By Dennis Boone
The Greg Graves Era at Burns & McDonnell will wrap up at the end of this week, but while he’s heading to a 600-acre spread near Drexel, he won’t be riding off into any sunsets: As one half of one of the region’s most dynamic philanthropic couples, he and his wife, Deanna, will remain engaged with causes they’ve championed over the years, particularly the University of Kansas Hospital, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and Greg Graves’ seat on the UMB board, where he’s about to become lead independent director.
“Then I’m looking for a fourth board,” he told Ingram’s this morning, a quip that’s sure to generate a lot more phone calls than he might expect. “I’ve had lots of inquiries so far, but have followed the advice of friends who told me ‘Don’t do anything new for six months.’ But saying no may not be my best skill set.”
As he prepares to hand the leadership baton to Ray Kowalik next week, Graves took time from a full schedule of winding-down activities to share some thoughts on his time at the firm, on the benefits of employee ownership, on his role in philanthropic and civic causes, and on what Kansas City has to offer as a place to live, to work and to own or operate a business.
Nearly 37 years after arriving here with his bride and with the ink barely dried on his mechanical engineering degree from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, his executive record speaks for itself: Since he became CEO in 2004, employment has grown from 1,500 to more than 5,700, and corporate revenues have grown more than seven-fold, hitting $2.8 billion this year.
Maybe that happens with someone other than Graves in the leadership role, maybe not. But it couldn’t have happened the way it did absent what we might call the Kansas City Factor. As it does with many who come from other locales, this place got its hooks into Graves, but good.
“One of the ways Kansas City grows on you, and you don’t realize if you’ve been here your whole life or haven’t experienced other cities,” he said, “is the unbelievable commitment that civic leaders, business and philanthropic leaders have to the town.” Both inspirational and infectious, that commitment, he said, “transcends what happens in other places, and sinks your roots deep and fast, to a point where you don’t wish to go or be anywhere else.”
A hallmark of his tenure, and what stands as his proudest achievement at the firm, is the creation of a great place to work, something validated repeatedly by trade publications and general-interest magazines, including Ingram’s Best Companies to Work For honors.
“People keep talking about my 13 years as CEO and want to talk about job growth, which is great, or financial success, which is great, or national success for the firm and our clients, which is great,” Graves said. But a company can attain all those goals, he said, while being a terrific employer. “I’ve never seen why they have to be mutually exclusive,” he said.
One big edge on getting to that status has been employee ownership. On his first day as CEO, he wrote down seven principles he wanted to cleave to, and put the list in his desk drawer, shared with no one for 12 years. No. 2 on that list was “Employee-owned to the death.”
“Being employee-owned for us is everything,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we want to be a great place to work if we own it? Why not make it rewarding and make it a fun place to be?” But that also means not creating an easy place to work, he said, because rewarding and fun don’t exclude the need for hard work to succeed.
“The important thing about employee ownership,” he said, “is that it’s not something you can go part-way at; you have to go all the way. Second, you have to have the assumption that it’s forever: We’re not building the company to some price point to sell off. With those attitudes, it makes managing a company not just easy, but simple.”