A natural-born leader

July 2011 » Cover Story
Susan Wallace

Walter P Moore and Associates, Inc., was 50 years old when Ray Messer joined the firm in 1981. Now, 30 years later, Walter P Moore is one of the leading structural engineering firms in the United States thanks to the astute leadership of Messer, who has been president of the company since 1993 and chairman of the board since 1998.

Headquartered in Houston, Walter P Moore is a long way, literally and figuratively, from where Messer was born and raised. He was born in Miles City in far eastern Montana and raised outside Sumatra, Mont., an old steam engine railroad stop. He fondly recalls growing up on the family ranch with his three younger siblings – two brothers and a sister. His father was a rancher and his mother had been a teacher before the kids were born. In spite of the rural and isolated lifestyle of the ranchers, education was very important to them and especially to Messer's mother. "She was very focused on education," Messer said. "We hated when mom substituted at school." Because the community was determined their children get a good education, they saw to it that exceptional teachers were brought to their school. Nevertheless due to the isolation and the extreme weather of eastern Montana, the teachers never stayed very long. Thus, the school board hired a wonderful principal who was strong in math and science. Messer's graduating class of 1965 numbered four and the entire high school student body was only 13, providing a beneficial teacher-student ratio.

Ray Messer as a teenager getting ready to trail horses in Montana at 4:00 a.m.

Messer excelled in school and especially loved his math and science classes, thanks to his principal's influence. He also remembers thinking: "I wasn't going to stack hay in the summer and feed it to the cattle in the winter. I wanted more than that." So he headed off to Carroll College, a private Catholic liberal arts college in Helena, Mont., to pursue his Bachelor of Arts in mathematics. Ray enrolled in Carroll's 3-2 program where he would study three years at Carroll and then complete his engineering degree at Columbia University in New York City. Adapting to a major school in urban America and fear of failure were intimidating challenges for young Messer. But with a second cousin living in Washington, D.C., who helped him learn his way around, and Messer's inbred work ethic, he earned his Bachelor of Science in civil engineering degree in 1970. While Messer had worked various jobs through his college days, he spent the summer of 1969 working on the Lunar Module Project for Grumman Aerospace – an exciting opportunity for the young man from Sumatra.

During this impressionable time in his life, Messer became close friends with P. Richard Zarda, Ph.D. – his "Odd Couple" friend and roommate at Columbia.

"[In the movie,] one guy was organized and tidy and picture-perfect (that was Jack Lemmon, and Ray Messer played him to the T), and the other guy was sloppy, disorganized, and a long way from picture-perfect (that was Walter Matthau, and I am not proud to say that I played him to the T)," Zarda joked. "You would have to walk through Ray's room to get to my room. I have heard some say that journey was like walking through heaven on your way to hell."

After graduation, Messer began his job search. Showing his roots, Messer had the difficult decision of choosing between his everyday jeans and his once-a-week-worn jeans (which he called his dress jeans) for his job interviews, Zarda explained. "Everyone who knew Ray pleaded with him to avoid his cowboy outfits for job interviews, and he finally came to his senses when he allowed my wife, Adrienne, to help him find more appropriate attire at local N.J. department stores."

Q & A with Ray Masser

1. What do you know now that you wish you had known earlier?
Back in college, I wished I had learned the importance of financial management. Also, [I wish that] earlier in my career I'd been able to find balance.

2. What structure do you admire that you or your company didn't design?
The Empire State Building for when it was built and how fast it was built.

3. Do you have a trademark gesture or saying?
Besides ones that are "not printable," it would have to be "proactive." One of the offices sent me a birthday greeting with them holding a sign saying "Proactively Yours."

Messer started his first engineering job at Exxon Research where he remained for three years. During this time, he went to school at night to earn his master's in engineering mechanics from Columbia University, which he completed in 1975. His next career step was at HNTB, a prestigious engineering, architectural, planning, and construction management company. He worked in design at their New York City office for the next three years. Adding another facet to his resume, Messer turned to the construction side of the business where he honed this skill until 1981, when he was recruited by Walter P Moore. (Note: Mark Zweig, publisher of Structural Engineer, was working for Walter P Moore as a consultant at that time and personally recruited Messer to join the firm.) In February 1984, Messer was tapped to open the company's Tampa, Fla., office. Then nine years later, Walter Moore, Jr., son of the founder, retained his title of chairman of the board, but stepped down as president. Messer became president of the firm in July 1993 at the age of 46. Five years later, Walter Moore, Jr., tragically was killed in an accident and Messer became chairman of the board. Under Messer's leadership, the firm grew to include more than 400 professionals in 13 U.S. cities and expanded their services with structural diagnostics, transportation engineering, and parking consulting in addition to structural, civil, and traffic engineering services.

"[Ray's] management style is refreshing: collegial, enthusiastic, humble, and tenacious," commented Randy Pollock, Messer's friend and former Walter P Moore co-worker. "He brings a lot of integrity and authenticity to every encounter, every meeting, every person and sphere he touches. He has a big heart. To me what makes Ray so unique is that he seems to have no guile – no personal agenda or axe to grind. His ego is firmly in check. His focus is on building and sustaining a great company, not on himself."

Among many professional awards and honors, Walter P Moore has been recognized multiple times as one of Structural Engineer's "Best Firms To Work For." There are two recurring words that pop up when Messer talks about the success and direction of the company: nimble and proactive. He believes: "You must be able to think like the client and anticipate their needs. Be flexible but firm recognizing when, with good reason, on a job you have to hold your ground or be open to alternate ways suggested by the client. On a company level, you have to be nimble and adapt to change – adjust to the marketplace. You must continue to check the horizon for the storms ahead." He went on to explain that they recognized in 2008, though business was good, there was a recession looming and Walter P Moore needed to make adjustments, some of which were difficult, to be able to weather the hard times ahead. They took some painful steps, but the company has survived the economic downturn.

Walter P Moore won first place in the Best Firms To Work For rankings program in 2007 thanks to the value, benefits, and opportunities it provides to its employees.

Messer shared what he feels are the keys to a successful firm – a firm that is large enough to bring resources but small enough to be nimble. First and foremost is good communication with your staff. Messer has a monthly video conference and visits each office three to four times a year. He also believes you should have a vision and a strategic plan that you can clearly and succinctly present to everyone in your company. Messer also feels it is good for the company when you help your people advance in their careers, whether that's through involvement in professional societies, interaction with clients, or advanced training. Walter P Moore hires the best and the brightest, which means those with master's degrees or higher. Then, he says, they let them do incredible things. "People coming out of school today are as driven as we were back in my day, but they just go about it differently."

When $1.5 billion, 80,000-seat Cowboys Stadium opened in 2009, it set at least three structural engineering world records: the longest single-span roof structure; the largest center-hung HD video display; and the world's largest operable glass doors.
Blake Marvin/HKS
Ray Messer (right) at his son's wedding in Seattle.

Walter P Moore has two divisions: Structures and Infrastructure. Under the Structures division are structural engineering, structural diagnostics, research and development, and parking consulting. Infrastructure includes civil engineering, traffic engineering, transportation (under which bridges are listed), and intelligent transportation systems. One of the strengths, he feels, of his firm is its virtual communities of practice where, either formally or informally, people in different disciplines are able to interact regardless of where their office is located. This gives an engineer with an interest in a certain type of project, but whose office may not handle anything similar, a chance to expand their knowledge and cross-train.

Walter P Moore was listed in the top 200 of ENR's list of 500 design firms, leading Messer to discuss what separates the great from the good companies. No. 1 on his list is focus – focusing on what it is you do well. Next comes financials. At the end of the day you must realize a profit. And last, but not least, is passion. "We must love what we do. Why else would we go back to our laptop at 10 p.m.?" Messer also emphasizes giving back to the profession and the community. "It's easy to over-extend, but we have to do both. Whether it's serving on a theater board, the United Way, or coaching a little league team, our communities are important. The same goes for professional organizations. The trick is to find balance. Sometimes we are so focused on serving that we forget the bottom line."

During Messer's lengthy career, he has seen many changes in his profession – not the least of which is the use of technology. "I hate to say this, but I started out with a slide rule. Then I can remember paying a couple of hundred dollars for my first handheld calculator, which is the equivalent of those freebie calculators you get today." Messer went on to point out another change – litigation. "We have become a litigious society. Sometimes things just happen, but society now demands someone is to blame." He explained that in the past, if a problem arose, you solved it. Now, there's an attorney looking over your shoulder while you solve the problem. Another industry change is the speed expected by clients to deliver projects – one more reason today's top firms have to be nimble.

Being nimble does not just apply to Messer's professional life, but also his personal life. In 1972, he married Elaine LeDoux; they have raised two children: Jill, 34, who has her bachelor's and master's in mathematics, is an actuary and mother of three boys; Mike, 32, is an information systems consultant and earned a bachelor's in management of information systems and a master's in business with a focus on e-strategy. Messer said Elaine not only is a wonderful mother, but also a very supportive wife. "In today's world, you can't really separate your personal and professional life. Whether it's coaching my children's little league teams [or] entertaining with my wife by my side, there is client interaction." But Messer recalls what his dad always told him: "You can bend but not break. This is true both personally and professionally." Messer emphasizes the importance of engaging spouses in the company. He said they include spouses in their annual meeting. He feels it's important spouses understand what the industry and the company are about and the stress their wives/husbands work under.

While stress comes with the job, Messer balances his stress with living a healthy lifestyle and working out whenever he can, usually joined by his wife on the weekends. He also takes time to enjoy his passion for sports, especially college basketball, rodeos, and pro-baseball (especially when the Yankees play). Of course, the Fighting Saints of Carroll College will always hold a special place in his heart. A relatively new interest he's picked up is history and reading about the building of historic structures such as the Roman Coliseum and St. Peter's Basilica, which he saw for the first time last year.

With projects like the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Fla.; the Citrus Bowl expansion in Orlando, Fla.; the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston; and the Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, plus a 39-year marriage, two successful children, and a distinguished career as president of a renowned structural engineering firm, it would seem there's not much left for Messer to accomplish. But an aggressive goal for Messer, professionally, is to return the company to its pre-recession status. Personally, he looks forward to spending more time with his family. He has never forgotten his roots and hopes to expose his grandkids, just like he did with his own children, to the environment and those less fortunate. He plans on taking the grandkids to Montana to experience life on the ranch – hay baling, branding, and the hard work of a rancher.

As the young engineers of today face their tough challenges, Messer offers this advice: Work smart and have fun because it's a long life if you don't. Stay current technically – continue to learn. Learn how to write and speak in public – this will help you communicate with staff, in interviews, and in forums and with clients. The engineering industry is close-knit and unique. One day you are fiercely competing for a project and the next day you may be working jointly on another project. It's a small world.

And although Messer feels he has several working years left in him, he is working toward a transition to train and appoint leaders in this "small world." But coming from a man who jokes that his avocation is his vocation, engineering and Walter P Moore are as much a part of Messer as the lessons he learned on the ranch in Montana.

Susan Wallace is a freelance writer and co-owner of Vantage Point Communications living in Fayetteville, Ark. She can be contacted at susan@vpointcommunications.com.

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