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Coffee with a CEO: An Interview with Joel Storrow, President of McGill Associates

We are so excited about the launch of our new newsletter. We hope you will enjoy it and you will gain valuable insight and industry information! In this inaugural edition, we are also launching the first of many ‘Coffee With a CEO’ interviews specific to the AEC niche. Why is this important? It’s an inside look at the career path into a leadership role for those of you who are currently early or mid-point in your careers. For those of you already in leadership positions, it’s a chance to gain information and best practices from some of the best in the business.

My relationship with Joel Storrow is a special one and one that has spanned more than 13 years. It is with great pleasure that I introduce our new newsletter with an old and dear friend, Joel Storrow who is the President of McGill Associates.

Juli: Tell me about your journey to become an engineer.

Joel: My grandmother was the secretary for the Dean of Civil Engineering at the University of Kentucky and she would take me to the exhibits in the civil engineering department when I was a kid. It all just fascinated me.    

Juli: How did you select your school?

Joel: I wanted to go away to college and Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Purdue were my choices. Purdue won out because a buddy of mine went there too and we roomed together. You think about going away to school today, it is so expensive. It was $600/semester for tuition! Can you imagine that now?

Juli: When you were graduating from college, did you ever think you would be leading a firm as the President?

Joel: No of course not. I was only thinking about getting a job with an established firm. It was tough times in the early 80’s. I went back to my hometown of Lexington and got a great job under so many really good seasoned engineers. My first job was with Howard K Bell Consulting Engineering - the oldest firm in Kentucky. The founder's son Grant Bell would always walk around and mentor the younger engineers - the man was brilliant. My colleagues and I could not have had a better start in our career. He wrote a design manual for the company that became our Bible. Mr. Bell lived and breathed civil engineering and I was in the right place at the right time. But no, I just wanted to be a good engineer. I never envisioned leading a company one day.  

Juli: What things were you involved in as young person that prepared you for your role today? 

Joel: I could answer that in a lot of different ways. Boy Scouts was really huge for me in helping develop me. I was in an active troop and I became a summer camp leader. I was in some leadership roles and had the chance to mentor younger kids. I became an Eagle Scout; it really was a really important milestone in my early years.

Juli: What advice would you tell your 25-year old self?

Joel: Stay technical in your focus and volunteer for a variety of assignments - it’s why Bell was a perfect first job. They did a variety of things and I was afforded the opportunity to get a broad exposure to lots of different projects.

Juli: How would you describe your mindset as a leader?

Joel: I am a consensus builder... probably to a fault sometimes. I try hard to gauge everyone’s opinions, but I am decisive if I need to be. I am approachable, any employee can come and talk to me. How I want to be remembered as President is the guy who knew everyone’s name. I try to stop by each and everyone's office and say hi even just for a few minutes. I enjoy little things like, when we rebranded the website we had a big launch with a webinar and breakfast for the whole office. Before that, the marketing department gathered inspirations from people within the company about what they like about working for McGill. One of the younger employees said when it comes to the President, he didn’t know how I can know everyone so personally. That inspired me to try and live up to that. 

Juli: As I look back on my own career, I feel like each decade is filled with new lessons.  What’s one of the biggest lessons you have learned in the past decade?

Joel: I have become more accepting of disappointments of projects that we didn’t get, recruits we couldn't hire and acquisitions we didn’t close. The biggest lesson though would be to stop long enough to celebrate the wins. It can be a lonely place, a lot rests on your shoulders because you have people’s livelihoods depending on you. I started here when we had 40 employees and 2 offices and now we have 165 employees and 10 offices.

Juli: How did the Great Recession change you?

Joel: It caused me to be more cautious in big picture growth. When it happened, we were poised to be a $20M company and we were really doing well. Then that first quarter everything tanked and we got busy trimming. It really caused us to be much better at budgeting and doing a top-down budget. That became a more realistic approach to budgeting. I became more deliberate in some of my decision making.

Juli: What’s the thing that keeps you “up at night” with regard to leading your firm?

Joel: Positioning ourselves to be competitive. It’s SO competitive now. There are so many firms that have come into the market. Also, are we recruiting effectively to staff the projects?

Juli: What’s a piece of advice you would give a younger engineer who has just gotten their first leadership role?

Joel: Work hard to earn the respect of your peers but, don’t forget where you came from. Don’t get a big head. You have to command respect and you have to give respect to the people that you work with. Don’t be “that guy”. Get involved with civic and volunteer programs in your community. It has really helped me gain perspective on something other than just working the day job.

Juli: What’s the best book or the best movie you have seen lately?

Joel: I read a lot. The book I am reading right now is First Man by James Hanson. It's a book about Neil Armstrong and they have since made a movie out of it. It’s fascinating. He’s historically as good a role model for leadership as anyone. We could learn a lot from Neil Armstrong about quiet leadership.  

Juli: If you had another hour each day, what would you do with it?

Joel: That’s easy! I’d go for a trail run. I don’t get to do enough of it as I'd like. Going running allows you to think, it clears your mind. It makes me happy.  

Juli: Any professional regrets?

Joel: I wish I’d written more technical papers. I worked on some cool projects as a young engineer but didn’t formally write about them. You need to stay as technically relevant as you can as a CEO. 

Juli: What’s one career achievement you are most proud of?

Joel: I designed a water treatment plant for Woodfin, a small community near Asheville, in the early 90’s to comply with an EPA rule. It actually became a template for the company's water treatment plants in the region. It’s so close to town and when my kids were young, I'd take their elementary class to see it for career day field trips. 

Juli: Thank you Joel for sharing your wonderful wisdom & knowledge with us!


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