Pioneering Engineer Wendy Lopez Forges a New Path
Think of the recipient of ENR Texas & Louisiana’s sixth annual Legacy Award as an accidental role model. When Wendy Lopez was a senior in high school in Jeanerette, La., a favorite teacher inquired whether she intended to attend college and, if so, what she planned to study.
To which Lopez, without having given the matter much consideration, replied that she thought she would become a teacher.
“Don’t,” her instructor advised. “Be an engineer.”
To this day, Lopez, a senior vice president with engineer and builder AECOM who was recently tasked with promoting the growth of the firm’s Texas operations, says she frequently reflects on that brief exchange.
“It changed the entire trajectory of my life,” she says. “I recently heard someone say, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ In my case, I had no idea what an engineer was.”
In retrospect, Lopez, currently based in Dallas, conjectures her acumen for math and science prompted her teacher’s suggestion that she forego the classroom.
In 1976, she was one of three women who engaged in the study of civil engineering at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she received a bachelor’s degree and a master’s.
“The boys in the program all thought we must have been smarter than them,” she laughs. “Otherwise, they figured we wouldn’t have been admitted to the program. Truth is, we were all young, yearning to learn, so no one felt out of place.”
Lopez has been blazing trails ever since, first as an entrepreneur upon founding Wendy Lopez & Associates Inc. in Dallas in 1988, then a design firm of one—Lopez. The firm, later named the LopezGarcia Group, eventually emerged as a woman-owned business enterprise of more than 200 employees engaged in multidisciplinary engineering and environmental services for roads, light rail, airports, stadiums and museums.
“For years, we annually landed on lists of Dallas’ fastest-growing firms,” Lopez says.
Under her stewardship, the firm landed several significant projects, including M/E/P and civil sitework for the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys stadium, program management services for Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport infrastructure projects, planning services for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority and the TxDOT Katy Freeway/Sam Houston Tollway interchange reconstruction project. Later, she made significant contributions as Texas/Oklahoma regional manager with engineer and builder URS Corp., to which she sold her firm in 2008.
Her influence extended to transportation projects nationwide once AECOM purchased URS in 2014. She then served as senior vice president and AECOM’s central region transportation business line leader, managing more than 1,300 employees across 22 states.
Her accomplishments don’t end there. In addition to serving on numerous national and local boards and committees, she is chair of the Dallas Regional Chamber Infrastructure Task Force chair, a creator of transportation, water and energy policies for the region, and president of the International Women’s Forum Dallas Chapter.
All told, her contributions to her profession and community and to the advancement of women in engineering prompted ENR’s regional editors to select Lopez as the recipient of the 2019 ENR Texas & Louisiana Legacy Award. She has set an example “for future women entering the male-dominated ranks of engineering and has served as a mentor to hundreds of female engineers,” says Travis Boone, AECOM executive vice president, central region, who nominated Lopez for the award.
Forging a future as a pioneer in a men’s field largely resulted from circumstance, Lopez says. She was 29 at the time and performing land development work with Dallas-based Yandell & Hiller when her employer elected to relocate 40 miles away to Fort Worth. Lopez, whose roots were firmly planted in Dallas, wasn’t inclined to follow.
“I’d always thought about founding my own business,” she says. “I had money in a 401(k) plan, a couple of thousand in the bank and my student loans were paid off, so I thought, why not? I was naive. I didn’t know what I didn’t know or I would have been scared to death.”
When it came time to inform firm CEO Roger Yandell of her decision, she imagined his reaction would be, “‘What in the hell do you think you’re doing?’” she recalls. “Instead, he told me he’d like to invest.”
Her firm’s early years had its ups and downs. Some prospective clients responded, “Um ... well ...,” while others said, “A woman engineer? Cool!” Lopez says. With her burgeoning business coinciding with the rise of set-aside programs for small and minority-owned small businesses, Lopez made a point of introducing herself to every public entity she could think of.
“There wasn’t a lot going on in 1988,” Lopez says. Among others, “I contacted Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and the newly created Dallas Area Rapid Transit.” Some agencies and departments responded that while impressed with her credentials, her business was too small to be of any practical use as a prime contractor on projects. They suggested she subcontract to larger firms seeking work requiring minority participation, but without the internal resources to provide it themselves. “So I contacted my friends at Yandell & Hiller, Brown & Root, CH2M Hill and others with a local presence and began to team with them,” she says.
Meantime, her firm grew from three employees in its first year to 50 by 1998.
“I was employee No. 10,” recalls civil engineer Dev Rastogi, vice president with architect-engineer Lockwood Andrews & Newnam, Dallas, who joined Lopez’s firm in 1993. “I was brought on to boost business in environmental services,” she says. “I had plateaued at my previous place of employment and thought it would be interesting to join a woman-owned enterprise.”
As it grew, Lopez & Associates tended to attract young, independent and ambitious professionals, according to Rastogi, who eventually was appointed vice president and chief operating officer with the firm.“I wasn’t afraid to hire people who were smarter or more experienced than I was,” says Lopez.
“Back then, there were plenty of firms that were happy to partner with small minority or women-owned firms, “ says Rastogi. “Problem was, many of them just weren’t that proficient. Wendy’s thinking was, let’s be strategic. If we’re going to be a subcontractor, let’s be the No. 1 subcontractor of choice.”
Among other strategies, “I always advocated giving the client a little more than it expected while remaining within budget,” Lopez says.
A 2002 merger with RM Garcia & Garcia, a friendly Fort Worth-based competitor, resulted from the realization that both firms were on the verge of outgrowing their “small firm” status.
“We decided, let’s join forces and cross the line with the wind at our backs,” Lopez says.
The two firms had “very similar footprints,” says Rastogi, who remained with the LopezGarcia Group. “Both firms had offices in the same cities—Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and Austin—and both specialized in transportation, water, wastewater and environmental services, so it was a very comfortable fit,” she says. “And the merger occurred at a time when Lopez & Associates was just gaining traction as a prime contractor.”
By 2008, the Dallas-based firm, for which Lopez served as CEO, achieved annual revenue of $27.2 million and had undergone a three-year growth rate of 48%, according to Inc. 5000. In fewer than 20 years, Lopez grew a one-person engineering consulting firm to a multidisciplinary engineering service company employing hundreds, Boone noted in his nomination.
The subsequent merger with San Francisco-based URS Corp., then ranked by many as the nation’s No. 1 design and construction firm, was prompted by the thought, “We had always aspired to be No. 1. Why not become No. 1?” Rastogi says.
Since the AECOM-URS merger, Lopez has consulted on Virgin Hyperloop One’s Texas Hyperloop project, a planned 700-mph rail-based system that would cut travel time between Dallas and Austin, a 195-mile distance, to 20 minutes. She also assisted AECOM’s efforts to secure environmental approvals for high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston. Meantime, she also has secured work to assist Dallas in achieving its first climate action plan.
In her newly appointed position as Texas executive, effective this year, she is leading the growth and leadership of AECOM in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.
Lopez sidesteps discussion of her legacy. Instead, she has more immediate concerns at hand.
“I want to serve as mentor and coach so my colleagues won’t miss a beat when I walk out that door, and no one will realize I’m gone,” she says.