Leader of Kansas-based civil engineering firm learned a lot during the recession, and has found a nice niche inspecting levies and dams.
By Liisa Andreassen
It’s about the client experience, not just the project. That’s the philosophy of Affinis co-founder Rick Worrel. Affinis (Best Firm Civil #15 for 2016), a 31-person firm based in Overland Park, Kansas, is named after the Latin word “affinitas,” a quality that makes people or things suited to each other. And that’s exactly what Worrel and his staff are focused on capturing. Affinis was founded in 2001 by Worrel and John Thomas. Thomas has since retired, but Worrel continues to support the mission.
A conversation with Rick Worrel.
The Zweig Letter: What did you want to be growing up?
Rick Worrel: A structural engineer – like my dad.
TZL: What’s the firm’s service focus?
RW: In the beginning, we were focused on transportation but have expanded into stormwater capabilities. Smaller projects continue to be a strength and we do a great deal of levy and dam inspections and rehabilitation and design of levies and dams. It’s a nice niche service that sets us apart as a small company.
TZL: Any lessons learned along the way?
RW: These questions have provided me with a good chance to reflect – something I don’t get a chance to do often. In 2001, we grew quickly. We added a great number of staff, but got too full of ourselves too quickly. In 2004, we had to reduce staff. It was a tough situation as a new company. Since then we have learned to stay within our scope and not grow too quickly. This experience also set us up to handle the larger recession in 2008.
TZL: What are your key leadership strengths?
RW: You should probably ask this question to my co-workers. I like to think I’m approachable, honest, and lead by example. I keep my promises and think that’s one of the most important things you can do. Keep your word and do what you say you are going to do.
TZL: How would you describe your leadership style?
RW: Collaborative consensus builder. I try not to micro-manage. I’m compassionate – maybe to a fault. I’m not a bottom line type of business owner. I really think about how decisions are going to affect people’s lives.
TZL: What’s been your greatest challenge to date and how did you handle it?
RW: In 2001, we were full of optimism. We quickly realized that things could spin out of control quickly. In 2004, we learned to work hard to keep morale positive and focus more on relationships, internally and externally.
TZL: What is your vision for the future of Affinis?
RW: Coming out of the 2008 recession, we are still a bit antsy, waiting for the next shoe to drop. We are working to play offense instead of defense. We are focused on growth initiatives – revenue and profit growth – and are also working on a strategy for internal succession.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project you are especially proud of and why.
RW: There are two I’d like to tell you about. The first one is with the Kansas Department of Transportation. We had to work to build a relationship with them. We nurtured the relationship, worked with legislators, and got noticed. We got a project for a new transportation project and it all came down to perseverance. The second is a project with the Corps of Engineers. In 2009/2010, we were selected for a national contract – dam and levy safety inspections. As of today, we have inspected 57 levy systems in the upper Midwest and this has led to the cultivation of other contracts that may help us to diversify our revenue stream. Again – it’s all about building those relationships.
TZL: How have you helped your firm to stay competitive?
RW: We’re very focused. We have a small client target list. You can’t be everything to everybody. We focus on the overall client experience.
TZL: Is there any news you care to share about what’s currently happening at Affinis?
RW: We’ve added a new service niche – intelligence transportation systems.
TZL: Are you married? Do you have children and/or pets?
RW: I’ve been married for 25 years. We have three daughters, ages 16 to 35; three grandchildren; one dog and a fish.
TZL: What’s one thing most people at the firm don’t know about you?
RW: They know everything.
TZL: What’s your best vacation spot? Do you have a dream destination?
RW: My wife and daughters love the beach so many of our vacations tend to be around the water. If it was up to me, I’d head to the mountains. Social media is a great tool for sharing vacation photos and I’ve seen some beautiful ones of Switzerland and Italy. I’d like to get there one day.
TZL: What’s the last book you read?
RW: A book about leadership by John Maxwell and Tom Clancy, The Bear and the Dragon.
TZL: What’s the last movie you saw?
RW: I’m a sci-fi junkie – the last Star Wars movie.
TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you ever received?
RW: Early in my career, I was told that the best way to manage is to walk around. Get up out of your seat. Get to know people – personally, not just professionally. Don’t look over their shoulder, just get to know them.
TZL: Who is a leader you admire?
RW: My dad. He was a professional engineer who passed away at a young age. I’ve tried to emulate his leadership style and implement his business philosophy. If you make your employees part of the company, the rest will be a piece of cake.
TZL: What activities do you enjoy outside of work?
RW: I’m a soccer dad. I also like to work out and stay fit and enjoy date nights with my wife.
TZL: What’s your favorite lunch?
RW: Well – favorite? Cheeseburger, french fries, and a chocolate shake. But, what do I actually eat? More and more, I’m getting to like grilled chicken and salmon with a salad.