Shaping the world: Stewart Osgood

Oct 09, 2022

President and CEO of DOWL, LLC, a firm that offers a wide range of engineering services to public and private clients, from the Arctic Ocean to the Rio Grande.

By Liisa Andreassen

As president and CEO, Osgood has led DOWL, LLC (Redmond, WA) through record growth while simultaneously managing key transportation projects. His affinity for project management and client interaction remains a top passion.

“I feel grateful and blessed to serve a wonderful group of owners and employees who are all about people and projects and clients,” Osgood says. “Our charter says it all – ‘Positively shaping the world with exemplary professional service.’”

A conversation with Stewart Osgood.

The Zweig Letter: Your online bio says you’ve led the company through unprecedented growth during your tenure. To what do you most attribute this? What were some key tactics?

Stewart Osgood: Perhaps DOWL measures growth differently than is common in the industry. We have grown in top line gross revenue, and more importantly in bottom line performance. But when we say growth, we also mean organizational maturity, wisdom, and sustainability. As an example, our client mix, regional stability, and practice area diversification improves year-over-year. And all the while we focus on three main things: people and culture, quality and efficiency, and profitable growth. For example, several years ago we committed to become ISO 9001 certified for quality. In the short-term, this was a drag on top- and bottom-line financial performance, but the long play was for a more mature and disciplined organization. That is real growth to me while also keeping a conservative position on the balance sheet and play with our own money (e.g., retained earnings).

TZL: What’s your growth plan look like for the next five years? Plans for organic or inorganic growth? Why or why not?

SO: We’re continuing to prepare for our version of growth, with time and treasure aimed at organizational maturity, wisdom, and being more sustainable in all senses of the word. That will likely mean attracting partners that want to be part of our little firm, whether they be 300-person firms or individuals who are attracted to our cultural lightening.

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?

SO: When I was in college at the University of Vermont in the mid-1980s, I landed a co-op job with the U.S. Army Cold Regions Engineering Lab in New Hampshire. I met many wonderful professionals there, but the man who changed my life more than any other was Wayne. He was (and is to this day) the hardest working, most honest, dedicated, and gritty professional I have ever worked with. He taught me that success is generally as much about hard work and commitment as it is about intelligence. Wayne died within the past couple of years from cancer. We lost a giant.

TZL: Keeping up with employees is a large part of your job. How do you ensure people feel connected when they’re working in different locations?

SO: I travel a lot and that helps me connect with people. I slowed down a bit through the pandemic, but I never fully stopped traveling and connecting one-on-one. I also think that it’s important to remain humble and never forget that as the CEO, your employees are as much your boss as is the board (perhaps more so). Many folks talk about “servant leadership” but I am not sure that all of them actually carry that philosophy in their hearts.

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

SO: When DOWL performs at a level below our standard (yes, it happens), I try to use it as a moment of proving ourselves to our charter as a company. One of the key tenants is “honesty and quality work builds successful relationships.” We don’t hide behind technicalities or contract clauses or ambiguity in the scope of work. We try to step forward, find a solution, and iron out the wrinkles. Most clients do not expect perfection. We’re delivering at or above standard 98 percent of the time, but every once in a while there’s a hiccup. We use that moment to do the right thing and build long-term trust.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

SO: I try to be honest, not freak out, maintain a rudder, and generally attenuate the size of the wave that hits the company. A recent example is that we lost a very talented PM and engineer. She went to work for a public agency that is a client of ours. There was a whole lot of freaking out over the loss of this talented lady and what it would mean for others in the organization. Without the benefit of 30 years in business, the chasm might have seemed too wide to bridge. But I have seen other A-players leave DOWL over the years (unfortunately) and we find a way forward together. It has always been that way, and it always will be.

TZL: What’s a top challenge for you in this moment in time? How are you working to solve it?

SO: My leadership team is trying to prepare for choppy waters ahead because we continue to feel that August 2023 will be quite different than August 2022. We are not pessimistic about the future, but we collectively feel that another economic or geo-political seismic event may be headed our way. We’re trying to maintain our fitness as a firm and remain nimble to adjust to whatever the future brings.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

SO: I’ve made the mistake of promoting people too quickly because I wanted them to advance. I now understand that we need to consult with people about their career aspirations and desire to take on more responsibility and perhaps get further from the technical work.

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

SO: For people who are deeper into their career, we have a program where we put them in a category of open leave with unlimited vacation, if they log a minimum number of hours per year. It works well for folks who work big hours some weeks, but maybe want to take December off to vacation in France or ride their bike in New Zealand or coach their kids’ basketball team.

TZL: How do you typically begin the day? Exercise? Coffee? Breakfast? The news? Basically, what gets your motor running?

SO: I’m an early riser, so my day usually starts with my partner and I walking our dogs and bonding. I then usually follow up with a brisk walk or a bike ride to get the blood flowing and the ideas organized in my head.

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?

SO: Make money as a company and reward the people who are most responsible for driving your firm’s success. Once a firm is seen as a fabulous place to work, but there is no appetite for stock purchases, it’s game over.

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

SO: Create a strong internal appetite for owning company stock.  

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