President of KSA (Longview, TX), an industry leader that provides a broad range of engineering, architecture, planning, surveying, and construction management services.
By Liisa Andreassen
Fortner is dedicated to fostering growth and improving KSA’s ability to provide quality consulting services to the clients in each of its service groups. He’s also working to find ways to channel employee ambition into areas that are mutually productive for the company and satisfying for the employee.
“Focus on others is a huge part of what it looks like to be a successful leader in any endeavor,” Fortner says. “It can take many forms, but helping others around us to do their very best is a great way to multiply your contribution to the organization.”
A conversation with Mitch Fortner.
The Zweig Letter: You started with KSA in 1984 and became president in 2016. What’s the key to your longevity with the firm and what do you feel are some of the most valuable on-the-job skills you’ve learned along the way? Why?
Mitch Fortner: My father worked for one company for 42 years as a surveyor, so I’m still short of that family record. I think one of the keys to longevity with a firm is a willingness to look beyond short-term internal conflict and to recognize the value of teamwork. One of the benefits of staying with one firm for a long time can be increased career opportunities. Frankly, you can become very valuable if you understand the history of what has worked and what hasn’t worked within your company and if you thoroughly understand the culture of your organization and what makes it great.
Firm stability creates resilience. Organizations learn from experience, and as you navigate issues together, you can become better at navigating similar issues moving forward, creating a stronger company.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
MF: Trust is earned by demonstrating consistent integrity and respect. As it relates to client relationships, trust is built by honoring our word, taking our work seriously, managing expectations, and proactively communicating. Assuming a leadership posture during a project rather than being reactive is also key.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
MF: My wife has played a huge role in my career. First, she has always understood that client work doesn’t necessarily stop at 5 p.m. Throughout my career, she’s been extremely understanding and accommodating when I need to travel and when I need to work after normal business hours to meet deadlines and keep our team moving forward. In addition, she has a degree in marketing and her “people skills” are far superior to mine. There have been many times when she’s helped me to understand someone else’s perspective. That’s helped me to make better business decisions. She enjoys knowing what’s going on with my work, so there is some overlap there. But I do work hard to create margin and shut work down and enjoy my family time as well.
TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
MF: For the first half of my career, I think I overvalued my contributions to the organization and undervalued the contributions of others. Time has a way of dealing with that type of arrogance, but honestly, I wish I could take a mulligan on those early years. I now know that I would have been far more successful if I had been more encouraging and looked harder for ways to promote others and to help others around me to succeed. Focus on others is a huge part of what it looks like to be a successful leader in any endeavor. It can take many forms, but helping others around us to do their very best is a great way to multiply your contribution to the organization.
I’ve also come to believe that there’s much more room for workplace flexibility today. I’m proud that KSA has adopted a workplace flexibility program that provides the opportunity for employees and supervisors to develop custom flexible work plans.
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
MF: We’re in a hyper-competitive market for talent today. Recruiting and retention is critical for every firm leader I know. It’s important that the people we select as supervisors understand that they need to work with their direct reports in full alignment with our core values which include mutual respect, consistent integrity, collaborative teamwork, commitment to excellence, and future focus. When we live those values out, we’re much more likely to be the kind of supervisor who someone wants to work with. But more specifically, we provide leadership development training through KSA University that targets this issue directly. One of the areas that we consider in annual performance reviews is how well our supervisors are leading their teams.
TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.
MF: I don’t think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s important that all employees relate the profitability and financial health of the company to their profit-sharing rewards. That’s one of the benefits of a monthly, open-book management meeting and a quarterly profit-sharing program. All generations benefit from that type of program.
Also, we’re investing heavily in career development and education at KSA, but I believe our program benefits all the participants, including our internal instructors. If you look at the organization as a whole, the idea of investing in career development of the next generation benefits everyone. Those of us in the boomer generation cannot do this on our own. We need one another to be successful.
TZL: Since you’ve been president, what’s the one thing you are most proud of implementing or changing within the firm? Why?
MF: I’m not solely responsible for any of the changes that we’ve implemented at KSA over the last six years, but rather we’ve made some major changes as a unified team. I really cannot limit it to just one change. The first is our company mission: “We Build People Who Build the Future.” I love that focus and I think it directly addresses one of the greatest challenges in our industry today – recruiting and retention. Another change that our employees have welcomed is the move to become an open-book management firm. We embrace transparency and this paradigm really fits our company culture. Third, we migrated from a geography-based, organizational structure to a matrix structure that creates a stronger internal focus on our clients. This change really helped us to overcome a problem with organizational silos and made KSA more competitive in the marketplace. And finally, I’m very proud of our career development program, KSA University. It’s a robust and unique program that I believe demonstrates our commitment to our company’s mission.
TZL: Who are you admiring right now in the AEC industry? Where do you see thought leadership and excellence?
MF: I’m in my second year of being part of an AEC CEO mastermind program. A few of us from around the country meet once a month via Zoom. The meeting starts with a hot industry topic presentation by our facilitator and then each of us has an allocated amount of time to bring up topics for group discussion. I’ve come to admire and respect each of those leaders. On a broader basis, if you look at our industry overall, I have a tremendous admiration for everyone who does project and client management well. If you think about it, that is where the magic happens in our business. Our projects are incredibly consequential and typically very visible. Delivering high quality projects that exceed the expectations of our clients and the public requires an extraordinary amount of effort, skill, leadership, and dedication.
And finally, I would encourage everyone to listen to Ellen Bensky with Turner Fleischer Architects in Toronto. I believe she has a revolutionary understanding of how to help the next generation of employees in the AEC industry to thrive. The academy that they created within their firm helped to inspire KSA University.
TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?
MF: When I graduated from Texas A&M in 1984, I was fortunate to have multiple role models at KSA. But, if I had to name just one, it would be Joncie Young, P.E., who was KSA’s president for 20 years before I became president. I’ve learned more about business, life, and people in general from him than just about anyone. It didn’t happen through a formal mentorship program, but by just working alongside each other over a long period of time.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
MF: When I first became president, my vision was to increase the diversity of our services and the markets that we work in. I pushed to make that happen too quickly, and we invested corporate resources in some areas where we couldn’t seem to gain traction. We lost a good bit of money trying to do things that we couldn’t sell. Lesson learned? It’s a mistake to try to model a company around what other companies are doing. The key is to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace and have the right people in place to sell and provide the service.
Just because there’s a lot of work in a certain market doesn’t mean that your firm can be positioned to win it or do it. Develop and exploit your own company’s competitive advantages in the marketplace. If you are very successful in a few markets, market saturation can be easier and more profitable than market diversification. We’ve proven that over the last three to four years. Another lesson learned through that experience is the value of strategic planning and involving as many people as you can in the process. We developed a very good strategic plan about three years ago, and we’re seeing much fruit from those efforts.