Engineering stability


0413 Tactics 01Looking out the sixth-floor windows of the David Evans and Associates building in downtown Portland, a visitor sees numerous engineering projects the company has either helped build or rebuild.

Share this article!

BY APRIL STREETER

0413 Tactics 01
Al Barkouli is president and chief executive officer of David Evans and Associates.
// Photo by Christopher Barth

Looking out the sixth-floor windows of the David Evans and Associates building in downtown Portland, a visitor sees numerous engineering projects the company has either helped build or rebuild.

The Broadway and Hawthorne bridges were renovated by DEA. Across the Willamette, the Trail Blazers’ Arena and the Convention Center are DEA projects. As the gaze moves south, the new light rail bridge comes into view. DEA is engineering not the bridge itself but the remainder of the light-rail line out to Milwaukie. Much of the South Waterfront neighborhood surrounding DEA’s headquarters is DEA engineered.

Add to the view the constant hum of cars and trucks streaming over the Marquam Bridge, and you have an idea of the working space of Al Barkouli, who has headed DEA as CEO since 2010. Soft-spoken and relaxed, Barkouli’s demeanor is more patient college professor than entrepreneur. Yet his engagement with both engineering and the business of being a leader clearly emerge.

“Without surveyors and engineers and planners,” he muses, “life would be much more challenging. Our profession is really noble in that sense. And to inspire the people working around me to make a difference is what I find really meaningful.”

David Evans and Associates

CEO: Al Barkouli

Incorporated: 1976

Headquarters: Portland

Employees: 690

Factoid: Used laser scanning and modeling to prepare to move the Endeavour space shuttle through 12 miles of L.A. city streets

At the top of his high school class in Libya, Barkouli emigrated to the U.S. and received a degree in civil engineering. Since joining DEA in 1988 as a design engineer, the 55-year-old Barkouli has steadily climbed the ranks of the company David F. Evans founded in 1976 with two desks, two employees and a slide rule.

During most of Barkouli’s tenure, employee-owned DEA consistently expanded, growing to over 1,000 workers at its peak in 2007. Then the recession hit, and land development projects, the bread and butter of DEA’s business, began evaporating. By the time Barkouli became CEO, the company was in a holding pattern — not growing, but managing a profit. Diversifying the firm’s areas of expertise to encompass water projects, energy and transportation meant DEA was bringing in annual revenues of approximately $120 million.

Yet Barkouli realized more change was needed, in part because midsize companies like DEA were rapidly getting acquired. DEA’s recessionary contraction had slimmed the workforce, spread across 19 offices around the country, by a third. A reorganization had also focused the entire company on its primary markets, rather than different offices pursuing geographic specialties. These were economically necessary changes, but corporate identity suffered.


0413 Tactics 04

0413 Tactics 03

// Photos by Sierra Breshears

“With the economy, life changed quite a bit,” says Barkouli, adding that the company’s tagline in 2007 was “one company excellence.” When he took over, “it was clear we needed to do something to translate this nice slogan into something real.”

Barkouli says the post-recession reorganization was “painful” but successful. DEA was forced to become better at collaborating internally and pulling together to focus externally. However, that meant a strong, consistent corporate culture was indispensable.

The company’s ethical grounding and continual quest for excellence felt solid, Barkouli says. But expectations, communication, accountability and trust in leadership needed more attention. So the DEA team came up with six “cultural drivers” and 24 corresponding actions — for example, openly admitting mistakes when they happen — to reinforce the drivers.

In addition to making cultural drivers part of employee evaluations and encouraging leadership through an internal program, Barkouli sharpened his own perspectives by going back to school for a Ph.D. in leadership and change from Antioch University.

“It is partly to learn but partly to give back,” Barkouli says. He adds that DEA wants to retain its employee ownership and independence, especially now that he feels a recovery is underway. “We’ve started to see demand firm up,” Barkouli says. “It’s a gradual climb, and it’s going to take time. But it’s not going down, so that’s good.” Barkouli says a measured increase in private-sector land development will help the company grow its workforce 10% this year.

Barkouli, the father of six children ages 8 to 13, is clearly a patient man. That patience may help DEA on one of its current endeavors — the firm is oversight engineer on the controversy-laden Columbia River Crossing project. Getting asked about the CRC is the only time during questioning when Barkouli pauses a bit longer than seems his norm.

“Do I think it is going to get built?” he asks. “Yes, I hope so. It’s an honor for us to be involved in the project. But it’s probably also something I should just not say too much about.”