2023 Executive of the Year: Ray Kowalik

Ray Kowalik grew up wanting to build things. On his watch, Burns & McDonnell is building a better Kansas City.

Cutting grass. That’s what comes to mind when Ray Kowalik reflects on making the move from project-level engineering work to taking on the mantle of executive leadership.

That’s something he experienced in 2007. After 20 years of successful project management in the energy group of engineering giant Burns & McDonnell, he took a big step up in his career. That’s where the lesson in lawn maintenance came in. 

“The transition that was tough for me was moving from a project manager to a leadership role in our energy business,” Kowalik says. “I heard an executive describe it as ‘my job never feels complete.’  That’s why that executive still mowed his own lawn. He needs to feel like he finished a task and had a start and a stop.”

Kowalik knows a thing or two about taking on new tasks. Six years into his tenure as the chief executive officer and chairman of Burns & McDonnell, he has led the company through dramatic growth, even as the firm itself—like the rest of the world—has had to shake off the effects of a global pandemic for the better part of three years.

During that stretch, he has overseen multiple expansions at the south Kansas City headquarters campus, with a combined value of more than $125 million. He’s dealt with an unprecedented crash in the energy sector that at one point brought all of the firm’s oil and gas work to a standstill at the pandemic’s onset. Burns & Mac has launched new service lines, and on his watch, the company’s employment has doubled. All while demonstrating the highest levels of engagement as a corporate citizen and strengthening the firm’s ties to the community.

Based on that record of success, Ray Kowalik is Ingram’s 2023 Chief Executive of the year, headlining our C-Suite Executive Awards that include Tammy Peterman of The University of Kansas Health System as President, Jeff Poe of Mariner Wealth Advisors as Chief Financial Officer, Steve Levy of McCownGordon Construction as Chief Operating Officer, Beth Wade of VMLY&R as Chief Marketing Officer, Stephanie Price of Terracon as Chief People Officer and Blake Rooney of Husch Blackwell as Chief Information Officer.

A Powerful Influence 

Ray Kowalik was born in Chicago to Polish immigrants who moved to the Blue Springs area when he was four. It didn’t take him long to develop an appreciation for what his parents had fled as the Communist curtain descended on the family’s homeland after World War II.

“The last time I was in Poland was 1972, and I was 8,” he says. “But I still have vivid memories about all the cars being white, waiting in line to get anything, police watching your every move and lots of resentment by the Polish people to be under Communist rule. There’s a reason the last time I went, I was 8.”

Blue Springs back then was a burg of 2,500 people—a far cry from its suburban buildout to 60,000 today—and Kowalik thrived with the freedom that semi-rural lifestyle provided.

“I think growing up in this country and learning how to do things on your own really helped build my curiosity to build and try new things,” he says. “Whether it was toy planes and cars, building rabbit cages, raising chicken, and selling eggs to make some money, you had to fend for yourself.”

And in doing so, he began to discover a purpose behind his interests.

“I didn’t know what engineering was when I was kid, but looking back, those experiences were building blocks,” Kowalik says. “A lot of engineers come from a farming background because they had to learn to figure out how things work so they could fix them.”

When it came time for college, he headed to the University of Missouri, already fixed on engineering studies. That’s a broad field—civil, mechanical, electrical, aerospace, and more—but his penchant for creating things won out: Civil engineering it would be.

“The curriculum for engineering is all very similar for the first two years,” he says, “so you get a broad perspective on all the engineering fields. I liked civil/structural engineering because I like to see the things I designed being built. There are many similarities in all the disciplines, but civil/structural really appealed to me.”

He immediately followed his bachelor’s degree with Mizzou’s master’s program. Wrapping that up, he landed with the only company he’s ever worked for: Burns & McDonnell. The company had a lot going for it, but one special attraction helped seal the deal when he came on board in 1987.

“Burns & Mac was just becoming an employee-owned company when I started,” Kowalik says. 

“Owning a piece of the place I worked for sounded like a great idea coming out of college. Everyone suffers from some burn-out, but getting to build some innovative solutions to our customers’ challenges always made me feel like I was making a difference.”

That he was, and not just for clients; as he helped the firm grow, he was positioning himself for personal advancement. Kowalik became an officer of the firm in 2001; six years later, was promoted to president of the Energy Group. The decade that followed saw him earn a seat on the company’s board of directors in 2009, then move up to executive vice president and president of global practices in 2015 before he was designated to succeed Greg Graves as chairman and CEO in January 2017.

“I had the opportunity to give Ray his first promotion to project manager not long after he joined the firm,” Graves said in announcing his successor. “He was immediately the one everyone wanted to lead their team to make a real difference. Now, I know Ray’s leadership and entrepreneurial approach will create new and exciting advancements for our firm, clients, and communities.”

The two had developed a strong relationship over the years, and Kowalik was paying attention as the firm was making huge strides in its growth under Graves’ direction. 

“Greg’s leadership was always being a cheerleader,” Kowalik says, “I learned it’s better to err on that approach than the other.”

Attaining the pinnacle office wasn’t part of a grand plan, and moving into the leadership ranks necessarily required a step back from engaging directly with clients at the project level.

“I just try to do my job well, make our clients successful, and whatever else comes will be icing on the cake,” Kowalik says. “I miss the interaction with our energy customers, but I still have a soft spot for the business and keep in touch with many of my old clients.”

In the six years since Kowalik took the reins at Burns & Mac, the firm has grown from roughly 5,000 employees worldwide to 10,000. That pace of growth creates enormous pressure on any company’s leadership, and in his case, it meant onboarding thousands of engineers and support staff, most of them coming from organizations and cultures that don’t always align perfectly with that of a 100 percent employee-owned company. 

For Kowalik, the key to that successful integration comes down to a single word.

“’Culture’ is the most overused word,” he says. “The word I like is caring. If we hire people who care about each other, our customers, our communities, and their company, then everything will be just fine.”

In addition to being one of the region’s biggest employers, Burns & McDonnell is among the most prominent corporate citizens. Its presence here helps sustain Kansas City’s reputation as a national center of design excellence, punching far above its weight in the number of engineers employed per capita. 

Kowalik lives that civic commitment on a personal level, as well, investing his time and energy to support organizations in the fields of education, health, and economic development. His calendar with current and past service has included board chairman duties for United Way of Greater Kansas City and seats on the boards of the Kansas City Area Development Council, Union Station and Notre Dame de Sion, the executive committee of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, and the Dean’s Engineering Advisory Council for the College of Engineering at his alma mater. On the business side, he’s a member of the Kansas City market board for U.S. Bank.

Taking Risks

Not long after taking the reins at Burns & Mac, Kowalik found that even a wholesale commitment to driving the region forward could lead to a case of No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.

After years of civic-leader cries for a better airport—and just as many years of public-sector inaction on that goal—Burns & McDonnell stepped forward, just months after he’d taken on duties as CEO, with a bold proposal: A new single-terminal airport design that would cost taxpayers not a dime. The firm outlined a vision for designing and building the new airport terminal with private financing, drawing on its expertise in that discipline—it had, after all, designed the original KCI.

In a city with no shortage of back-benchers and back-biters, the offer elicited howls of protest from organizations that felt they were being denied seats on a construction gravy train. Eventually, City Hall chose another path, another designer, and another construction partnership to begin the work, which is expected to be completed in April.

Burns & McDonnell didn’t reap the benefits of contracts for the KCI project, but because it took the risk, the process moved off dead-center and construction began in 2019. Former City Manager Troy Schulte offered a concise reply at the time to those who had found sudden motivation to get involved by complaining about a lack of competitive bidding for the work. The team at Burns & McDonnell, he said simply, “are the ones who stepped forward” to get the ball rolling.

It would be hard for any executive to live through an experience like that without a sense of bitterness. Kowalik, however, is too dignified to address the way things played out. What’s past is past. 

But the takeaway from that fits neatly within his broader worldview of what it means to lead.

“Leadership is about making the right decisions, which aren’t always popular,” Kowalik says. “You have to believe in your decision-making that you are doing the right thing long-term for your company and your employee-owners.”

A lot of leaders, he says, pay too much attention to addressing the concerns of those who are most vocal, a practice that leads to poor decisions for the health of the company. 

“The unintended consequences are always something I’m thinking about,” Kowalik says. “When I spend time with our leadership, those are the points I try to make. In the end, if you promote the right people, the company will continue to thrive and grow. Spend time with your stars!”