Character: Sam Dawson

Feb 20, 2022

CEO and co-owner of Pape-Dawson Engineers (San Antonio, TX), the largest civil engineering firm headquartered and exclusively located in Texas.

By Liisa Andreassen

Dawson is CEO and co-owner of Pape-Dawson Engineers, Inc., which provides civil engineering, environmental, and surveying services for land development, transportation, and water resource projects. The firm has a reputation rooted in integrity and has effectively served clients throughout the state for more than 55 years. It leverages adaptable industry leaders, cutting-edge technology, and positive relationships with stakeholders throughout the state to provide customized solutions to meet Texas’ growing needs.

“Pape-Dawson’s mission is to be the most respected engineering firm in our geographic and technical areas of practice,” Dawson says. “We believe that we will be defined more by our character than by our products of service.”

A conversation with Sam Dawson.

The Zweig Letter: Your website states that your “culture sets you apart.” Can you elaborate? If you were to describe the company’s culture in a few words, what would you say?

Sam Dawson: Pape-Dawson is relentlessly focused on being the most respected engineering company in Texas. Not the biggest. Not the richest. The most respected. Therefore, we hire and retain the best and the brightest employees with the same values to fulfill this mission. We want to be the best place to work, too. We prioritize employees and their families, and we run the business like we are a family. We provide a professionally engaging, flexible, challenging, and positive work environment with formal programs offering abundant opportunities for our employees to learn and grow as individuals, develop enriching relationships with co-workers, and give back to the community. Those programs include our Academy for Professional Excellence, the Pape-Dawson Charitable Foundation, and PD Connect, to name a few. Our unique culture is founded on excellence, hard work, responsiveness, respect, and character above all else.

TZL: What excites you most about the AEC industry when you fast forward into the future – say five years?

SD: The demand for infrastructure will be significant across this country, and especially in Texas, over the next 25 years. Doing our job right is critical for our profession. The environment, the quality of life and safety of individuals are in our hands – we must get it right. I am excited about this challenge and this tremendous responsibility.

TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?

SD: We’ve been engaged with higher education institutions for decades, as this is a critical resource for sustaining and expanding our workforce. Various employees have served as guest speakers for classes at both four-year and two-year programs. Our talent management leader sits on advisory boards of colleges and universities to provide employer insight, and we participate in panels, mock interviews, etiquette lunches, resume reviews, and engineering competition judging panels to prepare students for their careers. Several of our engineers also participate in senior design projects on a consultant level, and have been doing so for about a decade, attending practices and presentations to offer critiques, questions, and suggestions for improvements. We also offer internships and one-day externships for students to practically apply their knowledge and expose them to civil design. The great thing in all of this is that there are mutually beneficial outcomes to these experiences. Through engaging with the next generation of engineers, we’re supporting their development and encouraging their professional growth, but we’re also grounding ourselves in the latest technology, questioning the ways we’ve “always done things,” and recruiting future employees.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?

SD: Character is everything. If you are a person of truth and character, people will respect you. If they respect you, they will trust you. If they trust you, they will be willing to follow you. Pape-Dawson’s mission is to be the most respected engineering firm in our geographic and technical areas of practice. We believe that we will be defined more by our character than by our products of service. And if we are going to be a trusted company, we must be a trusted people, and that starts with me.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

SD: Passion, faith, flexibility, endurance, commitment, humility, and compassion. A good local economy doesn’t hurt either. One lesson I wish I’d learned a tad sooner than I did is that change can be good. When you transition from working for your family to running the family business, there’s an immense pressure to maintain the status quo. You know the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In order to grow, you have to welcome change and have a willingness to change direction when you are wrong.

TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?

SD: Pape-Dawson is blessed to have a dynamic Chief Employee Engagement Officer who has stood up our internal corporate university we call APEX: Academy for Professional Excellence. Every Pape-Dawson employee is invited to participate and is slated for personal development. Within that framework, we have specific programs for project managers that touch on all aspects of the job, from people skills to business skills. We use a wide variety of assessment and development tools since all of our managers and employees are unique. We use the global recognized standards of the Project Management Institute, but none of this is static. All our programs are evolving every quarter as we add more and more content designed to help our managers and employees be more effective. Effective managers lead to better work for the client, but that’s just one small benefit. We are specifically equipping our managers to lead great teams and increase their personal wellness and life skills. We can’t take great care of our clients if we’re not taking great care of ourselves.

TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?

SD: In terms of ownership transition on my end, I don’t intend to pass the baton anytime soon! Whenever that time does come, however, I have no doubt it will go smoothly because of the transparent and frequent communication within our officer group. I will make sure the next generation is well prepared, and let go when it’s time to let go. We are also building a loyal and trusted team that is not part of the family, and really listening to them, and sharing success with them. As long as our mission and unwavering dedication to our community remain intact, Pape-Dawson will continue to succeed.

On the other side of things, we recently acquired a phenomenal firm to expand our footprint in the Dallas-Fort Worth area: Dowdey, Anderson & Associates. The key to that smooth transition was rooted in the fact that DAA shared Pape-Dawson’s dedication to demonstrating integrity and putting clients’ needs first. When your technical capabilities and core values align, acquisitions become more like the joining of families than the taking over of business. Once legal and financial decisions were made, top-level leadership from both firms met to discuss goals and functional changes. We all recognized that patience would be key in the transition, as hasty changes can be disruptive and costly in so many ways. All DAA employees were informed of the changes and assured of their job and financial security before any real transition took place. Then we conducted small group orientations with the employees to have the opportunity to get to know them and answer their questions. Other little things to help the transition included welcome gift baskets, a group breakfast, a happy hour, and meet-and-greets with other Pape-Dawson employees to foster that sense of family. From the earliest possible point, we made it known to all that DAA and Pape-Dawson would be stronger together.

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

SD: We offer a variety of quality benefits that keep our employees happy and healthy. These benefits are flexible in response to employee needs and current events, such as COVID-19. We also provide countless opportunities for personal and professional development and a competitive salary with annual performance reviews. Our family-like company culture also makes every employee feel special and appreciated. Employee engagement is at an all-time high thanks to virtual and in-person activities such as bingo, trivia, themed birthday Fridays, employee appreciation lunches (including live music and games), comedy shows, Food Truck Fridays, Spurs and Ranger games, our annual picnic for employees and family members, and our annual Christmas party for the entire company. We also have a very active networking program, PD Connect, that offers a variety of opportunities for employees to learn and connect through project site visits, sports teams, professional speaker series, and social gatherings. Employees and family members are kept up to date on company happenings and employee achievements (both professional and personal) through a quarterly magazine, weekly “See What’s Happening” emails, and an employee intranet. Our leadership team and I try our best to ensure Pape-Dawson is the last company listed on each employee’s resume. 

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.