Engineering Success: Herbert Johnson
Founder and CEO Herbert Johnson shares how he took HVJ Associates from a garage startup to a US$35 million and growing Lone Star State success.
There are many pathways to success and for a few of the most notable businesses today, their journeys began in – of all things – a garage. For instance, take Amazon. Now a global powerhouse, the world’s largest online retailer hasn’t always been so grand.
In 1994, Jeff Bezos ran it completely from his garage in Bellevue, Washington. Apple has a similar story – the fruitful tech company began in Steve Jobs’s garage. There, he and Steve Wozniak began by building 50 computers a month, all by hand. And Disney and Google both came from humble garage beginnings as well.
Basically, greatness has little to do with where an idea starts and more about where it ends up. For HVJ Associates Founder and CEO Herbert Johnson, his garage success story is currently hovering around the US$35 million mark in annual revenue, and is still growing strong today.
Under Herb’s leadership, the startup has grown to become a trailblazing brand in the industry, thanks to his clever foresight in developing and pioneering a unique franchise business model of distribution in the engineering market.
He credits his success not to his decades of industry experience – of which he has nearly a handful – or his innate ability to passionately inspire others; for Herb, it all boils down to one thing: the simple notion of mindset.
If the company succeeds, then I think everybody should also succeed.
"The desire to grow both professionally and personally has been the number one factor in HVJ Associates’ success," Herb states.
"I’m a big fan of Jim Rohn; he would say things like, ‘Work harder on yourself than you do on your job.’ Basically, the better you are, the more capable you are when dealing with whatever challenges come up in the business. That really resonates with me, so I’ve paid a lot of attention to that and, in turn, it has allowed me to be very clear with my vision, especially around the clarity regarding what game we will play as a business."
Playing the A-game
An engineer by trade, Herb’s true passion lies in the business world. "I always wanted to be in business," he shares. "I noticed a strength in that area from a very young age, and I saw the opportunity in that. Studying engineering was just the vehicle to get to owning my own business. And it’s been a great platform for doing what I want to do in life."
What’s more, he’s an avid baseball fan and often likens business to sport, which isn’t a hard analogy to sell. In baseball, just like in business, there are home runs and there are also strikeouts. There’s also plenty of risk involved like stealing home or bunting the ball softly into play. There are both good players and bad players, and both can have good days and bad days.
"In baseball, top players will bat 300–320 with 40 home runs one year, then bat only 260 the next, but they’re still good players. Some days you just own your game and other times you don’t – but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad player," Herb explains.
"I try to build a culture that nurtures that with the realization that sometimes you really own your game and sometimes you’re off your game. It’s just the understanding that people’s performance goes up and down. So, the thing I try to do is optimize my team’s performance to be more up than down."
More than an engineer and a businessman, Herb is the coach of his team. His aim is to not only run a prosperous business, but to also facilitate growth for his employees. For he knows the two are one and the same in that you need a good team in order to play good ball.
"Additionally, if the company succeeds, then I think everybody should also succeed. That’s why we constantly up our team’s performance; it’s to up our game," he says.
"It’s why we have career tracks for our employees. Some want to be technical leaders, some want to be good managers, and some want to be business owners. We offer all of that. In fact, we spend a lot of money on their professional and personal development – right at US$350,000 a year on professional training. And with that, we improve the team, and this creates opportunities for folks."
HVJ Associates is able to grow its people thanks to its revolutionary platform for building a successful engineering business, which comes complete with a well-established network of business relationships. It’s called "branchising" and it’s basically the ultimate win–win in the game of engineering services.
A winning model
A premier specialty civil engineering firm, HVJ Associates provides geotechnical, construction materials engineering and testing, civil design and pavement management services. Since its inception in 1985, the award-winning firm has become one of the largest specialty, minority-owned engineering companies in all of Texas.
While it’s relied upon heavily for its unparalleled planning, designing and testing services, its X factor lies in its clever branchising platform, which is basically how the company approaches franchising engineering services.
In a nutshell, HVJ Associates begins each location as a branch office, helping to reduce the capital necessary to start a franchise while at the same time fully implementing and embodying its culture and systems into the new franchise. Its branch manager then goes through rigorous training to become the future franchisee.
Finally, once the branch reaches a sufficient revenue threshold, the franchise is created through a combined asset purchase agreement of the branch assets and a franchise agreement.
By executing those agreements, the branch converts to an independently owned and operated franchise with all staff, equipment, clients and projects intact, making it fully operational from day one. "I think the franchise business model is a brilliant idea whose time has finally come," Herb beams.
We currently have US$35 million in revenue in Texas, and I think we can get that up to US$100 million.
"It offers an actionable way for companies in engineering to excel in business endeavors as well. If you look at the industry of architects and engineering firms, the problem is they can’t grow beyond 10 or 20 people – the manager, while a good architect or engineer, is often poor at leading and managing. They don’t have effective systems and processes in place to run the business. What franchising does is bring in those systems and processes to a business."
That way, Herb says, when the governmental agencies come knocking, these firms are ready. They have the framework in place to make it work.
"Branchising builds consistency because, unlike a traditional franchise, we’re not bringing in raw talent to run a business for us. We’re bringing new people into our organization, developing them in an extensive way and then once they have proven themselves, then we allow them to run and build the organization under our franchise license agreement," he adds.
Operating in this way is crucial. HVJ Associates has taken on and successfully completed a number of big projects for the state of Texas. In fact, the company is responsible for erecting large-scale civil engineering engagements in the billion-dollar range like the Grand Parkway in Houston and the Houston Galveston Navigation Channel 45-foot Project among others.
However, none of this would be possible without the trusted, longstanding reputation HVJ Associates has built with the state’s governmental agencies. "These agencies are typically pretty conservative and rather risk adverse," Herb explains. "What that means is there is a limited number of consultants and contractors they do business with.
"We’ve been doing business with the government for 35 years now and have a long track record of performance. So, when we bring in a franchisee, they identify with our brand – the governmental agencies don’t see a difference between the franchisee and our HVJ Associates brand. Therefore, instead of being a raw startup that will typically take a couple of years to develop traction and be seen as a viable business in the industry, our branchising program shortens that. Once they are a franchise in our system, there is no difference between us and them. The governmental agency sees no difference, they just see the brand. Therefore, they can begin to operate fully from the start."
The final inning
At 68 years young, Herb plans to invest at least another 12 years of hard work into HVJ Associates. And he has his sights set big on the company’s immediate future. "We currently have US$35 million in revenue in Texas, and I think we can get that up to US$100 million," he says.
"We have the whole United States to conquer and even beyond that. We don’t have to limit to the US – we can go global." Over the next decade, Herb believes HVJ Associates can easily meet the US$100 million goal in Texas at the rate it’s currently going. But management development is going to be absolutely key to the achievement.
"The real challenge and where I see opportunity is in upping my game regarding management development. We are very good at developing internal talent, but it takes a certain amount of time," he points out.
HVJ Associates Founder and CEO Herbert Johnson is a published author. In his book, Engineering Business Success: Essential Lessons in Building a Thriving Business, he shares powerful lessons on the how-tos of growing a successful business.
"So, the real opportunity is to be able to bring in the required executive expertise at the necessary time. It’s something I’m strongly working on now." As a ferreter of clarity and excellence, it’s been a challenge for Herb to step back and realize that he can’t do it all, nor should he.
"I’ve had to accept that I’m not integral to every aspect of running the business and refrain from playing that game," he admits. "I’m committed to growth and committed to taking on whatever comes my way. It’s been a tough realization, but learning to listen and who to listen to has been helpful in dealing with challenges."
When it comes to obstacles, thanks to Herb’s healthy mindset, he is able to navigate them with relative ease. "I have a healthy relationship with problems," he says. "Many people often think that having a problem is the problem. It’s like there’s this belief that you should go through life and not have problems.
"But I think problems are a sign of life. And really, the relationship you have with problems is something that clients pay for. It’s valuable to people if you can help them with their problems. In fact, the bigger the better. But having that good relationship with problems is critical."
Tackling different challenges often requires an engineering mindset where innate curiosity, critical thinking, creativity and an ability to anticipate pretty much come with the territory. In addition to this, however, is the ability to collaborate with a diverse group of individuals. To Herb, this is essential.
"There’s this psychological term called selective attention, and I find it quite interesting," he suggests. "Basically, it’s where your brain will only allow you to see or hear things that support what you already believe. So, if we have any operational problems or internal challenges in delivering value to our clients and stakeholders, then I want to ensure we have a diversity of perspective."
Of course, with that comes its own set of challenges. In fact, Herb says diversity can even be problematic if it’s not managed efficiently. That’s why he has affixed a system in place, ensuring things run as smoothly as possible.
"It’s all about the game we play. Here, everyone has to understand the game and everyone has to abide by the rules of the game," he explains. "Thanks to the training we do and the protocol we use, we can extract the value of diversity to truly benefit our organization."
Beyond all of that, maintaining relevancy is crucial to future success. As COVID-19 has shown the world, resiliency, flexibility and adaptability are all necessary to stay afloat in uncertain waters. Luckily for HVJ Associates, Herb believes it has built itself an unsinkable ship.
"We have a leg up on the competition because our focus as a company has always been on management and leadership development," he shares. "The COVID-19 situation has shone light on the fact that of the 330 million people in the US, someone is bound to need something we can service. Luckily, it just so happens that engineering is the sandbox we’re all playing in right now."
And if that were to shift, Herb is still confident that HVJ Associates can steadily roll with the punches. "We have the managerial talent and capability for whatever is needed," he insists.
"We just need to stay in touch with customers, be adaptable and have the innovative prowess to anticipate and serve future needs. "If we can do all of this within the next 10 years, I’m confident that we will not only have US$100 million in revenue, but we will also have expanded outside of Texas substantially."