Robert Pence: Leading Through Evaluation

August 2014 » Features » CE PROFILE
As the CEO and president of Freese and Nichols since 2002, he has used key tools to drive continuous improvement through direct and indirect assessments.
Maureen Foody
Robert Pence was named 2011 CEO of the Year for a private company by Fort Worth Business Press.

Robert Pence, P.E., BCEE, never stayed put for very long. “Almost every three years we’d pick up and move to a completely different place with different people, different everything,” he said. His father was in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which led to posts all around the world — from Germany to France to Korea. Pence was born in Illinois, but that was mere circumstance: His mother was pregnant in Germany but the base did not have proper medical care available, so the family came back to the stateside base and left again shortly after his birth. Born and raised on-the-move, Pence enrolled in the Army Corp of Cadets himself while studying civil engineering at Texas A&M

While an undergraduate student, Pence began taking some graduate courses in environmental engineering, which piqued his interest in the subject. “It seemed very cutting edge, plus so much of it was judgment based,” Pence said. “It was really just taking off as a field with the Clean Water Act and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. It was still a field where no one had all the answers yet, but it was a new open field, so there was so much to learn over the years.” Pence performed a number of different tasks during his Army service after receiving his B.S. degree, but his specialty was demolition more than building

Pence continued his education at Texas A&M after his return from service, graduating with a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering in 1978. That same year, he began working at Fort Worth-based Freese and Nichols as a design engineer in the Water and Wastewater Treatment design group. Soon after, the group manager left and Pence took over the position for several years, until he moved on to operations manager, overseeing about half of the company. “It seemed quick at the time, that’s for sure, but looking back on it, things took a little bit of patience,” he said

“I’d say mine is more of a leadership style versus a management style. I want my people to be doing good and right things because they don’t want to disappoint,” Pence said. “About the only time I get involved in stuff is when I am worried good judgment isn’t being used. I don’t worry about mistakes because those can be good.”

Pence joked that being CEO is actually the easiest job he’s held at Freese and Nichols. “I’m not a very details-oriented person, so this job suits me well as I get to oversee the whole view,” he said. “I’m in a position where I can roam and do what I need to do while people report back to me who hold the strengths in whatever they’re overseeing.

Freese and Nichols, Inc. was a 2010 recipient of the Malcolm Baldrige Award for Performance Excellence. Pictured at the award presentation are (left to right) President and CEO Robert Pence, Chairman Emeritus Jim Nichols, CFO Cindy Milrany, U.S. Representative Kay Granger, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, and Senior Vice President Lee Freese.

One of the most important tasks Pence faced was maintaining Freese and Nichols’ culture as it continued to expand in location and size. “That takes a lot of effort and a lot of time,” he said. “There’s no way around it.”

An example of this ongoing effort within Freese and Nichols is the firm’s Continuous Improvements (CI) program. After 1995, the company experienced one of its worst fiscal years, but thanks to foresight and conservative planning, they were able to keep going. The crisis inspired the CI program, which implemented continuous evaluations of every aspect and every role within the company.

“We all sat down and said, ‘We have to find a way to fix this,’” Pence said. “The CI program has really taken off for us as we got our employees engaged with the process. Essentially, if you do work, you can measure it and set goals, then evaluate it, and finally ensure you get better. And we’re always looking for that aspect; everyone can always do a little bit better.”

Robert Pence began his career at Freese and Nichols as a design engineer in the Water and Wastewater Treatment design group, where he quickly took on leadership roles for large wastewater treatment plant expansion projects.

This improvement is also one of the main reasons why Freese and Nichols applies for awards that give them direct feedback as to why they qualify for the recognition, and more importantly, what they could still do better. “In 2007, we applied for the Texas Award for Performance Excellence, and in 2010 we applied for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award,” Pence said. “We’re the first engineering/architectural firm to receive that award. And it’s not only the award that matters; it’s actually the feedback you receive telling you how you’re doing. That definitely has our people motivated. They can see the results for themselves.”

In the case of the Baldrige Award, the firm received more than 50 pages of material back for review, outlining their successes and areas of improvement. The award committee had touched more than 68 percent of the firm’s workforce via in-person interviews for that review, which is undeniably helpful feedback for a growing company constantly looking to keep its culture alive and well

While Pence now serves as the leader, he had his first challenges in the Wastewater Treatment division, which almost immediately took him from a passenger to someone calling the shots. “One of the first huge projects I remember was the $60 million expansion of the City of Fort Worth wastewater treatment plant,” he said. “I recognized the textbook ability in myself to manage it and get it done, but then you also have those worries which motivate you to do it better, continually eliminating risk, and improving yourself and your team. Then the next job was twice the cost and scope, so you get to start all over again but on a much larger scale. I learned more than ever from just doing those things; putting myself out there and experiencing the work is what taught me how to lead.

Bob “The Incredible Hulk” Pence (left), Cindy “Wonder Woman” Milrany, and Alan “The Joker” Greer helped kickoff Freese and Nichols’ 2010 United Way Campaign. “Save humanity — without catching your cape in the bus door,” was the theme.

Pence is optimistic as he looks toward the future as Freese and Nichols continues to grow and branch out into new tasks and even regions — the firm recently opened its first North Carolina office. But there are still responsibilities at hand that have to be accomplished.

“One of the biggest challenges facing engineering today is our aging infrastructure,” Pence said. “At this point, it’s either pay me now or pay me a whole lot more later, but it’s got to get done. Without engineering, we have no functioning society. We all need and depend on that infrastructure. The bad part of our role as civil engineers is often that our work is hidden to most, but we’re great problem solvers and we have to fight against becoming commodities that some consider us to be.”

But even with expansion, Pence admitted that he has a love for working in the state of Texas, jesting, “I’m not going to pick favorites when it comes to clients. In a way, it’s sort of like your children: You can’t actually have favorites.

A recipient of the Texas A&M Dwight Look College of Engineering Outstanding Alumni Award 2013, Pence is pictured with his daughter Jill Kientzy (left), wife Karen, daughter Julie Freshwater, daughter Jennifer Campbell, and son-in-law Aaron Campbell. With contributions to the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering Endowed Excellence Fund, Pence and his wife established the Karen and Bob Pence ’72 Scholarship in Civil Engineering, awarded annually to a full-time student pursuing a degree in civil engineering at Texas A&M University.

Pence’s advice to engineers just starting their careers is to pick your job wisely and don’t take just any opportunity. “Look for a company or organization that has professional development and opportunities,” he said. “Make sure you can see the ladder upward and that there are no rungs missing. But at the same time, don’t get ahead of your own capabilities. Take your time to do the work and grow along with it.

In his downtime, Pence loves spending time with his family. He has been married to his wife Karen for 40 years. They have three daughters — Jennifer, Julie, and Jill — and now three sons-in-law — Aaron, Patrick, and David.

“I’ve also got three wonderful grandchildren,” Pence said. “My wife and I say we’re lucky in that we still have kids that will all go on vacation together with us and one another.”

Pence remains active with the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce as the chairman and also has served as the chairman for the North Texas Commission.

“I’m also a big reader — love history,” Pence said. “Anytime I get started on an author, I like to read everything by them.”

Pence remains true to his Aggies by cheering for the maroon and white, but admits that more often than not his downtime is dedicated to family. “Sometimes now, my daughters will even pay the check for Karen and me, which is both a nice surprise and a proud moment,” he said. “I’m always excited to spend more time with them.”

Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached at maureen.t.f@gmail.com.


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