Executive of the Year: Lifetime achiever Rajan Sheth

February 1, 2018


Raj Sheth
(Photo courtesy of InBusiness by Shawn Harper)

Sometimes, a corporate decision produces so many benefits you wonder why others don’t copy it. Mead & Hunt’s decision to become a uniquely structured, employee-owned firm of engineers, architects, and planners has paid off handsomely in several respects.

Rajan Sheth has seen those benefits unfold for more than 40 years, including the past 24 as the firm’s chief executive. He is the Lifetime Achievement award winner in large measure because of Mead & Hunt’s status as a bleeding-edge, creative class company.

Quarter century of owning it

Sheth’s career accomplishments begin with Mead & Hunt’s consistent growth and profitability during his 20-plus years as CEO, which primarily is due to the completion of wide ranging projects, including the design of buildings, highways, bridges, airports, navigational facilities, and unique structures.

During Sheth’s tenure, Mead & Hunt has grown organically and through acquisitions to more than 30 offices and more than 640 employees, including 190 in Dane County and 250 in Wisconsin. The firm’s billings increased from $10 million to over $108 million, and it has been profitable every year Sheth has been at the helm.

In recent months, Mead & Hunt acquired two complementary businesses, including QLH, a Florida water resources consulting and engineering firm, and the Missouri-based EMR Group LLC, an engineering and construction management firm. These acquisitions have elevated Sheth’s sense of optimism about 2018, and he would be even more optimistic with the passage of a proposed $1 trillion infrastructure bill that could keep companies like Mead & Hunt even busier.

He’s not certain that political leaders can get it done in a bipartisan fashion. Still, he believes it’s up to business leaders to achieve success regardless of what is happening with the economy and turn challenges into opportunities. “It would be nice if they got it done, so I’m cautiously optimistic about 2018 for Mead & Hunt,” he states. “I think it’s going to be a great year because of the initiatives we took in the recent past. Beyond that, we’ll see what our political leaders have to say.”

Sheth credits the decision to become employee owned for much of the firm’s success. Its model passes ownership from one generation of employees to the next, and it allows full-time employees of at least two years to decide if they want to become shareholders rather than waiting for a company invitation. In addition, those employee shareholders elect the company’s board of directors.

“Today, we have close to 200 of our employees, everything from a receptionist all the way to our senior leaders, who are owners in the company,” he notes. “It’s not an ESOP model; we are a C-Corp. People invest their money and we’ve been successful. Our stock value has grow consistently over the past several years, and we don’t have any absentee owners.”

With a diversity of shareholders involved in decision making, this ownership model has helped Mead & Hunt create a collaborative culture with little turnover. “One of the other things I’m proud of is that majority of our leadership is grown internally, and most leaders have basically grown up within Mead & Hunt,” Sheth notes. “We hire externally only in rare cases. My successor will be an internal candidate, but what I’m most proud of is that while a number of people compete for a position, the people who don’t get the job don’t quit the company. We haven’t lost a single person because they didn’t get the promotion they competed for.”

Sheth also believes this model has improved the operational decision making because every shareholder, even a receptionist, is eligible to be elected to the board. If employees are interested in serving on the board, they can make a case for it before the rest of the shareholders. “They produce a written statement addressing issues we want them to address on why he or she should be elected to the board, and then they stand in front of the shareholders and take questions,” Sheth explains, “and then we have a secret ballot. It’s one share, one vote, so people who own more shares have a bigger voice, but I call it a capitalist democracy.”

Caring company

Sheth has been instrumental in fostering a corporate culture that encourages creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, and high ethical and professional values. He is proud of the firm’s community involvement through a program called Mead & Hunt Cares. The firm, which has been in Dane County for 117 years, provides paid time off and financial resources (grants) to civic-minded employees to support causes they are passionate about. Among the nonprofit groups Mead & Hunt workers support are Habitat for Humanity, Gilda’s Club, and United Way, and they are encouraged to think beyond local borders.

“One of our employees did some engineering work for the Human Society shelter, not in Dane County but in Iowa County,” Sheth notes, “and one of our employees did some work at Hoyt Park in Madison. One went to Bolivia to work on a water supply project, and I can go on and on. That’s a big part of our culture, that we want to be a good corporate citizen wherever we are.”

While he plans to step down as CEO as the company chooses a successor, Sheth is not retiring. He will remain as board chairman, as well as serve on other local boards. “I want to continue in those activities and help people and organizations realize their potential.”

Inspirational executives

Sheth lauded the high standards and leadership examples of the judging panel, which was comprised of previous Executive of the Year winners, among others. “It’s quite humbling and gratifying to be recognized by such people as previous award winners. Their accomplishments and dedication are a great inspiration.”

READ MORE about the other four Executive of the Year award winners in InBusiness magazine