By Betty Lin-Fisher, Akron Beacon Journal business writer
(Akron, OH – December 22, 2012) – On Dec. 31, there will be a leadership change at GPD Group, an Akron engineering and architectural firm that has helped to design everything from sewers and roads to school and government buildings in the area.
But President Dave Granger, 63, said if he did things right, no one will even notice he’s gone.
“My goal when I retired was to walk out of the office, turn off the lights and close the door and no one would know I left,” he said in an interview at GPD’s offices at downtown Akron’s Canal Place complex, which the firm helped design when the space was converted after its former B.F. Goodrich days.
“That happened three years ago,” quipped Darrin Kotecki, the firm’s executive vice president who will become the new president in the new year.
Granger, who has been president since 1986 and with the company since 1973, has been preparing Kotecki for the job for the last five to seven years.
As executive vice president, Kotecki, 47, has been in charge of day-to-day operations for the last three to five years. Kotecki, a civil engineer, joined the company in 1989 after graduating from the University of Akron.
“I noticed very early in his career that he [Kotecki] was a natural leader because people followed him. People do not get authority at GPD because of a title,” Granger said.
The firm started in 1961 with five partners — Cordell Glaus, Bruce Pyle, Bob Schomer, Mel Burns and Bill DeHaven — and was mostly an engineering business with some architects. It became GPD in 1986 when several of the original partners retired. At the height of the original company, there were 150 employees in the 1970s, but there was a decline to about 40 people in 1986. That’s when the employees bought the company in a broad-based ownership model.
It is not the same as an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), but it allows GPD to be privately owned by the employees with no one person owning more than 3 percent. About 200 people, or two-thirds of the eligible employees, are owners in the company, Kotecki said.
Each year, employees vote for a seven-person board of directors among their colleagues. That board then yearly votes for the president.
“We have to be responsible to the employees annually,” said Granger, who has been elected president yearly since 1986.
“I’ve only been president since ’86 because nobody else wants the job,” he joked.
Employee ownership has created a culture of stability for an industry that traditionally has a 20 percent yearly turnover rate, Granger said. At GPD, the turnover is less than 3 percent a year “solely because of employee ownership,” he said.
Most of the people in upper management have 20 plus years at the company, Granger said.
“We’re either highly unmotivated or we really like the place,” Kotecki said.
Employee ownership in architectural and engineering firms is not unusual, but having the employee owners vote for the board, which chooses the president is quite unique, said Corey Rosen, founder of the National Center for Employee Ownership in Oakland, Calif.
“If you feel like you’re being treated fairly and that you’ve got a say in what you do and that your work has a purpose, then those are very strong drivers of retention,” Rosen said. Many firms have only a few employees or partners owning the majority of the company, so when a company has a high percentage of its total employees owning the company, it creates a high-involvement culture, he said.
Granger is not totally leaving GPD. The structural engineer will stay on as “president emeritus,” a title he says makes him sound old and makes Kotecki laugh. Granger has been the principal contact for the Akron Public Schools buildings projects and he wants to stay on to continue that work.
Granger said he’s following his own management philosophy and giving an opportunity for younger talent to be involved in leadership. Shortly after Granger was named president in his 40s, he created a rule saying that when people reached age 62 or 63, it was time to change their roles. They could still work at the firm, but needed to turn over leadership duties, he said.
“I think it’s best for the company,” said Granger, who does not intend to be a fixture in the office. “I’ve seen a lot of other companies where the older guy retires and he still hangs around too much. That’s not my interest. I’ll be an adviser and if he wants advice, that’s fine. If he doesn’t take it, that’s OK.”
Kotecki was responsible for the growth of GPD in what the company calls its retail area, which includes designing cellphone towers for national telecommunications companies and designing McDonald’s restaurants for the corporate parent in a five- to six-state area (but not Ohio), Granger said.
GPD has worked on roads and bridges for the Ohio Department of Transportation and architectural and engineering projects for buildings such as the Dan Street Juvenile Court, the redevelopment of Canal Place downtown and the rebuilding of many of the Akron schools.
The company has acquired four firms since 2007 and looks for growth opportunities if there is a belief that the culture of the firms being acquired matches that of GPD, Kotecki and Granger said.
GPD has 409 employees in 10 offices, with the majority, or 245, on five floors in two buildings at the Akron headquarters. The employee total is up from 185 in 2003. Offices are also in Cleveland, Columbus, Marion, Youngstown, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Louisville, Ky., Phoenix and Seattle.
The company set out to grow statewide first and from there, its national clients took them to the other locations across the country, where they set up satellite offices, Kotecki said.
Revenues have grown from $17.4 million in 2003 to nearly $54 million this year. Most of the company’s work for public entities is still in Ohio and GPD has not yet spread that work outside the state, he said.
About 70 percent of the company’s employees are engineers, with a large number of architects and back-office departments including marketing, accounting and Internet technology. The firm has 86 women, mostly engineers, which is a large number in an industry that has been growing in its female ranks, but is still predominantly male, Granger said.
In Akron and Summit County, people think the firm is strictly local firm, but GPD is a much bigger player, Summit County Executive Russ Pry said.
“That’s been one of their secrets. They’ve done good work, which has then brought them more and more successes,” Pry said.
Pry describes Granger as a humble, low-key, smart professional “who has great vision for being able to look at the different projects and come up with what I always thought were very good solutions.”
Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James concurred. James has been working with Granger and GPD since the beginning of the rebuilding project for the schools. With three owners of the schools buildings — Akron schools, the city of Akron and the Ohio Schools Commission — it can often be a challenge to reach a consensus on what each group wants.
“They’ve done a great job of managing and shepherding this process, taking it from ideas to a concrete design, and the final projects,” James said.
James said he was also appreciative of GPD’s community commitment to Firestone Park Elementary, which the firm has adopted. It provides Akron Reads tutors and purchases items on the school’s wish list.