Co-owner of UMA Geotechnical Construction (Colfax, NC), an experienced design-build, geotechnical contractor with a proven record of performance in diverse soil conditions.
By Liisa Andreassen
With a background in construction management, geotechnical engineering management, and strategic planning, DeSpain has guided UMA Geotechnical Construction through economic downturns while maintaining consistent growth year over year.
DeSpain says, “No one person is responsible for a company’s success. It takes a collaborative effort of working toward common goals. Even through the toughest of projects, we’re fortunate to have a team of dedicated, enthusiastic, and talented people to help build such an amazing company.”
A conversation with Brian DeSpain.
The Zweig Letter: I see you were recently promoted to president. Tell me about the transition. What was your role before and what, if anything, do you plan to do differently?
Brian DeSpain: Well, it all started back in 2003. I was still in college studying engineering and construction and my father approached me with the idea of buying a patent for a high-density polyurethane resin injection. I thought it was an interesting idea, so he did it. This led to him founding the firm in 2004. After college, I went to work with him. I recently went from vice president to president and he took on the role of CEO. He’s looking to retire in the next few years and I’m transitioning into full firm ownership. We’ve actually been focused on transitioning for several years now. Right now, I have nothing different planned other than continuing to move the firm forward.
Today, the firm is an industry leader in the development and refinement of innovative polymer grouting techniques and we create specialized solutions to assist clients with ground engineering needs that save money and minimize downtime. As one of the first to use lightweight structural polymers to improve subsurface soils at depths greater than 40 feet, we’re uniquely equipped to deliver safe, predictable, and effective results. Our team includes industry experts in structural support, earth retention, and soil stabilization with decades of experience, and we’re dedicated to ongoing advancement in the field.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
BD: Balance is a happy medium. As an owner, I’d say the mix is 70 in the business and 30 on the business. I’m mostly dedicated to growth in the business markets and focused on financials. And of course, sometimes, I get involved with project management and personnel issues.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
BD: Trust is a unique thing at our firm. Since our clients cannot really see what we’re doing, they have to take our word for it. We need to foster absolute trust in our work. We do this through transparency and communication. We provide daily logs and weekly reports so the client can “see” what’s happening at all stages.
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
BD: Thoughtful, insightful, and innovative. I want to make sure people are involved.
TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?
BD: We’ve used it in the past. If you do R&D, you can write it off, so we hope to use it again in the future. We’re always on the search for innovations in geotechnical construction and talk and teach innovation.
TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.
BD: We’re currently looking at ways to diversify stock and are potentially looking at becoming an ESOP. We want to have more people vested. Tenured employees have a great deal of corporate knowledge.
TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.
BD: Change management is all about sharing knowledge and acquiring more knowledge. I’m constantly attending webinars and encourage others to attend as well. When things start opening up again post-COVID, we’ll be attending trade shows, conferences, and presentations again. Learning and education are so important.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
BD: It’s all about the relationship between people. You have to have trust to have a successful transition.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project that was particularly challenging and why. How did you meet that challenge?
BD: I-26 in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s the largest project that the NC DOT has ever done and we’re responsible for building a soil nail wall of 120,000 square feet. A soil nail wall is a “top-down” retaining wall constructed in five-foot lifts by drilling rows of nails and applying a shotcrete face. The nails start at the existing ground surface and are installed as the ground in front of the wall is excavated in lifts. We’ve really had to step up to meet contractor demands and have assembled five different crews to meet those demands. Mobilization and meeting safety requirements have been top priorities and we’re lucky to have long-term employees who have made the job easier. We’ve really had to ensure we have the correct people with the right skills for the job – people who can handle dealing with the unique topography of the region. We’ve seen a lot over the years and have the knowledge behind us to move forward.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?
BD: Being agile. It all depends on what the business needs at any given time. No matter what it is, it needs to focus on successfully driving the business forward.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
BD: We’re working on a tier system for field employees. For example, there will be six levels on a track from tech to foreman and then supervisor and a few points in between. We’re hopeful that this tier system will allow employees the opportunity to grow at the rate they want to – say over the course of one to three years. Some will go faster than others and that’s fine.