Seeking change: Emad Al-Turk

Feb 19, 2023

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CEO of Waggoner (Jackson, MS), a civil engineering firm of planners, designers, and engineers with a passion for helping communities realize their potential.

By Liisa Andreassen

As CEO, Al-Turk possesses an entrepreneurial spirit that drives him and helps him to recognize it in others. His primary focus is to build a team that understands change is inevitable and his mindset is to always question what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. He embraces critical thinking, innovation, and service in an effort to continually improve.

As such, he spends most of his time working “on the business” rather than “in the business” on items such as setting strategic direction, envisioning organic and acquisitive growth, identifying partners who align with their values and culture, managing change, communicating internally and externally, and setting company performance expectations. His leadership team works mostly “in the business,” managing and leading the operations of different aspects and making sure everyone is held accountable for performance.

“An entrepreneurial spirit is a state of mind that the status quo is not acceptable and that future success is not predicated on past successes,” he says. “To stay ahead of the competition, we must actively seek out change rather than wait to adopt change.”

And it’s that same entrepreneurial spirit that helps the younger set move into principal roles quicker. Last year alone, Waggoner advanced three individuals in their 30s as principals, and they have at least two more being mentored to become principals.

“The most important attribute we look for in naming future principals is fulfilling this entrepreneurial spirit,” he says.

Calculating growth. And that philosophy seems to be working as the company grew by 100 percent between 2017 and 2021, mostly through organic growth. In 2020, they decided to grow the firm fivefold in five years. Initially, they wanted to build on the successes achieved over the previous five years and to expand on their own through organic and acquisitive growth. After significant deliberation, they decided to pursue partnership with a private equity firm that aligns with their values.

“We defined desired attributes and talked to a half dozen private equity firms,” Al-Turk says. “We narrowed our search to the top two and finally selected Alpine Investors/Trilon because their values aligned perfectly with ours. Their ‘people first’ philosophy, significant expertise in M&A and organic growth, understanding of the importance of utilizing technology and innovation, financial strength, and, finally, their approach to building a top 20 North American engineering firm all aligned with our wants and goals.”

Waggoner finalized its partnership with Trilon in January 2022, as the first infrastructure company to join the Trilon Group. Waggoner’s role in this partnership is to lead the growth of Trilon’s Water, Municipal, and Disaster Recovery platform growth into a top 10 water company and a leading national disaster recovery firm. Over the last year, Waggoner grew by 60 percent through acquisitive and organic growth.

Al-Turk simultaneously serves as the CEO of Waggoner, leading its continued growth in the Southeast, as well as the CEO of Trilon’s WMDR platform, which grew by more than 500 percent over the last year (from 100 to more than 500 employees).

“We will continue this growth pattern over the next few years and seek partnerships with well-aligned firms,” Al-Turk says.

He shares that it’s important to be proactive in preparing for anticipated growth because significant change will always accompany it.

“While this can bring excitement and opportunities, it can also add stress and anxiety,” he says. “It’s important to have a communication plan in place for staff so they understand their role. It’s also advisable to build a strong back-office team and systems that will allow you to manage a larger company, including finance/accounting, marketing, human resources, and information technology. These preparations require investment and calculated risk, so be sure that you evaluate those risks and prepare financially for those investments.”

Helping clients leverage assets. For clients, Al-Turk knows that when the company is strong, clients reap the benefits too. It allows them to make promises they can keep by contractually delivering quality services and products on time, within budget, and more.

“We strive to do much more than that by becoming client trusted advisors,” he says. “We start by understanding client needs, and then develop a strategy to help them envision possibilities they thought might be out of reach. The strategy is uniquely different depending on the client.”

Waggoner provides integrated and transformative solutions to most of its clients who are local and state government entities. Their client’s infrastructure needs outstrip their ability to pay for these needs, so they assist clients in leveraging their local financial resources with state and federal resources. They also use technology and innovation to provide applications that clients can use to do more for less.

Creating a culture of longevity. When it comes to staff, Al-Turk says that diversity, inclusion, and equity are engrained in their culture because it strengthens the organization as a whole. In 2017, when he joined to lead the firm, Waggoner staff were predominately white (more than 95 percent). Today, more than 60 percent of the company is comprised of people of color, women, and other minority groups. This transformation happened because leadership focused on it.

And, it’s this culture that encourages staff to stick around – that and a “do-right-by-your-staff,” philosophy. Al-Turk knows it’s important to treat everyone with respect – much like he’d want to be treated.

“Listen to their concerns and put a system in place to proactively address them,” he says.

Other things like competitive pay, incentives, and creating a functional family environment where success is celebrated together all contribute to a happy workplace.

“We celebrate our successes together, but also support each other when we fail,” he says.

A flexible work policy is in place too. While they had a limited telecommuting policy before COVID-19, the pandemic helped them to expand this policy and recognize that if telecommuting is managed properly, it can be as productive and, sometimes, more productive by allowing staff who want to work from home to do so. Currently, about 15 percent of the company works 100 percent remotely, and another 10 percent to 15 percent are hybrid.

“This change has not been a hindrance to growth and productivity,” Al-Turk says. “On the contrary, it’s opened new opportunities to add talented team members that we would not be successful in hiring if everyone had to work in the office.”

Improving global relations. Outside of the office, equity isn’t just a word to check off the list when it comes to company culture. Al-Turk believes that you can’t achieve world peace – a much loftier goal – without justice and equity. Waggoner is focused on what it can do locally – here in the U.S. – to meet that end.

Waggoner assists marginalized communities that were left behind in funding priorities to secure their fair share of state and federal resources to lift up their communities. They assist these communities in demonstrating how environmental, social, and economic historic disparities caused significant infrastructure decay within their communities that severely and negatively impact the quality of life of their citizens.

Two recent projects illustrate that commitment to these efforts. The first project is a pro bono community service project in partnership with the International Museum of Muslim Cultures, which is leading more than 15 local non-profit organizations to improve the quality of life of the citizens of Jackson, Mississippi, through building the Beloved Community which Dr. King envisioned, but never attained. This is an ambitious, 10-year, integrated, and transformative community-based project that starts with a two-year pilot program in Ward 2 of Jackson, Mississippi. The City Council of Jackson, with Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s lead, unanimously approved IMMC’s Resolution for A City of Jackson Beloved Community – An Integrated Transformation Pilot Project on March 1, 2022.

Waggoner’s role is to support IMMC in identifying the necessary funding resources from state and federal government and philanthropic and business communities. It will also lead the business entrepreneurship, economic development, and infrastructure components of the project.

Anticipated outcomes are improvements in education, innovation/technology, criminal justice, poverty, health, housing, and economic development, as well as physical infrastructure (water and transportation) – overall quality of life.

Another project is the Highland Commerce Connector in Ridgeland, Mississippi. Situated between the cities of Jackson and Madison, Ridgeland’s development began as a valuable area for commerce and trade along the Natchez Trace Parkway and advanced as a central point between Memphis and New Orleans on the Illinois Central Railroad. Connection and accessibility have played a pivotal role in this growth, and as the needs of the community changed with a rising economy, the city expanded around major transportation thoroughfares that cross the city. These thoroughfares have served as primary routes for many residents, but have significantly prevented access and gain to lower-income communities.

Tougaloo College, a historically Black college and university founded in 1869, has been divided by Interstate 220 and isolated by Highway 51 from major employment areas in the City of Ridgeland. Waggoner has supported the City of Ridgeland in equity efforts regarding Tougaloo’s connectivity to economic-rich portions of the city, including a recent Fiscal Year 2022 Rebuilding American Infrastructure Through Sustainability and Equity grant application to create a two-lane, 2.6-mile frontage road connection with a 10-foot-wide multi-use trail. The Highland Commerce Connector will increase equity and accessibility, providing development opportunities for Tougaloo College and employment opportunities for many persons from areas of persistent poverty as well as promoting safety through the increase of multi-use trails and bike routes for recreational use that also provide access to employment areas.

“My goal is for Waggoner to become a reflection of the state and country we serve, work, and live in,” Al-Turk says. 

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