In A World Podcast – Gayle Packer – Terracon

In 2019, Gayle Packer was named president and chief executive officer of Terracon Consultants, Inc., an employee-owned engineering consulting firm with more than 4,500 employees nationwide.

Since joining Terracon in 2004, Gayle has served in several roles including executive vice president and chief administrative officer. She has successfully coordinated the acquisition of 50 companies, contributing to Terracon’s rise to number 24 on Engineering-News Record’s Top 500 Design Firms list. She also serves as a member of Terracon’s board of directors and executive committees.

Gayle is active in numerous organizations in the Kansas City community, including serving on the boards of multiple civic organizations.

www.terracon.com

www.heartstringscf.org

 

 

 

 

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-Transcript-

Brad Burrow: Hello, this is In a World with Real Media and I have a very special guest today, Gayle Packer from Terracon. How are you doing?

Gayle Packer: I’m doing great.

Brad Burrow: Great. Thank you for being on with me today. I really appreciate it.

Gayle Packer: Thanks for inviting me.

Brad Burrow: So I have been researching you. It’s not in a weird way, but I’ve been researching a little bit. And you’ve got an incredible background. First, The Ohio State University, right?

Gayle Packer: And you said it correctly. You only use the for saying the full name of the university. Many people mess that up courtesy of Monday night football.

Brad Burrow: Well yeah, exactly. You were probably there some years when they had really incredible teams, right?

Gayle Packer: I was there from the, well I don’t want to date myself. But I was there during the years when we had great football teams that did not win a national championship or beat the team up North. But I’ve been a Buckeye my whole life, so I’ve seen all of those-

Brad Burrow: Now did you grow up in Ohio?

Gayle Packer: Yeah, grew up in Ohio. Yep. My parents, grandparents, all Ohio State either attendees or alumni depending on the situation. And then I went to Ohio State for my undergrad and my masters, and I worked in Columbus full time out of college and did my masters part time while I was working there in Columbus. So I bleed scarlet and gray.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. Awesome. So I have to tell you a little quick side story. Our beginnings at Real Media, we did sports graphics. And Ohio State was one of our clients.

Gayle Packer: Wow.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. So we we did a lot of graphics. Mainly for basketball though, wasn’t as much for football. But so I’ve been up on the campus and it’s a really neat place. So I know a little bit about the Ohio State University. Yep. Yep. So from there, and then you went to law school in Minnesota, is that right?

Gayle Packer: I did. Yeah. So like I said, I was working in Columbus and working in the agricultural industry. My undergrad, grew up on a farm, undergrad’s in ag. My master’s is in also in ag and business. And then was working ,and as part of my master’s, took an ag law class. And the professor had his own practice and he worked a lot with farmers doing business planning, estate planning, tax planning with them. And I thought, “Hey, that sounds like something I think would be fun to do.” So I decided to go to law school, but at the same time I hedged my bets because I thought well, if I’m ever going to leave the state of Ohio, now’s the time to do it. So I did well in the LSAT and applied to a bunch of schools, and picked the best out of state school that I got into that wasn’t too expensive. That’s how I ended up in Minnesota. Yeah. It’s a great law school.

Brad Burrow: So what was that like being an Ohio State grad being in Minnesota? That’s got to be a little different, right?

Gayle Packer: There’s two really funny stories about that actually. One is when I went there, because I went to visit in April to visit the campus. It was cool and rainy, but it’s cool and rainy in Ohio in April so I didn’t think much of it. So I showed up in August and they’re giving you a tour of the campus and the law school and they keep telling you, “Well this is where you can go eat without having to go outside,” or, “This is where you can go get coffee without having to go outside.” And was like, what do these people have against the outdoors? And then it starts snowing on October 20th and people are walking around with hoods up and everything. I’m like, “This is a new place. I’m not used to this. This is crazy.” So there’s that.

Gayle Packer: And then this was back before you had email and before you had, you didn’t communicate electronically with the university. They sent you things in the mail. So I got some information in the mail as a new student at the university. Some opportunities I had. And there was a flyer in there about getting football tickets. And the Buckeyes were playing in Minnesota that first year. “I’m going to go to the game because the tickets aren’t going to be too expensive,” because I was on a budget, man. I’m paying for this myself. I got to be on a strict budget.

Gayle Packer: So the flyer talked about having two tickets for $36. That’s cheaper than I can get my tickets for an Ohio State game. So I had some friends who were living in the greater Minneapolis area. I’m like, “Hey, does anybody want to try to go to the game? I might be able to get tickets.” “Yeah, absolutely.” So I called the number, I’m talking to the athletic department. I said, “I would like to get four tickets for the Ohio State game.” “Well we can’t just sell you those tickets for the Ohio State game.” I said, “I’m a new student and I got this flyer that says I can get two tickets for $36, but I don’t want to go to six gopher football games. I want to go to the Ohio State game, and I have friends that want to go. So can I just get the four tickets for $72 for that game?” She said, “No, you can only buy the season ticket.” I’m like, “Well okay, then I don’t think I can get the tickets,” because I just couldn’t afford to spend that much money on football tickets.

Gayle Packer: And she said, “Wait a minute, where did you go to undergrad?” I said, “I went to Ohio State for undergrad.” She’s like, “Well you don’t understand. You can get two season tickets for $36, not two tickets to the game.” It was this five minute conversation that I’m really struggling, how am I going to afford the football tickets? Here, she’s basically telling me I could get two season tickets for $36 wow. You couldn’t buy a single game as a student, a single game ticket for $36 at Ohio State.

Brad Burrow: Is that right? Wow.

Gayle Packer: Yeah, so it was dramatically different perspective-

Brad Burrow: So did you go?

Gayle Packer: Oh yeah. And my friends did too. My college roommate and her husband flew up from Florida to go to the game.

Brad Burrow: That’s great.

Gayle Packer: Yeah, we had a great time.

Brad Burrow: So you finished law school in Minnesota, and then end up in Kansas City after that, is that correct?

Gayle Packer: Sort of, yes. So I did a summer associate program here in Kansas City with Stinson. Loved the program, loved the firm.

Brad Burrow: Big law firm right?

Gayle Packer: Big law firm, Kansas City. And I had an uncle that kept telling me, he lives on a ranch outside of Kansas City and he keeps saying, “You’re going to love Kansas City, you got to come here.” I thought, “Well, it’s a good time to try it.” And he was right. That was a long time ago, and I’m still here.

Gayle Packer: But in the meantime, I also got offered a fellowship in agricultural law at the University of Arkansas. So I came to Kansas City for a summer, was going to take the bar exam the next summer and started the firm, and took a one year postponement to go do a fellowship in ag law in Arkansas, and then came back to Kansas City and went to work at Stinson.

Brad Burrow: And then, so you were there a couple of years?

Gayle Packer: I was there about three years and then switched firms and I went to, at the time it was Sonnenschein now Denton. Was there for about three years. And both great law firms, worked with great lawyers, great people at all of them. It just turns out I didn’t actually like being a lawyer.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. Not for everybody, I guess.

Gayle Packer: Yeah.

Brad Burrow: But that experience has had to have set you up well for your current position, I would think.

Gayle Packer: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Brad Burrow: Okay. So from there, that was the next step, Terracon then?

Gayle Packer: Yeah, it was. Yeah.

Brad Burrow: So you decided okay, I’m done with law. But you were general counsel, right? For Terracon?

Gayle Packer: Yeah. Yeah. So it’s kind of, that’s another funny story. I finally decided I can keep doing this law thing. I’m pretty good at it. I can keep going, but I’m just not happy doing it. And I really liked, before I went to law school, I was working on the business side of the world and I liked the business side of the world a lot better. I just got to figure out what the next step is for me and I think I want to own my own business and figure it out. So I finally decided I can’t keep working the hours I’m working, putting the time and working in investing in this career that I don’t actually want to go anywhere.

Gayle Packer: So on May 15th I announced to two different groups of friends at lunch and at dinner, “Hey, I’m going to have a new job by June 30th.” And they were like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “I have no idea.” I didn’t know. I really didn’t know. But I’ve reached a point where I’ve got to do something because you keep doing what you’re doing, keep getting what you got. And I’m driving myself insane. So made this announcement to a bunch of friends on May 15th. And the very next day got an email from a friend of a friend, “Hey, Terracon’s looking for a contract review attorney.” And I thought, “Oh man, I don’t know if I can do that very long, but I don’t need to, this doesn’t need to be the next career move. I just need to buy myself some time.”

Brad Burrow: It’s like a stepping stone?

Gayle Packer: Yeah. So I made this announcement to friends on Tuesday. I sent my resume on Thursday. The woman who was general counsel called and said, “Hey, you’re overqualified for this position.” I’m like, “Yep, I get that. But I’m just looking to make a change and I’m not sure what direction I’m going. So if you’re interested, I’m interested.” So I interviewed with her on Sunday evening, actually. She called me on Monday and asked me to come in and meet with the CEO and the COO at the time on Tuesday morning. So I did, I had a job offer Tuesday afternoon, which was one week after I said I’m going to have a different job. So I actually started at Terracon on June 15th, 2004. And I thought I’ll be here in this job 12 to 18 months. And that’s it. I don’t want to do this forever. I don’t think I want to be a lawyer. But this is a good place to give myself time to put together these business plans. I had them on backs of napkins and scraps of paper.

Brad Burrow: For your own business?

Gayle Packer: Yeah. For me to start my own business, yeah. So 15 years later.

Brad Burrow: And you’ve really worked, so I printed out your bio. You’ve really worked your way up through the organization and done a lot of different things at Terracon.

Gayle Packer: Yeah.

Brad Burrow: So tell me how that worked. I guess I’m just curious, so now you’re the general counsel. “Hey, I’d like to do this.” How did-

Gayle Packer: That’s pretty much how it went.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. Tell me about that. I’m really curious.

Gayle Packer: So one of the things that I think that I always tell folks, especially younger people when they’re going into their first career, they’re looking for the perfect job, the perfect environment. And my counter to them sometimes it takes them back. It’s like look, there’s no perfect environment. Once you get more than three or four people in an organization together, there is some level of dysfunction. So you got to find the dysfunction that suits you best and run with it.

Brad Burrow: There’s some advice for you. Find the disfunction that suits you best.

Gayle Packer: I know that’s …

Brad Burrow: But it’s true, right?

Gayle Packer: It is true. So I think I found an environment that was extremely ethical, extremely hardworking. Opportunistic, and would forgive action over inaction any day of the week. I mean, those are just some of these cultural fibers that run through the organization. That suits me exceptionally well.

Brad Burrow: And that’s not in every corporation is it?

Gayle Packer: It’s not in every corporation, no. And I worked directly for our CEO who was brilliant and strategic, and pushed me and challenged me. And when I went to him and said, “Look, we are not getting this done well and I think we could do this better.” His response to me was always, “Well, put together what you think, how we could do it. What does that look like?” So he was very good at not just mentoring me, but really pushing me to think differently, to think more holistically. To think broader, to learn more, and really encourage my curiosity. Because if I said, “Well, how do we do this? Or why do we do it like that or what’s going on with this?” He’s like, “Well, what do you think, and how do you want to change it? How do you want to make it better?” So that was really what I fell into.

Brad Burrow: So you were really empowered to be a free thinker and to solve problems where in a lot of corporate environments, there’s so much control being exerted over people that they can’t really do, they can’t think that way. That’s different.

Gayle Packer: It is different. And I think too, part of that that made it successful is you can’t do that in a vacuum. And you can’t just do that from, “Hey, from my perspective, we need to do this.” You have to build relationships with people in all different parts of the organization to understand perspectives from the person who answers the phone in the office 600 miles away from you, to the field technician who is out slumping concrete in the 110 degree heat. Eight hours a day. To the person down the hall from you, to somebody who their work is extremely weather dependent in the North. So you’d have to understand different perspectives and how that pulls together and then come back to what is that look like.

Gayle Packer: So there’s, I had the opportunity to work for somebody who empowered me, who challenged me. But also built relationships with people across the company, across the U.S., to help understand the organization better at a really fundamental level. And I think that the advantage that I have today is I didn’t grow up in our business on the technical side of our business. So I can’t do what most of our employees do every day. Because I don’t have their technical background to do that. I learned our business from the business side of our business. How do we pull it together? How do we take all these puzzle pieces and these services that our clients need, and how do we work together to make that process, that offering, that environment, that culture better for our employees to serve the clients better?

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Gayle Packer: That’s the advantage-

Brad Burrow: So all the years that I did the women who mean business interviews with Joyce, one of the recurring themes was I’d hear this a lot, especially from business owners is that I needed to get to a point where I was working on the business and not working in the business. That sounds exactly about what you’re doing.

Gayle Packer: I have never worked in the business.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. And that’s an advantage being CEO, right? Now you’re looking at it completely different from-

Gayle Packer: And I joke with our service line directors in particular. I’m like, “Look, I’m agnostic about what you do.”

Brad Burrow: Do they like hearing that or not like hearing that?

Gayle Packer: They look at me funny at first. I’m like, “I get it.” Because when I’m saying have to look at the opportunities we have five, 10 years down the road. It’s not specific to, I have a favorite service line or I came up in that part of the business. So I liked that more. I came from that geography. So I have a got a favorite there. It’s really more about how does the business fit together and what’s the strategy going forward for the whole business? Where’s our best opportunity? How do we take advantage of that?

Brad Burrow: Yeah. When you look back at your background and even your upbringing. I read a quote where it said that you knew, you had a vision of what your career would be. Just didn’t know how you were going to get there. You know what I mean? I thought that’s pretty cool for a young person to think, I didn’t think that way. I didn’t know what I was going to be here. Maybe I still don’t.

Gayle Packer: Yeah. Well I didn’t know what I was going to be, but I knew what it was going to include.

Brad Burrow: So talk to me about that, because that’s unique to me. I can’t imagine, that’s pretty strong. How old were you when you had those thoughts? Were you 10, 12 years old, maybe?

Gayle Packer: Last year. I think-

Brad Burrow: You’re more likely than I thought?

Gayle Packer: Yeah. Everyone always asks, what do you want to be when you grow up? If you look back, your mom keeps all those scrapbooks. And early on, I wanted to sell hotdogs in the little town up the street because I had just gone to Columbus for the first time and those hot dog street vendors. Fascinated. I’m going to sell hot dogs for a living. And mom’s like, “I don’t think that’s where we’re headed.” And then it was what you exposed to. Teacher or I didn’t want to be a nurse, which is what my mom did. I don’t want to deal with that. But teacher, to the director of the CIA, to a college professor, to a business owner. If you looked back over the first, even when I said I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. People were like, “What are you going to do?” I’m like, “I don’t know, but I know this isn’t it. It’s not fulfilling me the way I need to do that.”

Brad Burrow: You just knew there was a void of something missing there?

Gayle Packer: Yeah. People have always said, “Well, what are you going to you do?” I’m like, “I know I’m going to make a difference. I know I’m going to work with people, I know I’m going to be challenged, and I don’t want every day to be the same.” There are a lot of things you can go do. And in some cases you’re like, well that’s almost limiting because there’s too many opportunities that you could chase and pursue and figure out. And in other cases it’s very empowering because you think, “You know what? If this doesn’t work, something else is going to.” Because I know I work hard. I know I’m smart, I know I’m good with people, and I know I’m ethical. I’ll figure it out. So that’s probably more like you then you thought.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. We won’t talk about my career.

Gayle Packer: I always say it’s a jungle gym, not a ladder.

Brad Burrow: That’s right. That’s right. And you go, and I’ve even seen that with Real Media. We started out in sports it because I ran a camera for the Chiefs on game day. Found out there’s an opportunity there. “Hey, we need a game open.” “Hey, I think we can do that.” Next thing we’ve worked with 60 sports teams, but then everything changes and we’ve got to change our direction. Rethink who we are, rethink our business plan. We’ve been in business 21 years. So that’s what we’ve done. And it’s not because I said, “Hey, let’s be this.” It’s because that’s where the river pushed us. The flow pushed us.

Gayle Packer: And I think that’s the interesting challenge when you get to this seat now is how do you have a strategic vision that you’re driving toward but you’re not closing down opportunities that are going to come up that you just don’t even know exist right now? So how do you balance that, saying no to the right things, being open to the right things? And it’s not just me that has to do that, but my whole senior leadership team and my folks who are visionaries in their aspect of what we do. How do we, you can’t do everything, we can do anything. How do you make those decisions and how do you prioritize that constantly? Every single day. That’s a learning curve.

Gayle Packer: And you think in the role I’ve been in at Terracon and the chief administrative officer will, guy had exposure to a lot of the business. I had my finger on what was going on out there. But even the difference between sitting in that seat and sitting in the CEO seat is that mental exercise is still vastly different.

Brad Burrow: So is that daily for you? What’s that like? Is it every day you’re waking up thinking okay, are we heading in the right direction from a vision standpoint? Is that what happens?

Gayle Packer: So I think, we did a lot of work last year on our strategic plan for 2023. I absolutely feel like it is the right vision. But it’s big on inspiration, it’s big on vision. It’s not really detailed on tactics. So working on those tactics everyday is the question. Does that get us further to that vision or does it not? And then how do you take advantage of things that are coming up and you’re like, you just feel like there’s a need for this. Nobody’s doing it. There’s a market for it. We can do it. How do we do that really well? And then how do we replicate that in 150 locations? So yeah, that’s-

Brad Burrow: Challenging.

Gayle Packer: So it can be on the one who had overwhelming. So people asked me last summer, how do I feel about taking on this role? I’m like, “I am excited. I’m overwhelmed and I’m frightened all at the same time.”

Brad Burrow: And it’s okay to feel that way, right?

Gayle Packer: I still do. And it’s varying levels at different points of the day. But you have to break it down to how am I spending my time? And that’s assigned to how my team is spending their time. And it’s a balance, it’s always a balance. This is stuff that we want to get done. We said we’re going to do it, we’re committed to doing it, get that done. And what are we exploring? What are we being curious about? What are we continually learning about and saying, how does that come back and apply to what we’re doing?

Brad Burrow: I did some work with [Joe Calhoun 00:19:29], I don’t know if you know that name or not. But he’s a guy here in town that has taken us through StrengthsFinder. He’s a really great guy. But I found out that my decision making is what I do best, it’s gut instinct. I didn’t know that until I’d done the StrengthsFinder thing. I’m really curious about you. When you make decisions, are you analytical? I think your attorney background would maybe be that. Or are you gut instinct decision maker?

Gayle Packer: Yeah. So I’ve not done, lots of our folks have done StrengthsFinder, but I’ve not actually done the specific exercises so I can’t answer it in those words. But interestingly enough, when you get those feedback from different personality tests I guess. I am in the middle.

Brad Burrow: Oh is that right?

Gayle Packer: Yeah. So I don’t fit the classic attorney engineer profile. I want to comb through all the data. I want to listen to a lot of different things, and then I tend to go with my gut. But I want to know that I’m not just having-

Brad Burrow: But you want to research it first, right?

Gayle Packer: Yeah. But my gut is informed. Sometimes by data, sometimes by learning, sometimes just thinking with it. And I tend to make decisions where if it’s a big one, I’m particularly like consume all the information, make the decision, and sleep on it.

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Gayle Packer: And depending on how many days I need to sleep on it and I get used to that and then I’ll figure out, is that the right decision or not? Then you can tell, you know what, that’s not right. I thought it was the right thing. It turns out that’s not right. I want to go back and revisit that. I want to learn more, because something’s not sitting right with me.

Brad Burrow: Isn’t that amazing?

Gayle Packer: Yeah. And David and I used to, David was our former CEO and he used to laugh because we’d be working on something and I would go into him and I would say, “I know you want me to answer this. I know you want a decision, but I got to tell you that my spidey sense on this,” is what I call it. “My spidey sense is telling me we’re missing something, or there’s something else. And I can’t articulate it yet and I know you want me to articulate it and give you exceptionally rational reasons why. And I can’t do that right now. But that’s why I’m not making a decision, because I don’t think we’ve got the right information. I got a gut on this.”

Brad Burrow: So how would he respond to that?

Gayle Packer: He’d give me a timeline.

Brad Burrow: “Okay spidey.”

Gayle Packer: He’s like, “Okay, but indecision is also a decision. So we have to make a decision. So you’re going to have to get comfortable with something.”

Brad Burrow: But it’s so true. And when you said sleeping on it, it’s amazing. You can go to bed feeling really good about a decision. I’m the same way, and wake up and that’s not right. What happened overnight that made you feel, go from one to the other? It’s amazing. When you actually embrace those things I think and realize that we’re made a certain way I guess or we’re given that ability. I think you do better. I know I do.

Gayle Packer: Yeah.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. That’s pretty cool. So tell me about the transition from your last position with Terracon to being CEO. How did your life change? I’m really curious about this because that’s a big change in responsibility. 4,500 people. I’m sure that’s more now probably, right?

Gayle Packer: Yeah, it’s right around 5,000.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. So, wow. Man, I have 10 people that I’m responsible for here. And I stress about that.

Gayle Packer: So interestingly, the number of people piece didn’t have that big of an impact because the roles that I’ve been in in the company have been at the corporate level the whole time I’ve been in the company. So while I’ve had direct responsibility for the corporate office which is about 200 people, and I no longer have direct responsibility for them. I still sit in that office and I still kind of know what’s going on, but I don’t have direct responsibility for them anymore. But I’ve always been in a role that I felt accountable to, responsible for. The servant leader of the organization as a whole. So that piece of it is a little bit different. Is not quite as different as you might think. The part of it that is different is just the difference between being in a seat that’s right next to the CEO and being in the CEO seat. And they laugh at me sometimes because we’ll be in an executive committee meeting and go around the room. We’re talking about a decision we need to make, and we’ve learned everything [inaudible 00:23:50] pause. And I’m like, “Oh wait, I’m supposed to make the decision.” I’m not just supposed to give my input here [crosstalk 00:23:57] “Why are you guys looking at me? Do I have something on my face?”

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Gayle Packer: Is there lettuce in my teeth from lunch? Yeah. So there’s a couple of those moments, but I just embrace it. I’m like, “Wait, give me a second here. I’ve got to readjust.” And it’s only been seven, nine months I guess. So yeah. So that part is different. And I think just the, you don’t know what you don’t know. And making sure you’re being open to not having a closed mind about, because you know the business, you know the people. But you have to approach it in a different way. And they have to approach you in a different way too. These are folks, a lot of them, most of the senior team has known me the whole 15 years I’ve been at Terracon. But now I’m their boss. I don’t tend to act like a, I’m not a command and control kind of leadership person. I’m really collaborative. And they know me kind of like that, but they’re like, “Yeah, but now you’re my boss. Am I supposed to still talk to you like this?”

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Gayle Packer: But I think it’s going really well. I think that’s an upside for us is that we do have that, I do have relationships that are trusted relationships with all those folks. So we can have those awkward almost conversations about we’ve got to do this a little differently now. How do we do that? And just embrace that conversation and don’t hide from it.

Brad Burrow: Do you think a humble approach is really, you mentioned servant leadership. To me, that’s like okay. I’m a humble leader. I think that’s so much more powerful. Would you agree with that? And in the situation, it seems like okay, I’m new at this. I’m going to have this type of approach, a humble approach as opposed to the buck stops here type of approach. It seems like that’s your approach a little bit.

Gayle Packer: Yeah. I think the word that I would probably use with it is it’s a servant leadership model, no question. And particularly, it’s almost more of a stewardship model, is how I kind of look at that too. I don’t have a daily interaction with 5,000 people. But I ultimately have to be in a role of being a steward for them in their families. Because we’re an employee owned company, so it’s not just their job. But they’re owners of the company and so their retirement is tied up in the company. So there’s a weight of that that you feel. I feel like I’m responsible for them. That doesn’t mean I can do it all because I can’t do it all. But I’m responsible for building the team and I’m responsible for making sure that we’ve got people engaged and who want to, who are inspired, and want to be part of that. So coming at that from a humble servant perspective, I think is, I don’t know how you do it without doing that. I can’t imagine that.

Gayle Packer: And, there’s a certain aspect of okay, I’m the first new CEO of the company in 20 years. And I don’t want to scare people by saying, “Yeah, I don’t know how to do that.” And I do know how to do it, but I have to learn it at the same time. So I have confidence that I’m going to be able to do it, but I have to be able to learn at the same time. So I think the word that I keep coming back to is I just have to be authentic. And it’s important, look. On this topic here, I got to be really vulnerable. I don’t know enough about that. I am relying on you all to help me understand so we can make collectively the right decision.

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Gayle Packer: So I don’t pretend to be the smartest person in the room on most topics. There are a couple that I’m like, “I got you on this one because I’ve actually learned a lot more about this. So let’s talk about it, see if I missed anything.” But most conversations are more about, there’s always more to learn than what you already know.

Brad Burrow: And that’s empowering too to your team I would imagine. For you to say that, that’s really great. That’s awesome. So you mentioned ethics. That’s important to you. I’ve seen that as a theme as I’ve done some research. Why is that so important?

Gayle Packer: How can it not be? And I think personally-

Brad Burrow: But, most people don’t say that though. Most CEOs, yeah, we’re ethics. But I can tell that for you, that’s very, very, very important value.

Gayle Packer: Yeah. So I can answer that question on multiple levels. So as a company, we provide information and our professional opinion, and data, and accurate data, and test reporting to all of our clients that they use to make decisions. They have to be able to rely on that information.

Brad Burrow: It better be right, huh?

Gayle Packer: And there can’t be a question about it. There just cannot be any doubt about the fact that we are reporting exactly what the test results show or that we are providing a professional opinion that is absolutely straight up, honest, ethical across the board. There can’t be any question about that. So as a company, if we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t exist. You can’t have it. You can’t be in business doing that. So I think at a company level, that’s critical.

Gayle Packer: For me personally, it goes back to that authenticity and just leadership in general. If you aren’t walking the talk and being extremely ethical in everything you’re doing. So above reproach, then that leaves these cracks that can soon become fishers that become even bigger cracks. That they don’t trust what you’re saying. And it undercuts the entire culture of the organization if they don’t have confidence that you are ethical and you have a lot of integrity in everything that you’re doing.

Brad Burrow: Right.

Gayle Packer: And it’s not like you can tell my dogs, do as I say, not as I do? You’re not getting a treat when you come back in the house. Because I haven’t drank wine or something. But you have to actually live all of that.

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Gayle Packer: Very authentic.

Brad Burrow: And people are watching, right?

Gayle Packer: All the time.

Brad Burrow: They know.

Gayle Packer: Yeah. All the time. And if you look at some of the challenges as a society today, there’s this lack of trust in leaders. It’s because it comes down to ethics and integrity. And it doesn’t matter what societal bucket you’re looking at, whether it’s government, or religious institutions, or companies, or universities. All of these different areas of society that we’ve looked at in the past 20, 30 years. And we’ve undercut trust in institutions because of ethics and integrity.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. Yeah.

Gayle Packer: It’s not good.

Brad Burrow: And it’s happening all the time.

Gayle Packer: Daily. You don’t have to read the, whether you’re reading news online or in the paper, or listening to it on the radio. It’s everyday there’s another story it seems like. So on the one hand, you could get discouraged by that. But on the other hand, you’re like, “No, this is really important and we’re not going to be like that. So we’re going to keep making the right decisions.”

Brad Burrow: So as a CEO, what can you do to permeate that value throughout the organization? I mean, what things can you do?

Gayle Packer: So I think it’s a question. It starts with you personally, because people are watching what you’re doing. So you have to model the behavior. But I also think it’s really holding people accountable for that behavior around you as well. Because we all know that what we tolerate is the culture. So if that’s what we’re going to tolerate, it’ll start eroding the environment in a particular office and ultimately then it could spread to the company.

Brad Burrow: Like cancer.

Gayle Packer: It is a cancer. So you just can’t tolerate it. So that means that sometimes you make a really difficult decision at the time. But you have to do it.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. Yeah. That makes total sense. So let’s switch gears a little bit. Talk about, what’s Terracon, the growth look like? 5,000, 5,000 I don’t know if you call them employees or associates.

Gayle Packer: Employee owners.

Brad Burrow: Okay. Employee owners. What’s the vision for the future? I don’t know if you can share that, but I’d love to hear where are you going? And based on our conversation earlier, you’re looking for opportunities of where that growth could come from, I’m assuming.

Gayle Packer: Yeah. So we actually, we have a growth strategy. And really the foundation of any strategic plan for us starts with this idea that safe, profitable growth is the foundation of the company.

Brad Burrow: Safe, profitable growth?

Gayle Packer: Safe, profitable growth. It’s got to be safe, it’s got to be profitable, and it’s got to be growth. So those three elements together are the foundation of everything we do. If you can’t do that right, the rest of it’s not going to happen. It’s not sustainable.

Brad Burrow: So you know what to say no to then?

Gayle Packer: Yeah, that helps with [inaudible 00:32:53]. But it has to be safe, profitable growth. And staying, it’s not an either or. You can either be safe, profitable, or you can grow. No. It’s safe, profitable, growth. It’s a three legged stool, and we’re going to have all three. On any given day of the week, you might not feel like you accomplished all three, but that’s what we’re driving for, those three things.

Gayle Packer: So with that is the foundation of the company, then our vision statement for the next five years starts with the word together. How are we building, doing this together? So in an organization as distributed as we are. 150 locations, average size offices, 35 people. But you’ve got offices that are five people, you’ve got offices that are 200 people. How do you replicate that across the board? And how do you do that in a way where everybody’s aligned and everybody has a consistent experience? So whether that’s the client or the employee. So are your employees all having the same excellent employee experience? Are your clients all having an excellent client experience that is replicated every project, every office, every time? That’s a lot of what that word together needs to me. So breaking down silos that either may or may not exist for real, but perceptions that could exist across the company. How do we break that down so that it’s sending the message, we’re all on the same team, and we’re doing this together? And we’ve got statements around how they’re basically driven around employee experience and client experience about being the best at people and leading in innovation. And really being the dominant player in our market. Some people don’t like that word dominant. And we spent a lot of time talking about that in the past year. Does that have any kind of negative connotation or-

Brad Burrow: What would be the negative connotation?

Gayle Packer: Well, people were concerned that it sounded egotistical. It’s not egotistical. Because the values, how we do it matters as much that that’s where we want to be. But if we’re living our values of caring, and courage, and curiosity, and integrity, and excellence, and prosperity. If we’re living those values, that informs how you’re the dominant player in the market. And it’s about that experience that employees have, that clients have. And how we’re driving the business to keep moving forward and be the best at what we’re doing.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. Yeah, that makes total sense. So any new things on the horizon that you can talk about at all that’s new and exciting?

Gayle Packer: Yeah. So interestingly, we have the enviable position in our space of being the largest company who does what we do in the U.S. So we have access to data from the past 50 some years, 55 years. That typically if you’re going to work with one of our engineers in a local office and you want to know, “Hey, what’s the soil conditions or what’s the environmental background on a specific piece of property or this area of the city?” You call up the engineer or geologist, or scientist that’s been with the company for 15 and 20 years and you ask the person on the phone. That’s how it used to get done. Or they had pushed pins on the map and the wall that showed where the locations were. And we have digitized and converted a lot of that to either data and then in some cases more like the drill down data, depending on what we’ve been able to do with that. And really using that to develop some new products.

Gayle Packer: So we’re a professional services organization. But we’re actually starting to develop really specific products that are not quite dependent on our service that are ahead of what our service would be. So if it’s getting in with clients earlier, because clients want to know, “Hey, before I,” so developer is looking at five different properties in a metro region where they might want to put a new bank or build a new retail store, or purchase a school district. Might want to purchase land for a school, or what’s that look like? They can call us now and get a ton of data that we’ve pulled together public data, our own personal history in that area. To say, “Here’s what you’re probably going to encounter.” And you can get that in three days. So you can use the product to make a decision. You’re still going to hire us to do the work, but we’re trying to provide clients information they need sooner in our process.

Brad Burrow: A huge value add.

Gayle Packer: It’s a huge value add huge. So we’ve just started to launch that product this year, and we’re continually adding to it. So we’ve got environmental and geotechnical data pulling all that together for clients, and really making a push for how we do that and how do we provide clients what they need sooner in the process. And trying to be innovative.

Brad Burrow: So 50 years of records is huge deal.

Gayle Packer: It is. And we’ve been working on that. We’ve literally been scanning and digitizing data for five years now to get it ready for this. So we’ve made a huge investment upfront to get everything ready to go.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. That’s awesome. So technology is impacting Terracon moving forward sounds like too in that arena. So that’s a big thing. I find a lot of companies are late to adapt to technology, and they end up getting hurt because of that.

Gayle Packer: And if you look at it, if you read any innovation magazines or thing, you see a lot of, going to any conferences around those. The industries that are lagging behind from an innovation standpoint are construction, engineering, and agriculture. We’re in the construction engineering space a lot. And connecting here in Kansas City [inaudible 00:38:24]. She has an expression, “How do we Uber ourselves before we get Kodaked?” And that’s exactly right. I mean, it’s exactly trying to figure out how do we need to disrupt what we’re doing to be able to continue to grow and innovate, and do this even better so that somebody outside of the industry doesn’t come in and say, “We’re going to make your entire service obsolete.”

Brad Burrow: Yeah. Which could happen. I mean, who knows? Yeah. Disrupt and maintain really for you guys it sounds. Yeah. So a couple more things, and then we’ll wrap up. I wanted to get your advice, you were a part of the Women Who Mean Business class of 2010? ’10, okay. What advice would you give to somebody maybe just out of college that’s wanting to, maybe they’re like you and they don’t know what they want to do. But they know they need to build a career, they want to build a career. What advice would you give them to just start working their way up the ladder?

Gayle Packer: So again, I guess I would start with throw away the ladder.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. Don’t worry about the ladder, right?

Gayle Packer: Think of it as a jungle gym. So I think a couple of things. One is understand what you want to do. So I think too often, particularly even really successful students, whether it was high school students into college or college students. And then looking at a career, whether it’s coming out of high school looking at a career or going to college and looking at a career out of college. They have been given a roadmap their entire life and they expect the next roadmap to look just like this. And someone needs to tell them what that looks like. And they get blinders on about it. And I would say just take the blinders off and learn, ask questions. Ask a lot of questions about if you love what you’re doing, ask a lot of questions about the industry that you’re in, and how do you stay in that industry, and how do you move up in that company or other companies. Continually read, or listen, or-

Brad Burrow: Be a learner.

Gayle Packer: Be a learner. Absolutely be a learner. So I think that’s really important is constantly learn. But I think it’s a learning that you have to filter through yourself. Because what is exactly right for you to go do and what you’ve learned, where you take that. May be something that I just don’t want to do. Or it could be, and you see this a lot in professional services organizations that the best lawyer, the best accountant, the best engineer, you promote them to the manager position. And they don’t even want to manage people. They want to work on the project. But they don’t realize that because they didn’t filter it through themselves. “Well, that’s the next step. I have to do the next step.”

Gayle Packer: Well, is that really what you want to do? So I think just being open to understanding yourself and how to, “How do I fit into that role? How do I fit into this role?” Or, “You know what? I need something that challenges me here. How can I find that?” And sometimes too, this is … sometimes we get caught in this trap that our career has to provide all of that for us. Maybe it doesn’t. So how else can you be fulfilled in hey, if I know that I want to make a difference in the community and that’s not really part of my job, how can I go do that through a local nonprofit, or through my children’s school, or through church, or through I’m passionate about this topic. How can I volunteer with that topic? And you can fulfill that aspect of your life in a way that’s not just your job. So I think it’s learning all of those things, and it’s all about balance.

Brad Burrow: Yeah. And that’s hard to figure out when you’re younger. I’m not sure if I’ve still figured that out, honestly.

Gayle Packer: The thing about balance is that it changes every day.

Brad Burrow: Yeah, no kidding. Well that’s a good transition to the last thing I wanted to ask you about is giving back. So Heartstrings, you’re on the board for Heartstrings.

Gayle Packer: I was on the board for 12 years. I just stepped into the advisory council last year when I took this job, because I knew I was going to be traveling a lot more and not able to make the meetings. But I’m still on the advisory council with them, and I love that organization. Love it.

Brad Burrow: Why? So talk about giving back, and working with nonprofits, and I’m sure Terracon has other not for profits that you support. Just give me your thoughts on that whole approach.

Gayle Packer: Yeah. So Terracon actually has Terracon Foundation. So we’ve given away over, I think it’s over $1 million in grants in the past 10 years.

Brad Burrow: That’s awesome.

Gayle Packer: Yes. And those have gone to community organizations where our employees are active, and they’ve also gone to national partners like Engineers Without Borders, or the National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Women Engineers. We’ve partnered with a $50,000 grant to them to develop either a training program or a specific program that they were going to go do. So we’ve done a lot of for the ACE mentoring program, for construction and high school students learning more about the construction industry. So we’ve done a lot of those national partner grants on that level.

Brad Burrow: Yeah.

Gayle Packer: So the company throws, not throws, but uses money from the foundation in those ways. But all of our local offices are active in the local community too and do a lot of different things that are really more based on what are the interests of the people in that office, and how are they supporting those things. So that’s what the company does.

Gayle Packer: For me personally, it’s always been important to be part of the community and giving back in the community. Most of my time has gone through the Heartstrings Organization and being part of that. And it’s an organization that serves as a day program for developmentally disabled adults who are able to interact in the community, have jobs, they have businesses that they run for the employees to participate in. And they get a paycheck, and they learn how to do sales, and they learn how to interact with customers. I got involved with that organization because I have some family members with developmental disabilities. And I just think about the difference that an organization like that makes in the lives of everybody who participates is almost immeasurable.

Brad Burrow: It’s pretty cool to see.

Gayle Packer: It’s pretty amazing-

Brad Burrow: See those things happening, isn’t it?

Gayle Packer: Yeah, very amazing.

Brad Burrow: How is somebody, go ahead, go ahead.

Gayle Packer: And just other organizations in and around Kansas City, been active with several of those. But Heartstrings is really the one that’s gotten most of my time and energy.

Brad Burrow: How would somebody get involved with Heartstrings? What would you recommend?

Gayle Packer: So actually, you can go to the website, Heartstrings Community, I think it’s heartstringscf.org.

Brad Burrow: I’ll put that on the notes, by the way.

Gayle Packer: Okay, great. But Heartstrings, one of the things that they do and one of their biggest businesses that, their employees, and we call them employees. Participating, it’s called goody delivery. So companies can sign up to have participants from Heartstrings come and do goodie delivery at their office once a week or every other week, or every three weeks. They can put it on the schedule. And our participants come and they have pushcarts that they go around the office. And they sell candies, and snacks, and gum, and peanuts, and popcorn, and dog treats. My dogs love the dog treats.

Brad Burrow: I have my dog with me today. So.

Gayle Packer: Yeah. So your dog will think it’s like doggy crack is what I call it. Yeah, so they do homemade dog treats. So the employees then are interacting with your employees, and learning how to talk to them about what they would like and how much do they owe them, and counting change. They’re out in the community. The one thing that I think differentiates Heartstrings from a lot of other organizations is that it’s not about having our employee participants sit in a location. They’re really out and about in the community and giving back to the community while they’re also benefiting the community. I think it’s fantastic.

Brad Burrow: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Do they come to Terracon?

Gayle Packer: They do come to Terracon. And they always know, the receptionist calls me when they’re coming. “Do you need dog treats?” Because they always sell out. I’m like, “Yes, I’ll be down.”

Brad Burrow: I’m first on the list. CEO gets the first-

Gayle Packer: Yeah, exactly. They actually do bring extra dog treats when they come to Terracon.

Brad Burrow: That’s awesome. Well, I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you today. It’s been really awesome. You’re pretty good at this. You realize that, right? I think that’s why you’re CEO, right? But great job. I appreciate it. This is the In a World with Real Media podcast. Please subscribe, share it with your friends. We appreciate you listening, and we’ll see you next time.

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