we were able to create some brand awareness and make connections with community members.”
Schuchard: “There can be elements that are common but what sets us apart is we don’t come into these situations with a cookie cutter mentality. Although on the surface the project may look similar, the issues that are driving the project, and the wants of the customer, may be very unique. That’s where we need to do a good job of probing, being curious, asking questions, and being really good listeners to make sure we’re delivering solutions that actually solve their problem. And that’s one of our differentiators.”
BVM: Why would people want to work for KLJ?
Spindler: “We bring people onto the KLJ team with a focus on engagement as this then translates into many positives for our employees and the company including engaged clients. This approach speaks back to growth. We have an extremely talented and passionate group of employees who continue to provide an exceptional experience to our clients and make an incredible impact on our communities. As a 100 percent employee-owned company, our KLJers feel an owned pride for the work they do. Growing and developing our staff and working together to ensure our people have the opportunities to accomplish their career goals is part of this approach and a priority. Another part of this approach is a large focus on management development and leadership training within the organization.
“Another key component is work/life balance. That’s also encouraged here – we have support systems in place to make sure those efforts are effective. It’s hard to do in this industry, because we’re so deadline driven, but I think KLJ does a wonderful job of making those options for work/life balance a priority for our employees. And we do envision increased flexibility for working from home as an option as we continue to plan for post-pandemic. Innovation, which also ties into diversity, is also important when it comes to our people. We’re in the development stages of creating an initiative, where we’ll be reaching out to all our employees to tap into their cutting-edge, entrepreneurial ideas that can bring KLJ to the next level as an organization and support our growth strategy.”
BVM: What are the future goals for KLJ?
Spindler: “I believe we are going to continue to be the employer of choice. where the best talent grows, thrives, and makes a continued positive impact on our clients and communities.”
Schuchard: “If I were to sum up our strategy in one phrase, it would be: to manage and sustain growth. That’s important for KLJ for a number of reasons. Mostly, because it creates more opportunities for our staff in terms of career pathing and working on some complex and pretty cool projects. And that translates into building a strong team that is better able to serve our customers. So, it’s not growth at all costs, it’s a very managed scenario that is vital to our success. The focus going forward is on our number one asset, our people.”
Remembering Barry Schuchard
On March 22, 2021, KLJ Engineering announced the passing of CEO Barry Schuchard after a hard-fought battle with cancer. A pillar of KLJ, Schuchard spent 38 years with the company, guiding the organization from many roles over the years, most recently stepping into the CEO role January 1, 2021. His legacy was built on a demand for quality, and openness with communication, and an unwavering trust and confidence in all KLJ employees-owners and projects.
Schuchard began his career with KLJ in 1983 in the company’s Valley City, ND office as a Resident Engineer. Growing his career over almost four decades, he was part of nearly every major event the company undertook, from new offices, new geographies, services and projects. Schuchard was a strong mentor for many in the organization, something he truly enjoyed doing, guiding and supporting career development over a number of years.
Schuchard served as the President of the KLJ Solutions Holding Co. Board of Directors, and was on the NDSU Foundation and Alumni Association. He was passionate about the Red River Zoo, serving in various roles on their Board over the years including President and Vice-President.
KLJ Branding and Communication Manager, Jill Beilke, shares, “Barry was an incredible person, a true leader and made a significant impact on those around him. He will be greatly missed.”
A touching tribute video on the life and legacy of Barry Schuchard was created by the KLJ family.
Our heartfelt condolences from the Business View team… May you rest peacefully, Barry.
AT A GLANCE
What: A national, multi-disciplinary engineering solutions firm
Where: Headquarters in Bismarck, North Dakota