Five minutes with new SKW President Brian Johanning

In July, Shafer, Kline & Warren announced that Brian Johanning would step in to lead the firm’s infrastructure and development business, replacing Larry Graham. The promotion is the culmination of a leadership succession plan two years in the making. MWM caught up with Johanning recently to find out more about his strategy for SKW’s future success.

MWM: What are your immediate goals?

Johanning: Right now, we are trying to build on a company that has a 67-year old foundation here in Kansas City-- with roots and survey records going back to the late 1800s-- and trying to maintain that strong brand while injecting a startup mentality back into the business and really trying to drive an entrepreneurial, performance based culture.

MWM: Clearly, SKW has a strong market presence and history. How do you preserve that while innovating growth?

Johanning: The leadership of old certainly was cognizant of the myriad of risks out there in the marketplace but their propensity to talk about it and be transparent about those risk analytics was a bit more reserved. In today’s world where information flows so quickly and freely, you have to be willing to “coach your people up” beyond the contract. We have partners who are dynamic, and at the end of the day it boils down to building good, solid relationships bonded in trust. That trust comes when the walls to difficult conversations come down, so we have to think strategically to soften some of those barriers.

MWM: SKW is mid-sized engineering firm. What are the advantages and disadvantages to that?

Johanning: It can be a tough spot, but it’s also fun to figure out your strategy. Some of the biggest engineering companies in the world are here in KC. Sometimes you’re going up against them and other days it’s a survey guy working out of the back of his pickup truck, and you find a way to compete accordingly. So we are trying to share more value, and that isn’t always about price; sometimes it is about expertise and local experience. Larry Graham, Tom Smith and others who have been here 45 plus years are walking CRMs. You can walk up to them and ask about any intersection in town and they have a story about it and probably have a record about it. The competition can’t say that. Having that walking encyclopedia down the hall is so valuable. 

MWM: As you work to grow SKW, what kind of team will you be building?   

Johanning: We see the market shifting to more integrated project delivery and where the entire project team is brought together sooner, if you will. Having talent that can support multiple business units is highly desirable. The utility player is sometimes looked at as a commodity, but Ben Zobrist changed that for the Royals, so for us it is about finding people like that who are capable of tackling different projects. On almost every land development project there’s a public component—whether it’s sewer line or land change or water main—so being able to straddle that fence and represent all the stakeholders is really important, and that’s what we are looking at going forward.

MWM: How will you use your business development background to grow SKW?

Johanning: The most effective business business development tool in the world is doing good work. I feel like the rainmaker of the next 21st century is the person who can attract the most skilled and entrepreneurial talent because if those folks come to an organization and focus on delivering a quality product, there’s no better business development tool than that.