Some people might call it “weird,” but, for Keith Hobson, FOX Engineering’s team-oriented atmosphere works just fine. Rather than review employees, he asks what the company can do for them. It’s a model that contributes to the low turnover and high morale necessary for FOX to remain an innovative leader in green engineering.
Why did you move into the private sector after working for the city of Nevada, Iowa?
Hobson: After receiving my bachelor’s in civil engineering at Iowa State, I worked for Black & Veatch, an international engineering firm. It was exciting, and I had the opportunity to work on large wastewater systems in Los Angeles and Boston. The position in Nevada gave me a chance to get back to Iowa; the community provided a nice environment in which to raise my children. Even though I enjoyed what I was doing, it wasn’t the challenge I needed, so when the opportunity to join FOX came along, I took it.
What were your company goals when you became president?
Hobson: An open-door policy is important to me. I want to be accessible. I conduct interviews with staff to encourage ongoing communication. It promotes a healthy exchange of ideas and keeps everyone on the same page. We’re still a fairly small company, just under 50 employees, so we operate in an environment similar to that of a family: supportive, willing to tackle the hard jobs, and ready to have some fun at the same time.
You are the manager on some FOX projects. Is it industry standard for the president to work in the field?
Hobson: No. About 35 percent of my time is spent in project management. Our principals enjoy the challenges of project work and engaging with clients. That helps us stay in better touch with what is important to the client and also what’s going on in the industry.
What are some green trends guiding your work right now?
Hobson: Energy efficiency, sustainability, and LEED certification. Incorporating LEED into water management is fairly new for the industry. We make our clients aware of the standards, educate them on the process, and help them determine the LEED level of certification where they would be most comfortable. Energy efficiency and sustainability are not new to us. Rather, they are our norm.
How does working with commercial clients differ from working with municipalities?
Hobson: Commercial clients generally have tight deadlines. There may not be as much time to develop innovative processes, so we use more time-tested approaches. Generally, the window of opportunity is more open for cities. There is some risk involved in our “firsts,” so we take extra measures to do our own research before implementation. The rule of thumb for us is: “Innovation where appropriate.”
What’s your technique for successfully bidding a client?
Hobson: Before we enter into a contract with a client, we build a relationship with them. We understand how they operate, their priorities, and their immediate and long-term needs. Our goal is to exceed their expectations.
What are the biggest challenges and misconceptions that FOX faces?
Hobson: At times, there is the perception that with fewer than 50 employees, we have less potential for success with the larger client or more challenging projects. However, with the largest professional water and wastewater-specific staff in Iowa, and because of our smaller, more nimble structure, we have more capability than some national firms. We have a very horizontal structure, which eliminates middle management, thereby reducing the cost to our clients. Competition from national firms can be a challenge, so we are vigilant during and after projects. We provide assistance, sometimes at no cost, whenever it is needed. Our goal is to be a trusted adviser.