Richard Hangen: Paving the way

January 2014 » Features » CE PROFILE
Pursuit of interest in traffic and transportation planning guided co-founder of VHB.
Maureen Foody

VHB
Established
1979
Headquarters
Watertown, Mass.
Size
950 employees in 22 offices
Ownership
Employee owned
Website
www.vhb.com
Primary services
Civil engineering, transportation planning and engineering, environmental permitting and restoration, surveying, landscape architecture, planning/urban design, sustainability/LEED project certification, and structural engineering.

When Richard Hangen was a junior in high school in Red Lion, Pa., a career fair just after the Russian launch of Sputnik 1 made a significant mark in his life. A representative from the local Caterpillar Tractor plant explained that the United States needed more engineers in order to remain competitive.

"Somehow his talk really hit me. I even wrote a paper that year on the application of physics in building bridges," Hangen recalled. He enrolled in the civil engineering program at the University of Delaware. "I had no qualms about what I wanted to do. I entered right into the program and just stuck to it," Hangen said.

Through his classwork, Hangen learned the value of teamwork. "Every important class project I could remember had you working with others. Since college, all of my career endeavors were executed through teamwork in order to come up with a solution," explained Hangen.

He graduated in January 1963 with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. Soon after, Hangen began working at Modjeski & Masters in Philadelphia. The firm was known for the pioneering work of Ralph Modjeski and Frank Masters in the design of large bridges. While he was working, Hangen continued his studies, taking night, weekend, and summer classes at Drexel University to attain his master's degree in civil engineering.

Through his work at Modjeski & Masters, Hangen was quickly realizing that his interests as an engineer were in traffic and transportation planning. This led him to join the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, where he met one of his most influential mentors, Jack Kintslinger. "He taught me a lot and helped solidify my interest in transportation planning," Hangen said.

His next role was with Alan M. Voorhees & Associates (AMV), in the firm's New Jersey office. "I was hired to manage and deliver two very large traffic operations studies in northern New Jersey and then transferred to the AMV Boston office after completion of these projects," Hangen said.

Rich Hangen, senior principal and co-founder, VHB

Hangen greatly enjoyed the technical work he was doing at AMV. Under the mentoring of the late Walt Hansen he learned the skills required to be a consulting engineer/manager. "One of the best lessons I learned from Walt was that if you want to be successful you have to ask questions of your client, don't assume that you have the answers, and you'll realize how much there is to understand about their potential problems," he said.

At the AMV Boston office, Hangen met the colleagues with whom he would begin the next chapter of his career: the fellow founders of VHB. In late 1978, Hangen, along with Bob Vanasse, Bill Roache, and John Kennedy, set out to form their own consulting firm.

Hangen cited Jan. 1, 1979, as the day VHB began, starting out as a boutique firm in Boston that was mostly focused on transportation work. "With our prior employer, our responsibility was limited to planning, which did not allow us to do engineering work. This always bugged me from an entrepreneurial standpoint," said Hangen. "At the beginning on our own, we worked hard to establish a reputation for ourselves as traffic and transportation engineers. We distinguished our firm from our competition by focusing on client service and delivering quality products.

Soon the company decided to expand into more engineering fields; they hired Bob Brustlin, an up and coming transportation engineer who serves as VHB CEO and president today. "By then we could deliver the whole package from planning through design – in what I call our storming and forming years – but we were still short-term thinkers for the most part. We would get together every Friday and try to figure out how to handle next week; next year never even figured into the equation."

VHB continued to grow until hard economic times during the late 1980s hit the firm swiftly, forcing them to slow things down. As president, Hangen steered the company toward the decision that they needed to clearly define their mission and create a brochure that really told the VHB story. Management consultant Dick Cross, whom Hangen met while taking Cross's class at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, helped VHB figure out exactly what it was that the firm stood for with clients and with VHB employees. Initial findings revealed that everyone within the organization had a different idea of what it was that they did. Using this information, they developed a corporate purpose, which elucidated the company's core values, and a mission statement.

"Our original mission was to build a base to become an ENR Top 100 Design Firm. It's kind of strange that it took 10 years in business to get to the point of creating a mission, but for the first time we strategically planned for the future," Hangen said. "It was a defining point in VHB's history for sure. We could have easily gone down the tubes were it not for that newfound clarity."

In thinking about VHB's history, two projects stand out in Hangen's mind. The first was one of VHB's early 1979 land development projects – a large institutional mixed-use project in Harvard Square where VHB performed the transportation planning. "We were pretty small in those days, so I even had my kids out counting cars at intersections. In the end, this project helped put us on the map with land developers," Hangen said.

The second project was VHB's work on the Big Dig, which Hangen joked may have cost him a few years of living, but he remains proud of being involved in such an immense, successful project. "It took us several tries to win a project like that one; they were all so competitive and time-consuming. After a few years of trying, we finally won one and were able to prove ourselves again," he said.

Hangen visits a construction site in Bangalore, India

Currently, Hangen describes himself as "pre-retired" with the title of senior principal – "emphasis on senior," he slyly remarked. His current tasks are the occasional visit and oversight in VHB's Boston and Watertown locations for special projects, but mostly he is working on a quality assurance program across all VHB's transportation departments.

"I only do the fun stuff now. If I'm asked to get involved in a project, they know I'm going to ask whether or not it's fun," joked Hangen.

Part of the reason Hangen remains involved was a decision to make VHB into a generational company. "At one point we were being pursued by one of the big firms quite adamantly; we had to decide what direction to take. Even though we probably would have walked away with more money, we decided to sustain VHB and proceed in a way that rewarded everyone who contributed to the success of the company," Hangen said.

Greatly inspired by the book, "The Living Company," by Arie De Geus, Hangen felt it was important that VHB become a company that existed to help everyone who works within it to achieve their highest potential. "We found a way through the generational company model for the owners and senior management to be rewarded for their efforts; and, the model helped everyone in the organization too," he said.

Hangen at the Bangalore Mysore Corridor

Hangen also believes it's important for civil engineers to realize how important their say is in local, national, and global environments: "While our primary purpose as engineers is to help create a safe and functional world, given the governmental dysfunction of today, we also need to speak out – to find a way as a nation to continue to invest in our infrastructure and ensure that we have continued growth," he said. "We need to make sure that message gets out there."

Hangen said that an important aspect of his personal success was how the pursuit of what interested him helped form his career path. "I probably could have held many different positions, but I always felt so passionate about traffic and transportation planning that my decisions were always based on what could get me most involved in that arena. That, along with plenty of luck, is how I ended up here," Hangen said.

That success has been rewarded with numerous awards and recognition for Hangen and VHB as a firm. Perhaps most significant is the personal success when Hangen was honored by his alma mater, the University of Delaware, which elected him to its Wall of Fame and named its intelligent transportation systems lab, located in DuPont Hall, as the Richard E. Hangen Intelligent Transportation Systems Laboratory.

Hangen now enjoys spending most of his time with his family and friends. Recently, he celebrated his wife's birthday in Hawaii with his family.

Hangen is in the office one week a month and enjoys spending most of his time with family and friends. "We like it warm, so we spend our winters in Florida where I can golf, garden, and keep traveling. We traveled to Hawaii this past summer to celebrate my wife Claire's birthday with our two children, their spouses, and our two grandchildren."

Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached at maureen.t.f@gmail.com.

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