Large No. 1: At KCI Technologies, an open-door policy fosters trust

For The Baltimore Sun

Employees at KCI Technologies are both its owners and its assets. The company stock is divided among all who are eligible. But that’s far from the only contribution KCI makes to keeping them happy at work.

The company’s mission, the opportunities for growth and development, the flexible work hours and the culture of transparency among KCI’s leadership all contribute.

Headquartered in the Baltimore County community of Sparks, KCI provides consulting engineering services, primarily in the areas of transportation, water, utilities, site development and construction management, with the bulk of the work in states east of the Mississippi River. The firm has five locations in Maryland with 550 local employees — 1,470 nationwide.

“It isn’t really hard to motivate people to do good work, because you’re making the environment a better place,” said Nate Beil, KCI’s president.

Its recent projects include the US Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks, overhauling the town center fountain in Columbia and the Pennsylvania Turnpike bridge over the Susquehanna River, and restoration of Liberty Island — home to the Statue of Liberty — after Superstorm Sandy.

Lynnea Gresham was able to follow her passion straight out of college, landing a job at KCI a decade ago as a staff geotechnical engineer. She helps determine whether ground at construction sites is strong enough to build on and makes recommendations for improvements before work can begin.

“One thing I love is the work we have done is pretty diverse,” she said. “We’ve had projects in Barbados, in the Caribbean, in Florida. We do a little bit of everything. We’re challenged with different types of soil conditions. Like anything else, if you do the same thing all the time, it can get a little mundane.”

KCI prepares its staff to advance in their careers, setting aside about 40 hours a year for technical training or leadership development, readying them for the next level or the next promotion.

“You’re just invested and wanting to give back as much as you can, because the company is providing all these opportunities for you in growth and personal development and leadership areas,” said Amanda Lafleur, a senior water resources design engineer who joined KCI in 2015.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” said Lafleur, who was recently nominated for the company’s emerging leaders program. “I’m so grateful that the managers see that potential in me.”

There is a strong relationship between employees and leadership. Beil and other senior representatives meet regularly with an employee committee, passing along information directly and answering any questions they might have. One voting member of KCI’s board of directors is elected by employees. And an open-door policy means staff are able to walk into a supervisor’s office to examine the company’s financial reports, if they desire.

“I don’t think you find that level of transparency often,” Beil said. “We feel if employees know where the company is going, that we have a real good vision and a strategic plan, then that breeds trust.”

Similarly, there’s a sense of trust that allows for employees to work flexible schedules.

“Think about all the commitments there are today outside of the workplace,” Beil said. “We allow people to take work home, provided that deadlines are met and the quality of work is still there. We still put work first, but we’re flexible about when that happens.”

“I’ve worked four 10-hour days to take off on a Friday for a long weekend trip,” Lafleur said. “That’s really nice, especially in the summer.”

Other perks and forms of support include an on-site gym, yoga classes held at the headquarters, reimbursement for gym memberships and competing in fitness events, and healthy snack options in the cafe.

Less tangible yet nonetheless important is an atmosphere in which employees feel respected and empowered. For Lafleur, that realization came during her first few months on the job, when she proposed changing the floor plan of the office.

“Our area was a stereotypical cube farm. I recommended a more open working environment,” she said.

Management listened, then acted, she said.

“They saw it as a good opportunity,” she said. “There’s a new energy now. There’s more interaction with colleagues. It’s easier to share and solve problems.”

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