Lee McIntire: From Farm Boy to CEO of CH2M HILL

March 22, 2013


biznotes-ch2mhill-largeHow did a Central City, Nebraska boy from humble beginnings get to be the chairman and CEO of one of the world’s most admired sustainable engineering and environmental services firms? As Lee McIntire tells the story, it was “a mix of grabbing opportunity, a little bit of luck, hard, hard work” and being the right person for the job—at the right time.

The son of a pipe fitter and a teacher, McIntire was digging ditches at the age of 11—and not long thereafter, he was reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and dreaming of travelling the world. “I had adventure in my mind,” McIntire told the Voices of Experience audience.

McIntire went to the University of Nebraska for a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and earned a master’s degree from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. He got his “big break” as a twenty-something when he joined Saudi Aramco and presented an idea to Frank Fugate, the executive running the project. McIntire’s proposal: push the project’s pipelines out into the Arabian Desert where they could burn. The suggestion was one the company took, and it earned McIntire the trust of Fugate, who continued to bring McIntire along with him on other projects.

In the 1990s, McIntire went to the Bechtel Group, where he ultimately became president of the company’s global civil infrastructure business. As his career with Bechtel was growing, CH2M HILL was moving into the international space, diversifying its services and taking on larger, more sophisticated projects. McIntire retired from Bechtel in 2004. He started a bank in San Francisco that focused on bringing resources to sustainable businesses and communities and he also taught at the University of California, Davis.

But it didn’t take long for McIntire to miss his role as a leader. “The students reminded me how much I missed being with really bright people,” said McIntire. ”As soon as CH gave me a chance to join them in 2006, I jumped at the chance.” With more than 35 years of international experience in the engineering and construction industry, indeed McIntire was the right man for the job. He joined the company as chief operating officer and was appointed chief executive officer in 2009.

Today, CH2M HILL has grown to be a 30,000-employee, $6.4 billion enterprise that operates in 119 countries. They’ve planned, designed and constructed major projects such as the 2012 London Olympic stadium and venues, the Shah Gas Fields in the United Arab Emirates and the Panama Canal expansion.

McIntire is proud of the accolades that CH2M HILL has earned for being a great place to work. “We think we improve the world,” he said. “We really work at it.” The company was named one of the world’s Most Ethical Company’s in 2013 by the Ethisphere Institute—for the fifth year in a row—and has been named one of America’s Most Admired Companies and one of just 100 Best Companies to Work For by Fortune magazine. Despite its size, CH2M HILL is committed to being 100% employee owned.

As a voice of experience, McIntire shared some of the lessons he’s learned throughout his career—that you are what you read, that the biggest impact you can have on the world is through staying true to your integrity and that talking through issues face to face is always best. “I’ve learned that the guy who gives up last wins,” he said. “I’ve learned that the only regret I have is not making decisions faster.” Perhaps his greatest life lesson stems back to his days as an adventure-seeking young boy, long before his time at the helm of CH2M HILL: “I’m still really curious about the world.”