Chairman and CEO of Salas O’Brien, an employee-owned firm with no corporate headquarters that provides building and facility solutions to clients across the United States.
By Liisa Andreassen
As chairman and CEO, it’s up to Anderson to ensure Salas O’Brien remains a leading engineering, architecture, commissioning, and technology firm. The company delivers more than 5,000 projects per year and has had zero professional liability or errors and omissions claims in its company history.
“Relationships are everything to us,” Anderson says.
A conversation with Darin Anderson.
The Zweig Letter: Your website states that you’re currently helping federal agencies and private sector companies adapt to meet the healthcare challenges caused by COVID-19. Can you provide an example or two of projects that you’re currently working on related to this?
Darin Anderson: This has been very fulfilling work for our team. A couple of examples include temporary hospital facilities in Georgia that our team helped design using shipping containers, and several facilities in Illinois where we helped open shuttered hospitals to serve as alternative care sites. We are now shifting our focus to helping clients of all sorts assess their facilities and help make them as healthy and safe as possible. That said, we will continue adapting as the pandemic progresses – if a new healthcare focus becomes needed, we have the team and experience to quickly respond.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
DA: People often don’t believe me when I say that we have no corporate headquarters. Both our executive and technical leadership are spread across the country and are highly comfortable working virtually. That’s why it was not a huge cultural shift for us to move essentially all employees to remote work. While some of our offices now have team members working from the office in a more limited capacity, we are comfortable with and support our team’s productivity from whatever location keeps them safe and healthy. Looking to the future, our team’s feedback on this impromptu experiment working from home indicates that many would like to see a combination home/office approach become normal.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
DA: Because of my background, almost all of my time is spent “on” the business improving systems, processes, recruiting, developing leaders, and pursuing growth. I am blessed with an organization of leaders who I fully trust to serve our clients with excellence.
(Anderson has an MBA in finance and strategy and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of California; and is a graduate of the Executive Leadership Program at Duke University.)
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
DA: The word I often come back to is “entrepreneurial” – or, perhaps better, a leader of entrepreneurs. I don’t want to be the kind of leader who has to control every detail. I’d much rather work with a passionate and caring team that has a strong commitment to shared values and a unified strategy, and watch the magic happen.
TZL: Stanford White recently joined Salas O’Brien. What was the main impetus for this? How many staff were added?
DA: Stanford White is simply a great team of capable leaders who fit well into our organization. It’s amazing to see the collaboration that is already happening among our team. The main thought process behind any merger is always this: “Are we making both teams better, stronger and providing more opportunity for our team and clients?” If there is mutual commitment, matched with culture and value as well as financial alignment, we proceed. Stanford White was our first office in North Carolina, and there are obvious advantages to a location in the Research Triangle and its focus on science and technology, healthcare as well as higher education – both of which are strong markets for us nationally.
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
DA: I totally agree. We talk about this all the time. It is so important to ensure there is a strong connection between peers and supervisors. People want to know they are valued, are learning, being rewarded, and have opportunities to grow. Even with tough conversations, the feedback needs to be delivered positively and constructively with great care.
TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.
DA: Our growth strategy gives us ample opportunity to address change with our team. For example, when we bring a new firm on board, we acknowledge that it’s a change, but also acknowledge that change is the only constant at growing, thriving firms. We also remind our team that embracing change is literally built into the very words of our firm’s core values. With every merger, our “thesis” is that everyone has to be the same or better than they were before and that we are bringing more opportunity to our clients.
TZL: How often do you valuate your firm and what key metrics do you use in the process? Do you valuate using in-house staff or is it outsourced?
DA: Because of our structure as an ESOP we do perform an outside annual valuation of our company, but we obviously don’t wait for that in order to evaluate where we are as a firm. Monthly financial and operational updates as well as annual strategic reviews are shared widely with the firm, and during the recent pandemic, we started creating weekly updates.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
DA: Grow leaders – both short- and long-term – and to have a positive impact on the world. That is the path to success.
TZL: Founded in 1975, your firm has seen many changes. To date, what’s been the most challenging obstacle and how was it handled? Lesson learned?
DA: I don’t know if “challenging” is the word I’d pick, but the most significant pivot for us came about 10 years ago when we began pursuing part of our current growth strategy through mergers. We were already working with big-name national clients, but could only do that on a regionally limited basis. We wanted to be their go-to national resource, and growth was the only way to get there. We’ve learned many lessons along the way, but the most important is: pursue growth only when character, values, and firm culture align, whether it’s in hiring or M&A. Do that and everything else follows.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
DA: This is obviously a huge issue that can’t be solved with a brief answer. My passion from the very beginning of my time with Salas O’Brien has been to raise up people from all backgrounds and give them amazing opportunity to grow and thrive. I think we have done that. However, good intentions and passion alone can’t carry this. That’s why we are in the process of creating a diversity and inclusion team to do more outreach, and invest more time in high schools and colleges to get all kids excited about STEM and what we do, and show them anybody can do it. We want them to see us as models and provide them support.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
DA: Two things primarily: First, we empower the team to make decisions and do not encumber them with a top-down bureaucracy. Second, we offer growth opportunities to any who seek them. We never want people to feel they have to leave the firm in order to grow, and with only a small number of exceptions, our mid-level and senior leaders have all stuck around for the long-term.