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LJA Engineering CEO talks about growing his company amid pandemic, change in leadership

James Ross, CEO of LJA Engineering, recently spoke with the Houston Chronicle about how the company became a Top Workplace — in this case the top Top Workplace among large companies.

LJA Engineering is employee-owned through an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP. Only about 6,500 companies nationwide, including 324 in Texas, have ESOPS.

Ross came to LJA Engineering as a graduate engineer about 24 years ago, and worked his way up to an assistant project manager, to project manager and then to president of the company. He discussed the challenges LJA Engineering faced amid a pandemic and sudden death of one of the company’s founders.

Q. This past year and a half has been unconventional. What were some of the challenges you’ve faced?

A. It definitely has had its challenges for this company, between the COVID pandemic and losing our president Calvin Ladner a little over a year ago. But it speaks to the family that we have here. And during those times, we pulled together and became even stronger and have had record years.

Q: In what ways has it been a record year?

In growth. We’re continuing to grow as far as the number of people in there and the work and revenue that we produce. Also, geographically, we’ve expanded outside of the state of Texas, and just performance-wise. We’ve been really fortunate with the employee-owners we have. They definitely have come together and made this an even stronger company during these hard times.

We plan to continue expanding. Part of our plan is to continue to look for opportunities to grow outside of Texas, mostly along the Gulf Coast.

(The company opened nine new locations in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Utah over the last year and hired 445 employees since March 2020).

Q: What have you done to support your employees during the pandemic?

A: We’ve invested to allow folks to work remotely. Although we are a big believer in teamwork that being in the office creates, while we’ve gone through this pandemic, we worked with our employee-owners to have them work remotely, and to be more flexible.

But it’s just all working together to do what we have to do to take care of our employee-owners and to take care of our clients. That’s what drives this company.

Q: Do you think the pandemic has changed the way you run the company at all?

A: It has. The reality is that there is a new normal. Again, although we are big believers in the team atmosphere, there’s going to be an element of remote working going forward.

Q: What is the breakdown between in person and remote work?

A: There’s not (a breakdown) and that’s part of the fun at LJA. We give a lot of freedoms and responsibilities to our folks. That’s a big part of who we are.

Q: Why do you think people want to work here?

A: That we’re employee owned is a big selling point, and the family atmosphere. We are known for working hard — and we don’t shy away from that — but we are also known for playing hard. It sounds cliche, but we use that term a lot. We are a work-hard-play-hard company. We enjoy demanding projects and the schedules and timelines that come with it.

When we do a good job and get those done, we also enjoy the celebration that comes afterwards.

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