A map of Terrebonne Parish, La., shows a terrain of bays and bayous, lakes and ponds, bogs, marshes and swamps, rivers, streams and waterways, barrier islands and the Gulf of Mexico. Its largest city and parish seat is Houma, which thrives when the oil and gas industry is robust, when tourists visit and when the Gulf isn’t flooding.
This is the ancestral home of Kenneth Wm. Smith, CEO of family-owned T. Baker Smith (TBS), which for 108 years has provided engineering, surveying and environmental services throughout Louisiana and the Southeast U.S. He is the seventh recipient of the ENR Texas & Louisiana Legacy Award.
For Smith, company and community are one: The success of TBS enhances the survival of a parish that sits more on water than land, averaging approximately 6 ft above sea level. Daily concerns in the parish of Terrebonne (French for “good earth”) revolve around continuing the community’s fragile balance with the sea and trying to avoid a final surrender to the elements.
“We are the most exposed population for sea level rise and hurricane impacts in the United States,” says Smith, who has been working since youth for the company his grandfather, T. Baker, founded in 1913.
TBS ranked No. 376 on ENR’s Top 500 Design Firms list in 2020, posting $40.5 million in revenue for 2019. In addition to the Houma headquarters, the company has offices across Louisiana in Thibodaux, Baton Rouge, Metairie, Covington and Lafayette as well as three in Texas: Houston, Corpus Christi and Galveston.
“For more than a century, T. Baker Smith has helped build, repair and maintain the infrastructure of Terrebonne Parish—roads to connect our towns and cities, bridges over our bayous and pipelines for our oil and gas producers,” says Gordon Dove, president of Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government. “Kenny Smith has continued the legacy of his grandfather and father, and their leadership has helped to ensure the future of our home on the beautiful but always threatening Gulf Coast.”
To continue the success of TBS and Terrebonne Parish, Smith is dedicated to one of the firm’s core purposes—to cultivate the right people by identifying and developing their talents, assigning them appropriate company projects and encouraging them to continue their education.
“We absolutely have to know what the project is about and believe that it will make the communities we serve better,” says Smith, who lives with his wife, Sheri, children and grandchildren in Houma. “If it doesn’t meet these criteria, and we don’t understand the value of it, we’re going to walk away from it. We’re Louisianans first. Our wetlands are our backyards.”
Field Hand to Front Office
When he was 8 years old, his mother, Jo-Anne, complained to Kenny’s father, Clifford, that she wanted Kenny out of the house during the day because he was bothering his younger sisters. “So I began washing cars and emptying trash cans and working in the mechanics shop,” recalls Smith, the eldest of seven children.
In 1986, he graduated from Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. After he returned home, his father offered him the opportunity to work successively in each of TBS’s three major groups at the time: engineering, environmental and surveying. “I learned the business from every angle,” he recalls.
He became CEO in 2001 after his father retired—almost. “He’s 85 now,” Smith says, “and he still comes into the office a couple days of the week. And when he gives us words of wisdom, everyone listens.”
Smith’s grandfather died just two weeks after Kenny was born in June 1962. T. Baker Smith graduated in 1913 from Tulane University in New Orleans and returned home to Houma.
“That was a big deal then, at least from an engineering standpoint,” Smith explains. “Terrebonne Parish was undeveloped—a few fishing villages, some agriculture, not a thriving place and no oil and gas production as yet. Grandfather wanted to come back home and be part of the growth and development of his community. Because of this, he helped design and engineer our first paved roads, our first water-distribution system and bridges.”
In 1929, as the Great Depression began decimating the American economy, oil was discovered in the parish; this would eventually bring prosperity to the area—and new surveying and engineering work for the firm.
“The original surveys had not included the bayous, where much of the oil was discovered, so grandfather had the responsibility to establish the boundary lines of individual parcels and resurvey the original townships,” Smith explains. “Since then, our company has seen many farmers go overnight from old pickups to Cadillacs.”
While his grandfather helped establish his community, his father helped modernize Terrebonne Parish after graduating in 1958 from LSU in Baton Rouge. “My biggest mentor was my father, no ifs, ands or buts,” Smith says, noting his belief in hard work, persistence, the importance of diversifying the firm’s repertoire and education. “He taught me the ability to survive, to take it on the chin, whether it be an oil spill, a hurricane, a flood or a pandemic.”
Because the energy market is a “rollercoaster ride” and life-changing weather events inevitable on the Gulf, TBS mixes 70% private work and 30% government. Company niches include land, near-shore and offshore surveying; pipeline builds and maintenance; flood protection, such as levees; exploration and production; public works; industrial facilities; and some land development.
“My father was taught work diversity from his dad, who survived the Great Depression, so we’re diverse in what we do, who we do it for and where we do it,” he explains. “We’ve made it through Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the booms and busts of the oil and gas industry. And we plan to continue living here and working here.”
Education, Education, Education
Kenny Smith deftly choreographs company growth and sculpts its culture.
Under his guidance, TBS has grown from 80 associates in the Houma office to approximately 250 today in the nine offices. He says the model has been 10% growth annually for the last decade. However, last year, as COVID-19 slammed the world economy, the company was down 15% year over year.
“The first and second quarters were disasters; the third quarter we showed recovery; and the fourth was record-setting,” he says. “Private shut down almost immediately, but government hardly shut down at all.” As a result, TBS’s workforce decreased to 240 from 270.
For 2021, however, he projects a 25% increase year over year for the first quarter. “A lot of private clients are ready to get back with maintenance on pipeline projects that they need to move forward with, with or without COVID,” he says, adding the company plans to hire 40 people this year.
“The success and growth of TBS both in size and geographically are a result of Kenny’s vision and leadership,” says Tony Rivera, the company’s CIO. “Even with the growth and success, TBS has kept a strong sense of being a family-oriented culture. Kenny’s passion for this family spirit has been cultivated through investing in people, and this attracts them to our firm. Whether it is investing in continuing education for associates or celebrating someone’s personal success, Kenny has a passion for cultivating people.”
Education has always been a company mantra. “Dad stuck with me through high school, and I worked my way through college, and he allowed me to learn and to continue my education through other programs,” Smith explains.
“There is no better investment than education, he told me, and this has been the cornerstone of my business philosophy,” he adds. During his leadership, TBS has provided $6 million to support associates in acquiring bachelor’s and master’s degrees, professional certifications, safety training and other continuing-learning programs.
One Smith protégé is 10-year employee Brian E. Moldaner, the lead professional for the company’s engineering group and head of the Metairie and Covington offices. “Kenny was a driving force that encouraged me to pursue a degree in civil engineering,” he says.
He and Smith have known each other since high school. “I was what Clifford Smith dubbed at the time a ‘Katrina refugee,’ displaced in Houma due to Hurricane Katrina,” he recalls.
Before college, he chatted with Kenny, expressing an interest in engineering but confessing that he didn’t think he had the right mindset. “I told Kenny I didn’t think I could hack it in engineering courses, as I was a B student at best,” he says. “He encouraged me to not focus on the grades but simply passing the courses and soaking up as much info in the process.”
Moldaner graduated from LSU, and Smith continued mentoring and encouraging more education. “I can’t even tell you how many three-hour discussions we have had right in the middle of the business day,” Moldaner says.
An MBA from the University of New Orleans via its executive MBA program followed, with Smith allowing the TBS education assistance program to cover portions of the tuition. “Kenny put skin in the game with me, knowing it was a big commitment from me personally,” he says.
Moldaner also completed the business of design program at ACEC, whose college of fellows awarded Smith its 2006 Community Service Award. “Kenny Smith doesn’t just push you,” he says. “He supports you the whole way, any way he can.”
Water, Water Everywhere
“Think southeastern Louisiana,” Smith says. “We like challenging environments. If our feet stay wet, we’re going to do well. If they’re too dry, we don’t excel.”
Taking on another challenging environment, Smith has also gone to Washington as a leader on hurricane and flooding issues in Louisiana. He is member of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana as well as Restore or Retreat.
In 2004, he wore a bright orange life jacket to meetings at the Capitol with officials to express the importance of protection and restoration—before parish residents would have to swim their way to safety. “We were trying to educate folks about the perils of south Louisiana, that we were drowning,” he recalls. “Some communities don’t exist anymore because of hurricanes and storm surge. That’s meaningful.”
As a result of his community focus, many of his most memorable projects involve hurricane and flood protection and protecting the unique environment of Gulf communities.
Inspired by his father’s coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980s, the ongoing $5.5-billion Morganza to the Gulf Hurricane Protection Project includes comprehensive mitigation and restoration work for the Terrebonne Levee & Conservation District.
Also in Louisiana, the Raccoon Island Marsh Restoration included eight segmented offshore breakwaters along the beach—the first in Louisiana. Completed in 1997, the $2-million project also included post-construction surveys for the beach and created a back-barrier marsh.
And, in 1998, the $100-million Tri-States Pipeline involved multiple agencies and three states: Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. TBS provided reroute design, survey, regulatory and ecological guidance; secured authorization for the 270-mile pipeline; and remedied a mid-project frac-out. The project crosses diverse ecosystems, with more than 400 species of birds, including bald and golden eagles and the endangered Mississippi sandhill crane.
His service to the AEC industry and community is long and broad, including his current position as vice chair of the ACEC National Executive Committee and formerly chairing the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce. In house, the Smith-initiated nonprofit, the TBS SPARK Foundation, encourages associates to give to charities of their choice, with the company matching 100% of the donations. So far, $144,000 has been raised to serve the community.
“We built this firm around good folks, and we’re proud that we’ve given them every opportunity to grow and make a difference in the community they are a part of,” Smith says. “And I’m proud to have successfully continued the legacy of my grandfather and dad. They say the first generation starts it, the second generation builds it and the third generation destroys it. I’m happy I haven’t destroyed it,” he adds with a big smile.