In 1981, a young structural engineer purchased a $15,000 HP-85 computer with a 6 inch screen and 16KB internal memory, rented a 500 square foot office, and struck out on his own. Forty years later, that one man company has become a 176 person firm with five offices serving clients in not only structural engineering, but civil engineering, forensic structural engineering, roof consulting, surveying, landscape architecture, and more.
In fact, we’ve grown so much, we’ve decided it’s time that our firm name reflects our vast array of services. As of June 1, 2021, we are officially recognizing our growth with a new name: Wallace Design Collective.
Ask Tom Wallace how this company grew into the thriving, diverse collective it is today, and he will humbly tell you it was a little bit of luck and a lot of amazing co-workers, a number of whom have been with him for 20 or 30+ years. As true as that may be, it would be amiss to not acknowledge that the true foundation of this company rests on the shoulders of a great engineer who decided to take a business risk and chase a dream.
All this month, we’ll be celebrating 40 years of Wallace Engineering with 40 insights from our fearless founder, Tom Wallace. Each week, we’ll tackle a different topic – from the founding and development of Wallace Engineering to entrepreneurship to technology to success. Tom has a lot to share, and what better time to hear it all than our 40th anniversary!
This week, we talk to Tom about the evolution of Wallace Engineering and get an inside look into what started it all and moments and views that have shaped it along the way.
1) What led you to start Wallace Engineering?
It was 1981, and Tom had just finished up his master’s degree in architectural engineering at Oklahoma State University while working part time at a local structural engineering firm in Tulsa. Between that and his six years of full time experience at the same company prior to going back to school, he was ready to take on the world.
“Being 29, I thought I knew everything about structural engineering,” said Tom with a chuckle. “[The company] had been a great place to work, and I got to work on an astounding variety of projects, including the 60 story City of Faith Complex at Oral Roberts University. At the time, it was the fifth tallest concrete building in the world, and a five-person office designed the structure!”
In the end, it came down to timing. Tom and his wife, Susie, were in a good financial position, and his ambition, combined with some prodding from industry partners, prompted him to see what he could accomplish on his own. One cold call later, he was on his way to designing his first big project.
“I really thought I would be sitting around writing computer programs and listening to NPR, but we were busy right away.”
2) What new or better qualities did you think you could bring to the industry to stand out from other firms?
“As Mies van der Rohe said, ‘God is in the details.’ Whether designing a simple utilitarian structure or an architectural masterpiece, I believe that good, thoughtful and skillfully designed structural details are a tremendous asset to the architecture.”
Tom explained that he has always had a passion for architecture, and he believes details of superior structural design not only take into account life safety, but also complement aesthetics. His leadership in this approach of focusing on details when combining structural design with the overall architecture has led Wallace Engineering to be known for not just “engineering,” but the “the art of engineering.”
“If you really focus on the details and getting things right, you can get a great deal of pleasure and utility from structural engineering.”
3) When was the first time (or a memorable time) when you realized Wallace Engineering had “made it”?
“In 1999, I was invited by Jim Fisher, PhD, of Computerized Structural Design, in Milwaukee, WI in to be a guest lecturer for a seminar at University of Wisconsin on the subject of Reinforced Masonry Design,” recalled Tom, noting Fisher is considered one of the biggest names in the structural bar joist industry - a prominent go-to guy in terms design and engineering.
“We had worked together on several projects, and he thought Wallace Engineering was one of the few engineering companies that really knew how to design reinforced masonry.”
Honored, Tom accepted, but assumed it would be a small presentation, speaking to only a handful of people. It turned out to be a room of 200-300.
“He introduced me to the attendees as ‘the engineer who has his seal and signature on more square footage of reinforced masonry buildings than any engineer in the world.’ I realized that may be true and it was very exciting and a little frightening.
“But time has proven that we’ve done okay for big box and masonry.”
4) What are some defining moments over the years that stand out to you that defined the trajectory of Wallace Engineering?
According to Tom, there are far too many to count. Still, few moments hold more significance than “firsts” - in this case, one of Tom’s first cold calls and his first job.
“In 1981, I walked into Coleman-Ervin-Johnson Architects on a cold-call at exactly the right moment and they gave me Guaranty National Bank Office building, a 6-story, 100,000 square foot concrete-frame building.”
A 10-story, 200,000 square foot concrete-frame building followed, and more big jobs kept coming.
“I got a lot of big jobs for a little tiny firm. I was able to convince people I could do big work.”
But perhaps the biggest make-or-break moment that set the trajectory for Wallace occurred in 1993. After working for several years with a local architecture firm on Walmart new store designs, the company approached Tom about acquiring his firm to become their in-house engineering division. Tom and the other owners knew if they rejected this offer, it could mean the end of a relationship and large source of revenue - obstacles the company might not be able to overcome. Agonizing deliberations culminated in a final meeting, during which the Wallace principals called over the architectural firm’s owner at 2am to give a final answer: a respectful thanks, but no thanks.
Tom had no idea how this decision would turn out. In the end, Wallace weathered a few hard years, but came out stronger, fostering their own relationship with Walmart, keeping their diversification with other projects and firms, and growing new relationships.
“It was a very scary move, a very risky move, and it was the right move.”
5) What was your initial goal for Wallace Engineering, and how has it evolved over the years?
“My initial goal was to have about seven engineers, a computer at every desk, and compete effectively with the other engineering firms in the area.”
In true, wry, Tom-fashion, he continued, “My number one tip is to set goals low and achieve them.”
He notes that the firm’s current mission and vision statements, which he and the other Principals spent much time scrutinizing and poring over, accurately sum up his future goals for the company.
“I am very pleased and proud of the growth and evolution of the firm. I never imagined that it would grow to the size that it is. It is a good thing that I have stepped aside to let it continue to grow at its current pace.”
6) Hindsight’s 20/20. If you were to do it again, is there anything you would do differently?
For Tom, somewhere along the line, the business side of things got in the way of some of his true passions: keeping up with advances in engineering technology and managing projects.
“First, I would have been more insistent on researching, finding or developing the most efficient, robust and up-to-date engineering and CADD tools in the industry and making sure we had the best training we could get regarding the use of those tools...If we had dedicated people to actually find or make the best tools in the industry, we’d be miles ahead.
“Second, I would have stepped down as CEO and President and handed the overall business management over much earlier...I think I would have been more of an asset to the firm in [project management] capacity...That’s where my heart is.
“Third, I would have liked to dedicate myself to staying up-to-date with our engineering design tools, new or improved structural systems and CADD tools...I would have been very happy to use and improve those tools in the context of every-day structural design.”
Tom’s advice? “Keep up with technology if you want to stay in engineering. Between the code changes and the technological changes, you can lose touch.”
7) What types of fears about the company keep/kept you up at night?
“By far, my greatest concern was and still is, that I, or someone under my direction, or some other team in the office, would make a mistake that would cause a building to collapse or partially collapse, or worse, that people would be injured or die.”
For this reason, internal quality control and reviews are highly emphasized and a valued part of Wallace culture.
“We have a solemn responsibility to the public. We do okay with QC, but we can always do better.”
8) What is your hope for Wallace Engineering 10 years from now?
“Optimizing the amount of money we make has never been on my radar in terms of what makes a good firm. I think the important thing is doing good work with high integrity and good ability.”
While Tom acknowledges the future financial success of Wallace is important, his ultimate goal for the company is much more basic: to continue to be a firm known for outstanding character, integrity, and ability.
“I hope Wallace Engineering achieves its vision “to be a vibrant, successful and creative company that is recognized as an essential partner by our clients and as the best firm to work for by our employees,’” says Tom, giving a nod to the company’s vision statement.
But Tom has no doubt the current and future leadership of Wallace Design Collective will continue to achieve this goal.
“I couldn’t be more excited about the future of this company. I wouldn’t be surprised to see [this company] at 250 or 300 employees in 10 years.”
Check back next week as we continue to celebrate Wallace’s 40th Anniversary with 8 more insights from Tom Wallace on the topic of entrepreneurship!
Click on the links below for more insights from Tom Wallace:
Part 2: Entrepreneurship
Part 3: Structural Engineering and Technology
Part 4: Success
Part 5: Architecture, Hobbies, and Travel
Do you have a question for Tom? Let us know! Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.