On January 1, 2020, Brandon Nevers assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer of Kittelson & Associates, Inc., completing a two-year transition into the role.
CEOs at Kittelson have a propensity for keeping attention off themselves and on the work we do across the firm. We don’t often talk about the position of CEO here, but it’s one that is stewarded uniquely and intentionally. The transition from Mark Vandehey to Brandon gives us the opportunity to step back and examine how it has been managed over the years.
To understand it, we have to start by hearing from Wayne Kittelson, the firm’s founder who frankly states that there was no emphasis on the role of the CEO when he founded Kittelson as a sole proprietorship in 1985.
1985 – 2010
Wayne wanted Kittelson to be a place where the employees determined the growth, rather than leadership setting the goals. When it was determined in the late 1990’s that a corporate management structure was needed to maintain organization in the growing company, Wayne became our first CEO, but was adamant that the firm’s growth would continue to be driven by staff interests.
“The role of the CEO is to provide a unifying vision and presence to the company as a whole—not just affirming by existence of the position but also emphasizing through everyday actions and interactions that we are a single firm bound together by common values and common professional expectations,” said Wayne. “I believed then, and I still believe, that the roles and responsibilities of a CEO are actually pretty limited.
“The CEO of any company can really only do three things: 1) Bring the right people into the company; 2) Set the vision that (hopefully) becomes a unifying focus for the people of the company; and 3) establish and maintain the kind of work and environment that empowers the people of the firm to drive it toward the established vision. Everything else that either happens or doesn’t happen in the company is dictated by what the individual people of the firm do and don’t do.”
Marc Butorac, Senior Principal Engineer in our Portland office, describes the legacies Wayne left that still hold true in the CEO role today.
“When we reframed to a unified management structure, Wayne instilled two things: being ‘trust-based’ and ‘outward-focused,’” said Marc. “The outward focus materializes in the CEO role by having the spotlight on others, with the CEO as more of a caretaker. A CEO here is somebody that challenges others to be all they can be.”
In 2010, Wayne decided to step aside after building the firm for 25 years—not just from CEO, but from all forms of leadership in the firm. In the spirit of outward focus, that decision opened up new leadership opportunities at all levels and allowed others to have new experiences and bring new energy and ideas to the firm. After an internal search was conducted, Mark Vandehey, who had worked with Wayne since 1987, was chosen to succeed him as CEO.
2010 – 2020
While Mark skirts the spotlight whenever possible, we hope he will forgive us for devoting a few words that highlight his commitment to the wellbeing of the firm and its people for the past ten years. Mark’s quiet yet decisive strength has pulled Kittelson through tough times, and has also paved the way for success without ever putting himself front and center.
“I don’t think there’s anybody (me included) who believes more strongly in the outward-focused and trust-based values and business philosophy of Kittelson than Mark,” said Wayne. “During his tenure he has lived and managed the CEO role exactly as I have always thought it should be lived and managed—that is, as a responsibility and not a privilege, as a burden and not a windfall, and as a humbling and not an empowering experience.”
Mark assumed the CEO position in 2010, arguably the most difficult period in Kittelson’s history due to the economic recession. Not the easiest time to start leading a multi-office firm, but the tone set by Mark of “people first” got us through with staff retention as the highest priority.
“Mark helped Kittelson ‘grow up’ in all aspects of the business to become a national company,” said Brandon. “Wayne set the framework, Mark guided its build-out. He has so much knowledge of the firm and its people. He knows how to bring out people’s strengths.”
Between 2010 and 2020, Kittelson & Associates grew in many ways, perhaps most markedly in our expansion from 10 offices to 26 offices nationwide. In 2014, we began to categorize our offices into a regional structure, but set up in a way so that the regional leaders support the staff and work rather than determine or direct it.
“In Mark’s time as CEO, the firm evolved from a place where everyone knew everyone else, to a place where staff are proud of the people, ideas, and skills Kittelson staff represent, understanding that this growing company of ours is committed to preserving something really special as we mature,” said Bailey Lozner, Senior Engineer and a leader in Kittelson’s Northeast Region.
When asked to describe Mark as a leader, the Kittelson team paid tribute to his strong business acumen and visionary innovation, but the strongest thread among all anecdotes was his empathy and compassion.
“On many occasions, I have personally seen Mark clearly and decisively lead the way when a team member at the firm is faced with a tragedy or challenge in their personal life,” said Dave Mills, a leader in our West Region. “More often than not, he has done this behind the scenes. Along with his strong business acumen, he has an amazing sense of compassion and care for others that has shined these past ten years.”
“What I’ve always appreciated about Mark is his willingness to listen and engage with staff at all levels,” said Yuri Meresczak, Senior Engineer in our Boise office. “Mark cares. He cares about the firm, but more importantly, he cares about the individuals and the families that have come together to make us…us. I’m always amazed at those leaders who can face the toughest of trials, chart the course, take the hits, and through it all, remain much the same as who they’ve always been.”
2020 and Beyond
Inclusive, perceptive, thoughtful. Likes data to support his decision making. Takes innovative approaches by looking at every angle. A humble leader, the role model you want to live up to.
These are words and phrases chosen by Kittelson staff to describe Brandon, who will celebrate his 24th year with the firm this year, his first as CEO.
“Brandon breathes Kittelson. He will guide us in making deliberate, well-thought-out decisions to have us carefully grow and expand to new horizons,” says Dorret Oosterhoff, Senior Office Administrator based in Baltimore, Maryland.
Brandon began his career at Kittelson in Portland, where he worked for five years before relocating to Baltimore to help build out our first office in the Northeast. In 2010, he and John Callow opened our Reston office, where he currently works.
Perhaps the quality that Wayne, Mark, and Brandon share most strongly is that of “servant leader.”
“The future of the firm is going to be determined and directed the way it always has been. That has never come from the CEO; it has come from the power of all of our staff. The CEO is more of a servant and stewardship role, and Brandon will continue that model,” says Sonia Daleiden, Senior Principal Engineer and a leader of our Northwest Region.
Sonia points to the firmwide Women’s Initiative as an example of the role Brandon seeks to play, of stewardship and inclusivity. It’s no secret that engineering has traditionally been a male-dominated field, and while Kittelson has a significantly higher-than-average percentage of female engineers and women in leadership roles, a group within the firm wanted to investigate if we are doing as well as we could be.
Kittelson officially launched the Women’s Initiative at the same time Brandon transitioned to the COO role in mid-2018. It was no coincidence that the Women’s Initiative quickly became a firmwide dialogue, a recognized priority, and an honest and open conversation, quickly broadening to include both gender and race and resulting in a firmwide survey that led to thoughtful enhancements to the way we recruit and education on bias awareness, particularly among those in leadership positions.
“Brandon has fully embraced and been a champion of that dialogue, both in outward and quiet ways,” said Sonia. “That is who he is. He hasn’t shied away from difficult discussions or from changing status quo. He seeks to talk about what things really mean and how they affect the well-being of all our staff.”
“Brandon has the ability to cut through complex sets of issues and get right to the point, whether it is project-related, office-related or just growth in general,” said Ed Myers, Senior Principal Engineer in Baltimore. “He develops a really strong connection with people. We are all very excited for his future and for the future of the firm.”
When asked how he views the role as CEO, Brandon said, “Kittelson is a learning organization. It is the job of the CEO to set a vision and course to grow staff and allow future generations to rise up and lead the firm into the future.”
We at Kittelson are excited for this next step into that future. While we continue to be a firm driven by the interests of staff rather than leadership, having a new name and face behind the CEO role brings vision and energy to the work we do.
Want to hear another fun fact about CEOs at Kittelson? They’re all still here! Wayne works out of Portland as a Senior Principal Engineer and President of Kittelson Charitable Foundation. Mark will split his time between Portland and our Phoenix office, where he will help our team continue to a build a presence in Arizona. We are grateful that these two leaders didn’t ride off into the sunset after stepping down from the CEO role, but continue to contribute to our firm’s work and culture in the thoughtful and humble manner they both share.
We thank Wayne for the humble leadership tone he set and Mark for carrying us through the ups and downs of the past ten years; and please help us welcome Brandon to the CEO role.