Leading growth: Greg Riley

Jun 04, 2023

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President of Schaefer (Cincinnati, OH), a firm that provides all aspects of structural engineering across a broad range of projects and industries.

By Liisa Andreassen

Riley started with Schaefer right out of college. After working as a structural engineer, he moved into various leadership roles – team leader, operation leader, vice president, and now president. For many years, he enjoyed being involved with diverse, interesting projects. Today, he’s focused on fostering staff growth and development. From individual mentoring to continuously improving the firm’s infrastructure and culture, he says he “likes it all.”

A conversation with Greg Riley.

The Zweig Letter: Schaefer was founded in 1976 to be a “different kind of structural engineering firm.” Tell me how it’s “different.” Does that still hold true today?

Greg Riley: After almost 50 years, three presidents, and a rebrand, our founding principles remain the same. Treating every project like it’s our own, efficient design, collaborative approach, strong client relationships regardless of role, giving back, and being an active member of our communities, our core values – it’s all still there. What has really grown since our founding has been internal. Stock ownership was a very early tenet; we’ve grown into a broad-employee ownership base with more than 60 percent of our team members as stockholders with diversity in tenure plus business unit. We continue to evolve and optimize our program – it’s truly unique in the marketplace. We’ve built up additional training and benefits around our people – flexibility, paid family leave, mental health, diversity and inclusion, and flow of feedback. We design in 50 states plus 10 markets, have team members located from New York to Florida and Maryland to Arizona, and lead the field in topics like mass timber, tilt-up concrete, and temporary and permanent entertainment structures.

TZL: How has COVID-19 permanently impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

GR: For over a decade, our approach to new technology was with flexibility in mind – all of our team members work from laptops. That approach allowed us to seamlessly transition to remote work at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic using all of the same systems we’d been using every day. But even before laptops and cell phones could keep us connected from literally anywhere, we empowered our team members to set their own schedules, and to adjust for that dentist appointment, child’s ballet recital or to balance out a packed week. There is only one me, so work and family must overlap.

During the pandemic, we decided to expand our flexible approach and write it into formal policy. Now, every team member has the opportunity to work a hybrid in-office/remote schedule. Depending on business need, team members can work remotely up to three days a week. Our busiest in-office days align with culture events like Grill Days, Chili Days, staff meetings, and lunch and learns. Prior to March 2020, we found success in expanding our workforce to include remote team members based out of cities outside of our three office locations, and have continued to bring on talented team members from across the country.

TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

GR: I am a purpose-driven leader and unabashed promoter of our mission, vision, purpose, and core values – internally and externally. Trust is all about knowing what you can expect from someone and their motives. If our clients know what they can expect from the Schaefer team, we’re positioned for success.

TZL: What’s at the top of your to-do list right now? Why? What steps are you taking to get it done?

GR: We finalized our strategic plan last year and my to-do list always has tasks associated with championing, communicating, and supporting our initiatives. We can never lose sight of continuous improvement and growth regardless of what else is on our to-do lists or what the economy is doing. We’re working on a communication program that engages our firm around personal and corporate growth. Various champions and communication vehicles have been tapped to best educate and inspire. We’re also in the final stretch of change management efforts associated with updating our firm valuation and internal ownership program. Our ownership program is our “special sauce” that allows us to compete with anyone in the marketplace, but it only works if we can sustain long-term profitable growth.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

GR: We’re currently addressing the issue at three different levels. First, as a leader, it has to start with me – so I’ve invested in personal development and relationships which have broadened my perspective. Next is firmwide, which similarly has to start at an individual level. We’ve invested in annual training and development opportunities for our team such that we are continually pushing our firm forward. Lastly, we need to be a part of a change in the AEC community. We’ve been a part of many classroom presentations, and have two intentional programs with the goals to expose the next generation to our industry and prepare them to be able to take next steps in it. Makers+Shakers is Schaefer-led – we take a shake table that simulates earthquake conditions to classrooms and other student events. Encouraging students to build K’Next buildings and test them in different seismic conditions is a highly visual and interactive way to explain structural engineering. CPS Strong is a program in collaboration with Cincinnati Public Schools, University of Cincinnati, and Messer Construction Co. The schools realized many students didn’t know about or have access to the physics course required to attend many engineering colleges. The CPS Strong program fills this transcript gap via a six-week summer course.

TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?

GR: Is Chili Day an answer? We like to have fun and have many culture-driven events. Seriously though, the number one reason our team members stay at Schaefer is project diversity and our unique ownership program. Open communication, transparency, flexibility, and a focus on professional development are all at the top of the list.

TZL: You’ve been with Schaefer for nearly 30 years. What’s one of the most valuable on-the-job experiences you’ve had during your time there and how did it help you become a better leader today?

GR: In the early 2000s, engineering for the entertainment market was new in our industry and even newer to Schaefer. I was empowered to set quality standards, unify the team on a path forward, be the final decision maker, and to put our firm in the best position to grow our market share. It was a bit of trial by fire, but it was an incredible opportunity to learn so much about leadership and managing others.

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?

GR: We work with a consultant for regular leadership training that ranges from communicating with different personality types to how to give, receive, and create a culture of continuous feedback. We track technical staff hours per week and target a reasonable workload for many reasons, one of which is to allow time for relationship building and thoughtful employee development. Weekly or bi-weekly check-ins keep managers aware of concerns or challenges and gives an opportunity to talk more about personal goals. We also have formal review or career planning check-ins in the forms of evaluations, individual development plans, and peer feedback requests.

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?

GR: We are unique in our broad ownership group. This generates a high need for transparency and effective communication. As with most models, we need continuous, profitable growth to generate the funds needed for all of the other pieces that make us a Best Firm To Work For. The most important hurdle to clear is having a current ownership group that sees the value in gradual transition of shares to the next generation eager to increase their ownership stake.

TZL: If a potential client asked to see two projects that Schaefer had completed, which ones would you pick and why?

GR: We have a more than 40-year relationship with Kroger. It’s very cool to walk into a Kroger in our hometown or on vacation and know that there’s a good chance one of our colleagues had a hand in it. A peak in our relationship was 1010 On-the-Rhine. The project quickly became a landmark in our downtown and a fixture in the community. The 18-story building includes two levels of Kroger grocery, eight levels of parking, and eight levels of apartments. It was unique to work with a long-time client on a project that spanned outside of their traditional market, and it was with a collaborative process that used creative design solutions to meet the goals of various owners. We’ve also designed nearly 1,000 healthcare projects within the last 25 years, but a recent structure is worth spotlighting. Bon Secours Mercy Health Kings Mills Hospital is a new healthcare campus located in the Innovation Corridor of Mason, Ohio. Healthcare design has continued to adapt and finding ways to be innovative is a core tenet of our firm. The Kings Mills project fit perfectly with this principle by using an innovative onsite prefabrication approach. This approach saved labor and construction costs and was delivered much quicker than traditional construction. It’s an approach that benefits from aligned design and construction partners that can prioritize an early design process to take advantage of all of the benefits of onsite prefabrication.

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

GR: Grow and lead. 

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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.