Spotlight on HDR, Inc.
By Kyle Beam, GHPB
1917, the world is at war for the first time. The United States has just entered the European theatre, to join an Alliance led by France and Britain, after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania and seven merchant ships in the Atlantic. Things on the home front were unsettled as the government has just issued the Selective Service Act, compelling citizens into service without substitutes, for the first time and millions of young men are being drafted to go to war. But, on the plains of Nebraska, one man was in the midst of forming a company that remains, and continues to grow, 100 years later – HDR, Inc.
The story of HDR can be traced back to the days of the Old West. Its founder, Henning H. Henningson, worked as a cowboy on the Montana range. On the range, he was able to put his mathematical mind to use playing poker winning and saving $3,000. Henningson’s life was not meant to be spent on the range. He was an ambitious man and wanted more out of life besides being a ranch hand, so with only a seventh grade education he applied for entrance to Iowa State University (ISU).
Initially denied, Henningson persisted and appealed to the governor of Iowa “arguing since he and his family were taxpayers, and ISU was a tax-supported school, he should have the opportunity to enter.” He also stipulated if he didn’t succeed the University had the right to drop him. The governor agreed to these conditions and Henningson entered Iowa State in 1902.
After graduating from Iowa State, Henningson developed his knowledge of engineering, first in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, then in Omaha, Nebraska, as the head of Westinghouse’s Omaha office and for Alamo Engine and Supply Company where he developed his flair for sales and marketing. While at Alamo he also acquired the knowledge about small town politics and the needs of the citizens of small towns that would help form the basis for his future company.
The years of experience, acquired knowledge and seeing the need for engineers to help people in the small Nebraska towns led Henningson to form Henningson Engineering in mid-1917. Starting with just a small group of civil, mechanical and electrical engineers , Henningson Engineering performed its first job on a power house design, in Ogallala, Nebraska, about 300 miles west of Omaha. H.H. Henningson’s philosophy with his company was vastly different than others during his day. Henningson felt the people and cities and towns he worked with needed a “middle man” who worked with the municipalities, contractors and equipment vendors on projects. Henningson designed the projects to meet the community’s needs and protected the interest of the community during project construction. This philosophy has continued in the company for 100 years.
The philosophy used by Henningson helped the company grow throughout the next few years. When the stock market crashed, Henningson Engineering was not completely spared. Employee numbers had to be trimmed, but as was Henningson’s way, he let his former employees use office space to look for work and offered them recommendations for new jobs. While many other engineering firms failed, Henningson Engineering survived. Henningson used FDR’s New Deal, specifically the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), to rebuild his business. The REA allowed Henningson to apply for long-term loans for rural communities to use on construction of generating plants and transmission/distribution lines.
Along with the Nebraska communities flourishing because of the REA, Henningson Engineering did as well. The company grew to 40 employees, including two who became central figures in the history of the company, Willard Richardson and Charles Durham. Henningson continued to lead the company through more wartime years in the 1940s, growing the company even further, but the years and waning health eventually forced him to slow down. He sold the company to Richardson and Durham in 1950, enabling a D and R to be added after the H, and retired in 1953. Passing away from Parkinson’s disease in 1958, Henningson’s legacy and hands are still felt on HDR 100 years after its founding.
Henningson, Durham and Richardson, now known as HDR, Inc., has grown immensely in its 100 years. What was just 40 employees during the height of the Great Depression, has grown to a 10,000 employee company. The business has also expanded beyond Omaha. HDR has completed projects in all 50 states and in over 60 countries around the world. HDR has 225 locations around the world, with offices in 47 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Guam, Canada, Australia, Germany, China and the United Arab Emirates. HDR’s presence in Texas, alone, dates back over 60 years to when it opened a Texas office for the first time.
According to Dave Weston, former Commander of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers’ Galveston District, and currently HDR’s Area Manager, the reason HDR has succeeded and grown in its 100 year history is because of the way the company treats its employees and clients. “We have a client for life mentality,” Weston said.
HDR helps promote this mentality and grow the company by acquiring firms that fill needs the company does not currently support. When acquiring firms, maintaining client and employee relationships is extremely important. “We retain the management team of the acquired firm to maintain the client relationship,” Weston said. He added, HDR does not just acquire firms to make the company larger. “They must have a cultural fit with our organization,” Weston said.
The culture fostered at HDR has endeared the employees to the company. So much so the company rewarded the employees by turning ownership over to them.
HDR has been owned by its employees for the past 25 years. Today, 90% of the employees own HDR stock. “This adds a dynamic to how we deliver services to our clients,” Weston added. “We are a service provider even if we’re in it to make money.”
Along with the trust in its employees, HDR has maintained its original philosophy initiated by H.H. Henningson 100 years ago to be a “middle man” in representing its clients, except today it is done on a much larger scale.
HDR, Inc. is now a matrix organization made up of two divisions: Business and Operations. The operations division is divided into geographical regions and oversees the day to day operations and project delivery for the company. There are four functional business groups – Transportation, Water, Resources and Federal, and they are responsible for business development, strategic market analysis and internal technical competency. Unlike other matrix organizations, “both sides work together to meet common goals even with different functional responsibilities,” said Weston.
HDR works on a wide variety of client projects. Some can be as small and simple as beach nourishment, or as large and complex as engineering a bridge to bypass the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas. In Texas alone, HDR has worked extensively in the Ports of Brownsville and Corpus Christi, and provides services to Port Freeport and the Port of Houston. They are currently working on a large beach nourishment project along Galveston Island.
Giving back has become a big part of the culture of HDR, Weston said. In the Houston-Galveston area, the company works with the Galveston Bay Foundation on oyster reef restoration and marsh building as a part of their coastal program, Weston said. Weston calls HDR’s work with its coastal program world class for the work it does helping the environment, and praises the way it goes hand-in-hand with its maritime development. “A good nexus exists between our marine program and coastal program,” HDR has the expertise to plan and design most of the infrastructure that exists along our major waterways including – permitting, ports/terminal master planning, dredging and erosion control measures, multi-modal transportation facilities, marine structures, site civil, drainage, storage tanks and pipelines.
Along with improving the environment, HDR finds ways to give back to many of the communities it works in, from educational visits at local schools promoting increased focus on STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) to monetary donations through its own foundation.
The HDR Foundation was founded in 2012, keeping in touch with company founder H.H. Henningson’s belief, “there is always time enough for kindness,” to support organizations and activities that align with the company’s values and expertise. The foundation gives grants to non-profit organizations, which have active involvement from HDR employees.
Support for the foundation comes almost exclusively from the employees themselves. HDR promotes an annual “Day of Giving.” On this day employees are encouraged to give to the HDR Foundation and the company will match up to $300,000 in donations. The 2016 “Day of Giving” raised over $500,000.
The future for HDR continues to look prosperous. Since switching to an employee-owned company the company has flourished, and there are no signs of this weakening in the near future. HDR continues to expand nationally and internationally. Weston sees bright things for the company: “The future looks good. I think you’re going to see us grow from a national to a global firm.” But he is quick to point out the only reason this is possible, much like H.H. Henningson believed, is because of the people that work for HDR and their focus on client service.
Editor’s Note: For more information on HDR’s 100th Anniversary celebration, please visit www.hdr100.com. To learn more about HDR today, please visit www.hdrinc.com.
- Date April 18, 2017
- Tags April 2017