Follow the Leaders
Mike Matthews’ office, like the man himself, exudes a certain level of equanimity. Save for the few international embassy mugs he’s collected from Hankins & Anderson business trips, his ample desk, set in a sleek, contemporary setting, is clutter free. Wonderfully warm light emanates from a full wall of windows.
To know Mike on paper is to know that he has worked for Hankins & Anderson (H&A) nearly all his professional life, growing the $4 million company to $40 million after taking the helm 20 years ago. But to discover the person is to find a humble teacher and individual who is passionate about his team and his desire for continuous improvement.
He’s a doer and community builder. A free spirit. A family man. And even on the golf course, his perspective rings true to his good nature. We recently sat down with the current VACEOs Chair, and here’s what we learned.
Q: You have an engineering background, and you’re the CEO of a highly successful international architecture and engineering firm. Some folks might be surprised to know you’re a bit of a free spirit. I understand you took an interesting trip after you graduated high school.
“I took to the open road with a friend and lived in the back of a truck after high school. I wasn’t ready to go to college. I was a low-to-medium-level student, and I wasn’t ready to go back and hit the books in college. We spent 10 months traveling around the country. I saw 30 states, and I worked at a gas station in Miami, a ski resort in Vermont, and an oil field in Texas. When I came back, I was a lot more ready to be a student … not that I was a stellar student in college! But I was ready to do it and take it on.”
Q: You’re currently the president and CEO of Hankins & Anderson and you’ve been with them for nearly 28 years. Briefly describe your journey to the helm.
“When I was in college, I went to my high school drafting instructor and asked him where I could find a good summer job. He recommended Hankins & Anderson. I worked as a draftsman for the company that summer and the next. When I got out of school, I worked for another firm for four and a half years that was a spinoff of H&A. I also did a stint as a manufacturing sales rep. That position didn’t suit me well, so when I got a call from H&A to come back as a staff engineer, I took it.
I worked my way up, eventually being promoted to VP in charge of our Fairfax, Virginia, office. Only eight months into that position, I was asked to be a part of an ownership and leadership transition team. The brilliant consulting firm in charge of the transition recommended me for the job. I say ‘brilliant’ because they recommended me!” (He says very jokingly.)
Q: What management qualities does a leader need to possess to run a large and highly successful company like H&A?
“You’re going to hate me, but it’s all cliché stuff. It’s about having a vision and having everyone able to rally around that vision. It’s also about being able to inspire people and being able to communicate effectively. It’s important to be transparent.
For example, about every two weeks, we have a CEO breakfast here where we randomly ask 15 to 20 employees to attend. Everyone puts a question in an envelope for me. Some choose to stay anonymous, and that’s OK. I answer each one at the breakfast. It helps to beat the rumor mill, but more importantly, it keeps us all on the same page. Also, I’m extremely proud of the leadership team I’ve been able to bring here. They all work together and are always challenging each other.”
Q: One of your core values at H&A is a commitment to continuous learning and self-improvement. Is that one reason you decided to become an adjunct instructor at the University of Richmond?
“What’s the old adage? ‘Learn a subject, take a class. Master a subject, teach a class.’? I really enjoy teaching and interacting with the students. I’ve guest-lectured before for many years, but this class gives me an opportunity to fill a void I saw in the business school’s curriculum, and that was teaching students about professional services management – because running an architecture or law firm is very different from other types of business experiences they teach in school.
For example, an architecture firm’s key performance metrics or cost of goods sold is very different from a manufacturing company’s. How you market a professional service is very different, too. I don’t have a widget I can show you and tell you about all its features and benefits; I’ve got to sell you on trusting me as a person. Operations is very different. I’m not managing a production line that’s producing the same widget at so many per hour. Every single thing I do as a lawyer or accountant is different, so I have to approach estimating fees for my services differently.”
Q: You’ve been playing golf for years. What kind of lessons, if any, have you taken from the game?
“My approach to golf is that I don’t expect to be good at it because I don’t work at it, so there’s no pressure! The decisions I make here matter. If I miss a putt, it doesn’t really matter. Golf is a social activity for me. My CEO Forum just went to Daytona and played for our retreat. We had a blast!”
Q: You’re family man, a teacher, a highly successful businessman and the Chair of the VACEOs. How do you stay focused and productive?
A: “I have a routine every morning. I get up early in the morning, get a cup of coffee, go to the nice office I have set up at my home, sit in my really comfortable leather club chair, turn on some soulful piano music and read for an hour. It usually is a business book, but sometimes a fun book – like a grammar book. Yes, I’m a grammar wonk! Sometimes I put a fire on. I really enjoy this time I set aside for myself. Other than that, I take the day as it comes. I’m not a real planner. My staff laughs at me because sometimes I appear to wait until the last minute to do things.”