7 Questions with Bob Higgins, President and CEO of Barge Design Solutions

As a child, Bob Higgins, BE’97, says he constantly asked his father the question: Why? While an intern with Barge Design Solutions, Higgins thought about the possibility of one day leading the design firm and pondered: Why not? Today, he is the president and CEO of Barge going on 13 years. He is also a member of the Vanderbilt School of Engineering’s Board of Visitors and has been named one of the Nashville Business Journal’s Most Admired CEOs three times in a row. Higgins has helped establish a scholarship in the name of Barge Design Solutions for the School of Engineering. Barge employees also mentor students, visit classes, provide internship opportunities and oversee student design projects. Higgins, personally, is a strong believer in mentorship and helping others achieve success. Why, you might ask? His answers to the following questions may shed some light.

Bob Higgins

1. Do you have a favorite book, one you’d recommend to others? 

Yes. The First 90 Days, by Michael Watkins. As I have grown in my career, it’s about managing those leadership transitions and having a formula, or a process, to manage those. Where you go from a young engineering intern to a project engineer, to a professional engineer, to a project manager, to a business segment leader. That book captures the very essence of a good formula for a solid leadership transition. We give it to every leader we promote at Barge.

2. You’re in a public-facing, high profile engineering leadership position with significant responsibilities to the public and to your business both day-to-day and long-term. What drives you?

It’s two things that get me fired up every Monday morning. It is the people who come together, collaborate to bring projects to life. And it truly is the good that the projects do. As a young engineer at Vanderbilt, I remember reading about how water quality and treatment did more to extend the human life expectancy than any other advances ever in human history. It was then I started to realize the good that comes from all of this problem-solving talent wehave. Then I come to work for Barge. There’s a ribbon cutting in a big field, and 27 months later there’s a fully functioning treatment plant with 200 jobs that increases people’s quality of life. You’re at the plant, and you’re helping that community deliver affordably and efficiently, water quality. And then, just watching the team come together and make that project happen, that fires me up!

3. Public safety and welfare are paramount in the engineering profession. Inevitably there are going to be tensions between business decisions and responsibilities to the public. How do you approach those tensions, especially as the leader of the business with many young engineers looking to you for direction?  

We have an orientation class, and I go to every one of them. We talk about our values, and who we are as a company. What I tell people is sometimes folks are going to challenge you, maybe do things unethical. And it’s a slippery slope to take that first step toward something unethical, something that doesn’t align with our values. You will get fired. Don’t do that! Don’t start down that road because it’s too important; our brand, our reputation. When you begin to compromise your values or ethics, you start losing touch with who you really are. And it’s too important to violate those for money or business. So, we stress that in the hiring process; we stress it in orientation. Don’t let somebody else drag you into something that’s going to change who you are.

4. You’ve been on the record about influences in your life and the value of hard work and how you enjoy problem solving. Have you ever questioned your choice of major in college? 

My father said I wore him out during my entire childhood asking why something did what it did. He was a self-taught electrician and a maintenance man at a factory. He said I drove him nuts asking, why dad, why are you doing that? My mother has a picture of me in our carport where I had sawed my wooden tractor in half with my new tool kit to find out how it worked. I never challenged the thought of being an engineer, it was just what kind. Summer employment helped me decide. I worked for utilities where I’d see waste-water systems. I had a knack for that. I fell in love with it. When I came to Barge as an intern, I realized I would get to do it for a hundred utilities. And that was it. I always had the curiosity, that problem-solving nature. I wanted to be an engineer from an early age. And then through summer employment I really honed-in on what type of engineer I wanted to be. Vanderbilt’s program helped me focus even more.

5. What would you tell your 21-year-old self in the thick of your engineering education? 

I was so intensely focused on the work and the studies. I didn’t do a lot of the group activities. I would tell that young person now, and I do when I mentor, to get involved more in the university. Get involved in the professional societies. Get involved in the industry nights, things like that help you. Because networking helps you understand more about your options in the industry. And I would say engage in summer employment when you can, because that can really help clarify where you want to plug-in in your field of study. That network, you can carry it through the rest of your career. And when you’re all sitting around and you’re in your forties or fifties, and you’re running different companies, you’ll have some friends out there. And you never know when their advice, their counsel, their business relationship, will help move you forward even more.

6. You started at Barge as a student intern and are now the president and CEO of the company. That’s a pretty remarkable rise in the corporate ranks not being a co-founder. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggesting average job tenure for young people is about two years and the average number of jobs over one’s working life is about 17, do you think it is still possible to go from the entry level to the board room?  

I do. It may not be your first stint with the company. You might leave and come back, with as much change that’s going on right now. But growing up at Barge, and being an intern, and being a project engineer, project manager, I think companies can realize where people are in their careers. When you come out of college, you’re wanting to learn technically as much as you can. So, mentoring, connection to peers, connection to the industry are so important. If we can meet the commitment of those folks early on, and make sure as a company we’re meeting that, and get them excited about it, they don’t feel like they have to go somewhere else.

7. What do you look for in a new hire? 

Values. Values. Values. We can train you to do anything, practically. But I cannot teach a new set of values to somebody. The source of most confrontation, or most challenges in the workplace, usually is a values misalignment. One technique we use in interviews is to tell our Barge story and then ask the person, what did you hear in that story? Because people hear their own values in your story. And if they come back with something that’s close, then OK. If it’s something that’s way off, it’s an indicator to move on. I would take somebody with a little less on the technical side who has a better alignment with our values any day.


Contact: Lucas Johnson, 615-343-0137