Developing leaders: Jim Canfield

Feb 11, 2024

President of WithersRavenel (Cary, NC), a multidisciplinary consulting firm serving both the private and public sectors.

By Liisa Andreassen

As president of WithersRavenel, Canfield is charged with leading the company and its most valuable resources – its employee-owners. He was initially hired in 1990 to lead the land development group and took over as president in 2013. He says the most exciting thing that’s happened during his time with the company has been its continued growth.

Most of that growth can be attributed to adding complementary lines of business and geographic office locations to better serve clients, provide growth opportunities for teammates, and enhance the communities where they work.

In 2023, the Triangle Business Journal recognized WithersRavenel as one of the most successful businesses in the region. The company made the prestigious list for the fifth straight year, finishing at No. 43 in 2023. The honor affirms the company’s commitment to quality projects, core values, and client experience.

An ESOP culture drives success. WithersRavenel became 100 percent employee-owned in 2019. The primary impetus for that move had to do with developing a way to transition the company from its two majority owners and founders, Tony Withers and Sam Ravenel, to its employees. It was also closely aligned with their belief in sharing ownership and company culture, which emphasizes that everyone on the team is important to company success.

“It’s rewarding to see the growth of teammates and their success as they advance into leadership positions across the organization,” Canfield says. “This new ESOP has led to tremendous growth for us since 2014, and especially over the last four years.”

In 2022, the company launched a “focus on innovation.” While innovation can mean many different things, for WithersRavenel, it’s mostly about leveraging technology and being thought leaders to create efficiencies in the way it conducts business, delivers services, and adds value. WithersRavenel wants to help people solve old problems in new ways by leveraging technology. For example, WithersRavenel has developed a web-based tool to avoid sanitary sewer overflows. It’s called LiftCommand and is specifically designed for lift station and sewer system operators, managers, and utilities directors to track your sanitary sewer system, verify permit compliance, and plan for sustainable growth.

Developing leaders. However, despite company growth and innovative developments, finding talent is a top challenge in all areas – ranging from recruiting, retaining, and developing talent. To combat this, the company has put an outstanding HR team in place that it considers a true business partner to the practice areas and support teams.

“We’re investing in our team members by providing professional and personal development opportunities, including leadership training and we have an internal development program called WR University with six pillars,” Canfield says.

He says that the industry, as a whole, is still feeling the effects of the 2008 recession which led to many people leaving the business, and in turn, creating a scarcity of project managers.

“The recession was a learning experience for most of us,” he says. “At the time, I was leading our land development group and our company went from around 280 employees to fewer than 100 in a year. We were not nearly disciplined enough with respect to business processes, and I learned quickly that my business acumen needed to increase to enhance our future sustainability.”

As a result, this led to a goal of balancing revenue between private and public sector work and implementing business-related requirements dealing with timesheets, invoicing, AR, unbilled time, and more.

“Projects are the lifeblood of our organization and we will continue to develop and train our teammates who have a desire to manage projects,” he says. “I want to develop more project managers within our organization as it provides growth opportunities and also leads to more positive client experiences.”

WithersRavenel has several programs that revolve around training and professional development. The firm provides supervisors with training about what makes a great supervisor, the challenges they will face, and strategies to deal with them. It’s also launched cohorts in its Leadership Academy under WR University, which helps employees develop the leadership skills needed to be great leaders and people managers.

Healthy habits. In addition to training, wellness is a key focus at WithersRavenel and the company was recently recognized as one of the healthiest small businesses in the state of North Carolina. In fact, it finished third place in the Triangle and Triad competitions among companies with 100-499 employees in the annual Healthiest Employers awards program.

Specifically cited in the Healthiest Employers’ recognition was WithersRavenel’s unique Thrive program which offers micro-training sessions, a testament to their recognition of the diverse needs of their teams in the midst of a hectic workday. Succinct 15-minute, live sessions are conducted through video conferences and are conveniently recorded and made accessible via their SharePoint app for those unable to attend in real time. After the content delivery, they actively facilitate open discussions to promote social connections and provide a platform for participants to share ideas and recommendations related to the topic.

WithersRavenel’s Thrive committee includes individuals from throughout the company who generate the program ideas. Additional company initiatives include running and walking clubs, wellness-centered events, team contests, and programs linked with its company health plan. Physical and mental health are both key components of the programming, along with financial and emotional well-being. 

About Zweig Group

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.