When Ray Kowalik first interviewed with a recruiter at Kansas City, Mo.-based Burns & McDonnell after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in civil engineering, the concept of employee ownership didn’t bear all that much weight. But the recruiter’s words stuck with him: “You know, it’s better than not owning the place you work at, so why don’t you give it a shot?”

That he certainly did, as Kowalik would go on to spend his entire 36-year career there, the last seven of those as CEO, during which time the 100% ESOP company saw its construction revenue grow by almost 300%. He retired at the end of 2023.

“Ray is incredibly intelligent and insatiably curious about everything. At the same time, he is genuine and approachable. It is a powerful combination for a CEO,” says Alissa Schuessler, CFO at Burns & McDonnell. “Ray’s strengths and leadership style have propelled Burns & Mac in this industry. He knows when to take on risk and how much risk can be managed for the optimal outcome.”

STEM education

Kowalik drove a strong focus on STEM education, investing time, resources and money into K-12 outreach efforts to build the pipeline for future participation in STEM careers.
Photo courtesy of Burns & McDonnell 

Early Successes

After starting out as a field engineer with Burns & McDonnell’s Energy Group, Kowalik moved into project management. At the time, company leadership was focused on expanding both the company’s reach and opportunities. One such way was becoming an EPC contractor. “I raised my hand and said, I’ve got some ideas of places and customers I can sell this idea to—this was in the mid- to late-1990s,” Kowalik recalls. “I became one of the first in the Energy Group to offer those services to our customers.”

The firm calls Kowalik instrumental in leading the way for EPC projects with utility companies across the country, an offering that would grow over the next 25 years to now account for about 60% of current revenue at the company.

“Ray is incredibly intelligent and insatiably curious about everything. At the same time, he is genuine and approach-able.”
—Alissa Schuessler, CFO, Burns & McDonnell

“That all started with hiring some good people and building that practice. So, a lot of those successes I had early in my career I think translated to my opportunities to enter into leadership at Burns & Mac,” he says.

Kowalik went on to lead the Energy Group as general manager for 11 years, then in 2015, he became the first executive vice president and president of global practices, leading the firm’s business groups. Two years later he was promoted to CEO, the seventh in the company’s 125-year history. Under Kowalik’s direction, the firm’s number of service offerings has expanded to more than 350.

“As a previous project manager himself, Ray has the experience and the broader economic perspective to ask all the right questions, but he also understands what it is like to execute large-scale projects,” Schuessler says. “And that background enables Ray to relate to the project team and business leader. He doesn’t have to say yes or no—he can lead the team to reach the path forward on their own.”

fitness center

Burns & McDonnell dedicated the fitness center at its world headquarters in Kansas City to Kowalik. He is pictured with his family.
Photo courtesy of Burns & McDonnell 


After becoming CEO, Kowalik knew he wanted to accomplish three things, the first of which was putting the firm’s balance sheet to work to create better business opportunities and shareholder returns. That means investing in innovation, such as a nuclear technology that Burns & Mac is working toward bringing to market. The company has even entered the ownership side of some apartment and office building projects with several partners. Mitigation banking is another venture.

“That’s the idea that if somebody’s building a transmission line and they’re affecting areas of habitat for wildlife or wetlands, instead of them trying to mitigate that on their transmission line, we go buy a piece of property and build something that they can buy credits from for what they had disturbed,” Kowalik explains.

As for the second goal, he wanted Burns & McDonnell to become a direct hire construction company, in addition to its existing EPC services. The firm has acquired two construction companies within the last decade, one union shop and the other an open shop: Wisconsin-based AZCO Inc. in 2016 (which Kowalik helped deliver after a four-year pursuit) and Texas-based Ref-Chem in 2018.

Kowalik’s third goal was to put an infrastructure in place that would decentralize decision-making across the company to help accommodate its rapidly expanding footprint. When he joined Burns & Mac in the late 1980s, there were only about 600 employees, all in the Kansas City headquarters. “Now we’re at 13,500 and only 4,000 are in Kansas City,” he says. “So we’ve put [in place] a much better structure that’s not about ‘come to the mothership’ for decision-making. Now we’ve really regionalized our offerings to our customers.”

During Kowalik’s tenure as CEO, the number of employees grew by more than 110%. Office locations have more than doubled as well, going to 70 from 30 worldwide. In addition to large operations in Great Britain, Canada and Mexico, the company will soon open its second office in India.

“When I reflect on Ray’s tenure as CEO, I immediately think of how he led us through COVID,” Schuessler recalls. “Globally, we were dealing with one of the most uncertain times in recent history. Ray was our rock. He didn’t waiver on what our long-term operating model would be; we are an engineering and construction company, our people are in the field and we will be in the office and in the field where our clients need us.”

That meant making the choice to return to the office about a year after the pandemic began, once everyone had the opportunity to be vaccinated, Kowalik recalls. Reflecting on what he calls one of the most challenging times in his career, Kowalik says he’s glad he made those decisions.

“At that time, I felt very alone in the world, and it was very difficult, and I didn't like the negativity surrounding it. But I think our company’s really flourished because of it,” he says. “Our projects flourished and our people’s careers continued to flourish.”

Battle of the Brains

Battle of the Brains launched in 2011 with a goal of sparking greater interest in STEM education and careers.
Photo courtesy of Burns & McDonnell 

Community Commitment

From STEM education to health care, Kowalik has championed a range of philanthropic efforts. During his tenure as CEO, Burns & McDonnell staff and leadership have raised and invested more than $45 million in communities across the country through United Way, says Chris Rosson, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Kansas City. Through these efforts, staff are “helping improve health care, enhance educational opportunity and empower economic mobility for neighbors in regions where Burns & McDonnell has a presence. Their exemplary approach to community involvement and support is truly unparalleled,” Rosson says.

“Ray's leadership style can be described as candid, competitive and caring. He leads by example and walks the walk.”
—Chris Rosson, President and CEO, United Way of Greater Kansas City

A K-12 STEM competition in Kansas City is another way Burns & McDonnell’s team is giving back. The Battle of the Brains provides metro area schools with the opportunity to earn STEM education grants. Student teams develop an exhibit concept for Science City, a local science center. Burns & Mac then brings the winning team’s design to life as a new exhibit at the center.

The 2023 contest saw 700 entries from 7,000 kids in 50 school districts. On Dec. 7, Kowalik was part of a tour that visited the top 20 finalists.

“This program is in its 11th year, and we know we’re making an impact,” he says. “We have hired people that participated in the program while they were in high school that are now full-time employees. I always say anything important that happens that’s really impactful takes years, if not decades, to come to fruition.”

This no-cost program operates on a two-year cycle, with one for the contest and another for the winning exhibit build-out.

For the past three years, Burns & McDonnell has also hosted the Designing Real World Impacts course for seniors at Notre Dame de Sion Schools in Kansas City, says Alicia Kotarba, president of the private Catholic school system.

“I remember when we had completed our master planning process and had the designs for a new STEM wing at our high school campus, Ray’s term was nearing completion and he offered to not only stay on the board to see the project to completion, but championed the effort and led the campaign,” Kotarba says.

She credits Kowalik’s dedication to women in STEM for the presence of four new state-of-the-art science labs at the all-girls high school.

“He is down-to-earth, approachable and has a wonderful sense of humor, which doesn’t take away from his sound business savvy and leadership skills,” Kotarba adds.

Burns & McDonnell grew its staff

During Kowalik’s tenure, Burns & McDonnell grew its staff more than 110%, to 13,500 employees from 6,300.
Photo courtesy of Burns & McDonnell

Next Chapter

Timing was everything when it came to making the decision to retire at the end of 2023, Kowalik says, both on a personal and professional level.

“I think the most important part is our leadership was ready,” he says. Senior leadership and the board mapped out the succession plan to ensure the right timing for all involved. Leslie Duke succeeded Kowalik effective Jan. 1.

When asked about the legacy he leaves behind, Kowalik says he doesn’t believe in personal legacies, as the legacy of Burns & McDonnell is one of the hard work and culture of more than 10,000 people. Instead, he hopes to be remembered for helping the company in an honest way that helps people build their careers and that it is in a better place than when he took over.

“Ray’s leadership style can be described as candid, competitive and caring. He leads by example and walks the walk. Whether in corporate or community leadership, Ray goes all in and raises the bar for those who follow behind him,” Rosson says. “He drives excellence in every aspect of what he leads, and he does so all while being one of the most likable and approachable humans you’ll ever meet. These are rare qualities in a leader of his magnitude and influence.”