President of Raba Kistner, Inc., a firm that is committed to empowering employees to continually improve and deliver services right the first time, on time, every time.
By Liisa Andreassen
At Raba Kistner (San Antonio, Texas), Schultz provides strategic leadership and is responsible for the overall operations and resources of the company. During his 32 years with the company, he’s been responsible for scope development, contracting, financial management, and implementation of Raba Kistner’s geotechnical engineering projects across many industries.
“Provide an environment for everybody to have the opportunity to succeed,” Schultz says.
A conversation with Chris Schultz.
The Zweig Letter: Since assuming the role of president in 2021, what do you consider to be one of your most significant accomplishments and why?
Chris Schultz: Maintaining the company culture through massive changes and a pandemic – or at least I hope I have. Through any leadership transition, it’s critical for employees to remain top of mind. This was magnified during the pandemic. There was much planning and preparation that went into ensuring my assumption of the role would be seamless, both internally for our team and externally for clients. Through a year of several key leadership changes, pandemics, and immense company growth, which included two acquisitions, I have and will continue to prioritize our employees and company culture.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
CS: It all starts with integrity, which is one of our core values. It starts by admitting when you make mistakes, being accountable, and doing the right thing, even when it’s unpopular. You have to do what you say you’re going to do. I always liked the Lou Holtz quote, “When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.” For more than 50 years now, much of what Raba Kistner does is associated with compliance with laws, plans, specifications, and regulations. But earning the trust of our clients is the second part of the process. It begins with earning the trust of your employees and their trust of each other. Once you have that internally, it naturally makes its way to clients.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
CS: Being here for more than 32 years, I consider Raba Kistner and its employees to be part of my family. I am just fortunate to have a great family at home and at the office. I married my wife just five weeks before I started at Raba Kistner, so to say the lines between the two are blurry would be an understatement. My family at home, as well as our employees’ families, are the motivation for what I do and guide many of the professional decisions I make. I still remember being at a company picnic one summer and was watching our founder, Carl Raba, looking out over the crowd. I asked him what he was thinking about and he said, “Chris, we have a tremendous responsibility. We have to do our jobs really well so our employees can take care of all these people.” That mindset is the main reason I have been with Raba Kistner for 32 years. It is not a coincidence that our Purpose Statement is, “To provide professional consulting services with passion and integrity, to help build a better world for our employees, their families, our clients, and the communities we serve.” Our families are one of our stakeholders and they factor into the equation with every business decision we make.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
CS: I think the current thinking is that equity is part of the diversity and inclusion conversation, and I agree that it’s an important part. The first step for Raba Kistner and for any company is acknowledging that it’s a problem in our industry, and some of the excuses we have relied upon for years such as the makeup of college graduates in our industry are no longer valid. As I recently commented on a Raba Kistner LinkedIn post regarding it being “Construction Inclusion Week,” I’m a firm believer that diversity in all of its forms makes us better – better thinkers, better problem solvers, better people, and a far better company. I also think diversity in thinking is another important part of the equation. Our former CEO, Gary Raba, commonly quoted Winston Churchill: “If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” Being in Texas, we’re very fortunate to have a diverse workforce, but we need to make sure the “E” and the “I” become a part of our culture. At Raba Kistner, we’re starting this process with the formation of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee, but the key is that we have identified it as one of our major culture initiatives moving forward.
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
CS: A servant leader. I’m fortunate to have that luxury because of the state of the company when I took over. Many times, when you step into the CEO role, it’s because things are not working well, and a transformational leader is what’s required. I think I could be transformational if required, but it’s not my natural space. We have a wonderful senior leadership team that runs our operations well and know how to run their businesses in a sustainable manner. Inheriting such a strong leadership team allows me to serve in the role that I love as a servant leader. The ACEC Senior Executive Institute training program taught me a lot about leadership styles and being able to self-identify where you belong. It was a long time ago that Booker Washington said, “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up somebody else.” That is what motivates me.
TZL: The firm recently acquired Drake Environmental. What was the impetus for the acquisition and how will it affect the dynamics of the firm moving forward?
CS: Drake Environmental is a key player in the environmental and compliance field and well respected for its exceptional client service and relationships, innovative stormwater solutions, and commitment to the communities they serve. The partnership will allow us to expand our industry reach and build upon our extensive environmental sector expertise. As part of Raba Kistner, Drake Environmental will help to expand the firm’s environmental services in the Southeast, Central, and North Texas marketplaces and bolster construction phase services by bringing additional expertise in erosion control and stormwater management during the construction phase of projects. I love adding new services that can help our existing clients. We also more recently acquired Rice & Gardner, a project management firm with an incredible reputation working predominately in the K-12 space that aligns well with our Project Control division and the success they have in the higher education market. We’ve never felt more confident about this being a one plus one equals something greater than two scenario.
TZL: Who are you admiring right now in the AEC industry? Where do you see thought leadership and excellence?
CS: Right now, I’m admiring our industry as a whole for how we reacted during the pandemic to take care of our clients, our employees, and our families. I think our industry was better positioned than most because we solve problems. Our backgrounds and experience naturally allowed us to adapt and develop solutions quicker than those in other industries. That said, the firms that I’m admiring most are those that are much further down the road on the DE&I journey than our own. The firms that jumped out ahead of the curve are to be admired.
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?
CS: I’ve had the good fortune of having several great mentors in my career, and Carl and Gary Raba top the list. However, if there was one individual that I would credit as being the most influential, it would be the other half of our company name, Dick Kistner. He’s the person I reported to the longest in my various roles with the company. He was the epitome of servant leadership, and instilled in me to always do the right thing no matter what the consequences. He was a servant leader when servant leaders weren’t cool. One of the great things he used to say: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s far more important to be nice.”
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
CS: Early in my management career, I didn’t have enough faith in the people who worked and reported directly to me; they were incredible people. Likely out of my own arrogance, I thought I could often do it better and failed to delegate tasks that I should have. This meant I was limiting not only their growth, but also my own. This became very apparent to me when I went through a program that included a 360-degree review, and the common theme on input from my direct reports was my lack of delegation skills. The good news is I listened.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?
CS: Provide an environment for everybody to have the opportunity to succeed.