Gary Bowman: The conductor

February 2014 » Features » CE PROFILE
The potent power of creative thinking combines with dedicated partnership in building an influential engineering firm.
Maureen Foody

Growing up around numerous construction sites in Northern Virginia, Gary Bowman, P.E., gained a lifelong passion for construction, doing simple tasks as he accumulated experiences and knowledge about building. His father, Wallace, a homebuilder and general contractor, began his career as a masonry contractor and eventually became a master bricklayer. However, “he never let my brother or me learn how to lay brick — he was afraid that we would get enticed by making money and never go on to college,” Bowman said. Still, “some of my warmest memories are of wrapping up a hard day of work and being able to see a tangible accomplishment. I was always amazed at my father’s ability to visualize the finished product from the beginning and seeing all of the pieces come together.”

Bowman Consulting
Established: 1995
Headquarters: Chantilly, Va.
Size: 550 employees in 28 offices
Ownership: Employee owned
Website: www.bowmanconsulting.com
Primary services: Civil engineering, planning, landscape architecture, surveying, environmental, transportation, construction management, development advisors, water/wastewater, and pipeline design and permitting

Gary Bowman, P.E., president and CEO of Bowman Consulting, is shifting his focus from the geographical extension of the firm to leading the firm into a new state of operational excellence.

That work inspired the young Bowman to keep inquiring and building on those experiences by inquiring about the architecture program at Virginia Tech. However, Bowman wanted to commit to a co-op program so that he could continue working while going to school. “Since architecture is a five-year program at Tech, they didn’t offer the co-op option,” Bowman said. “I asked an advisor what the closest thing was to architecture and the answer was civil engineering.”

Bowman enrolled in the civil engineering program at Virginia Tech and continued to pursue the things that inspired him by combining work in the field with classroom studies. While in the co-op program, Bowman worked with Anderson Associates, a leading consulting firm in Virginia that was headquartered minutes away in Blacksburg. “While there, I was given the responsibility to build a computer model of the entire drainage network in Blacksburg, defining the problem areas and suggesting long-term fixes,” Bowman said. He credits Ken Anderson, the owner of the firm, for giving him the responsibility but also giving him confidence in his own abilities as a burgeoning engineer. The drainage model was used for a number of years after completion.

The most important class to Bowman was Engineering Economics, which instilled the important concept of the time value of money. “It was like a whole world was opened up to me,” Bowman said. “Having an intuitive sense of the time value of money enabled me to realize that a primary responsibility of the engineer is seeing the whole project and getting it over the finish line in a timely manner.”

Gary Bowman (right) with son Greg (left) and Bob Hickey discuss a potential Lansdowne Development Group project

A year after receiving his Bachelor of Science degree from Virginia Tech, Bowman began a 13-year tenure at Urban Engineering in 1981. “I started out as a design engineer working on a variety of real estate development projects — from residential subdivisions to large commercial projects,” Bowman said. “Over the years I worked my way to principal in charge, making me responsible for selling work, performing work profitably, keeping clients happy, and managing staff.”

Eventually, Bowman was inspired to begin his own firm. “My vision of success was to build a 25-person firm,” he said. “I was motivated to pursue different challenges and broaden my skills. To this day, that is what motivates me to continue to expand our firm.”

The new challenges not only are self-promoting but also help the company grow, which provides opportunities for others to grow professionally and personally, fulfilling the firm’s core purpose of “relentless creation of opportunities for aspiring people to thrive and achieve ambitious goals.”

Since launching in 1995 in Fairfax, Va., Bowman Consulting has grown quite a bit from its original five-person team. “We were fortunate to form the firm just as the real estate industry was recovering from a devastating recession and about to embark on a 12-year boom. That was not the product of design, just dumb luck!” Bowman joked. This meant that the early years were not as lean as in many startups. In fact, Bowman has some of the fondest memories from the firm’s first office, which had only 1,200 square feet housing nearly a dozen people.

Left to right: Chief Legal Officer Bob Hickey, Chief Financial Officer Bruce Labovitz, President Gary Bowman, Chief Operating Officer Mike Bruen, and Executive Vice President Mike Birkland meet to discuss firm business.

“Needless to say, we were all literally on top of each other, but the camaraderie was golden and something that was never to be replicated as we continued to grow,” Bowman said. He kept a cool head through the first years, beginning with funding from savings and credit cards while quickly learning the necessity of collecting money and managing cash flow while also still learning the importance of attracting a strong staff. “I was amazed and gratified at the willingness of people to join a startup company,” he said.

“Although I put my name on the door, I learned very early on that it can’t be all about me. Once one becomes comfortable with delegating and handing responsibilities off to capable people, it becomes a virtuous cycle — when one leads by that example then others learn to do the same,” Bowman said when asked how he changed as a leader as the company continued to grow.

However, the firm’s smooth start hit a rough patch as another recession hit the United States. “We went from 320 people in 2007 to 160 people in the middle of 2009,” Bowman said. “At the depth of the recession, we gathered about a dozen of our senior leaders to put together a new three-year business plan. We used the book ‘The Upside of the Downturn’ by Geoff Colvin as our guide as we committed to emerging from the recession boldly and taking advantage of the opportunities that would be afforded. Since then, we have grown to over 500 people, more than tripled our revenue, and have become a national firm with offices in 11 states.” Bowman is proud of how his team rallied, ensuring the commitment to not bow down to external forces but playing the cards they were dealt and emerging bigger and better.

Bowman employees Tim Wood, Reed Larson, and Scott Clark evaluate progress on a sulfide ore leaching project at a Freeport-McMoRan copper mine in Safford Arizona.

Currently, Bowman Consulting is at work on its new three-year plan. “In addition to continued growth, we are committed to attaining a state of ‘operational excellence,’” Bowman said. “We define this in a number of ways: being among the top quintile of our industry peers in profitability, being an industry leader in exceeding our clients’ expectations, living our core purpose and our cultural values daily, having outstanding talent in every key leadership position, and being the place where ambitious people with a burning desire to grow professionally pursue their career goals.”

Personally, Bowman is shifting his focus from the geographical extension of the firm to leading the firm into this new state of operational excellence. Bowman also credits his father with teaching him how to treat other people. “He always treated everyone on job sites with respect and judged others solely on their ability to accomplish something. I saw that the way he treated his customers put him in a position whereby he rarely if ever had to bid competitively for jobs as he simply provided outstanding service and priced his work fairly,” Bowman said.

The first class of Bowman Consulting’s Linchpin program recently graduated.

“My job now is almost entirely creative in that my greatest point of leverage is to paint a picture of an ideal future, persuade people that it is attainable, and motivate them to act in alignment with each other to achieve it,” said Bowman, who also emphasizes how important the ability to use both right- and left-brain thinking is within Bowman Consulting. “One way we live this value is our Linchpin program. We created and conduct the program in house for a select group of our future leaders. The focus is strengthening right-brain aptitudes, as it seeks to increase capabilities to respond in a conceptual world with inventive, emphatic, and big picture skills. It encourages combining the left-brain aptitudes of logical and linear thinking with these aptitudes.”

The first class just graduated and the second class commences in early 2014. With demand high, Bowman sees the program as a real differentiator within the company.

“I sat for several years on the Virginia Tech Civil Engineering Department Alumni Advisory Board where I saw that in order to maintain accreditation there is little opportunity to fit in non-technical coursework,” Bowman said. “We therefore come out of school conditioned to think technically as opposed to creatively.”

Bowman strives to step away from this method within Bowman Consulting. “We exist in an ever-increasingly complex society and we can be blindsided by forces that we can’t imagine. In order for us as a profession to be an essential force in debates over devotion of resources to maintaining vital infrastructure and rationally balancing environmental considerations with healthy economic growth, it is imperative that we find a way to encourage more creative thinking in the profession,” he said.

When asked for advice to those just starting out as civil engineers, Bowman said the first and foremost lesson is to keep challenging yourself. “If you find yourself in a situation that doesn’t provide ever-increasing challenges, make a change. The years creep up on you faster than you can imagine; failure is ephemeral and it doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as you think it will.”

Though Bowman doesn’t have much free time, he tries to remain active in order to stay healthy in mind and body while remaining energized for the job. He also works with his son, Greg, at one of the largest land development firms in the region, Lansdowne Development Group. When not working, Bowman enjoys remaining physically active by hitting the gym and spending time with his wife of 33 years, Terri, and Greg, who are all dedicated Virginia Tech Hokies.

Natural gas transmission pipeline construction in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania is a major element of Bowman's diversification into the oil and gas market.

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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