Plaques and awards are not an unusual sight in executive suites, but Pamela Bain has a very special one in her office: an unobtrusive little trophy designating her business as one of the Best Places to Work in San Antonio in 2008. Given by the San Antonio Business Journal, the recognition is based on anonymous employee surveys from more than 200 area companies. The fact that people you employ actually enjoy their workplace is the best tribute an employer can get. It usually translates into better output and higher quality work. “We have not yet made it to No. 1 on that (Business Journal) list, but we are always striving,” says Bain, the president and chief executive officer of Bain Medina Bain Inc., a family-owned civil engineering and surveying firm with roots going back to 1939. “We always pick up ideas on how to become better. For instance, we found out that one company has a book club, and one of our engineers volunteered to start one here. So now we have had a book club for the last 10 months. We get to talk to each other on a whole different level.” The company also started a wellness program, with regular weigh-ins, yoga, walks and runs. “And we are also nagging our smokers,” she adds, smiling. “We are a family here. Anything we can do that helps each individual helps all of us.”
After spending some time in BMB’s building on San Pedro Avenue, one can already experience the friendly atmosphere of the place. The CEO herself has an easy, warm manner that makes you feel that you want to be her friend. Clearly, her management style has a lot to do with the results of that survey. But how can it be otherwise in a company populated by many people who are related? To begin with, there are three Bains and three Medinas. On the Bains’ side that includes Pamela, her stepson, Carl, and her husband, Henry. At one point Carl’s twin sister also worked for the family business. The three Medinas are business partner Raymond; his brother Roger, a design technician, and daughter Xochitl, who is a marketing coordinator. Altogether, BMB has 62 employees, 14 of whom are engineers. In addition, there are five professional surveyors. The friendly atmosphere has been good for business. Though still relatively small, the company has experienced steady growth since 2002 with revenues reaching $9 million in 2007. Its range of professional services has equally expanded to include master planning; platting and zoning; utility design; streets, traffic control, and other transportation projects; drainage structures; water resource management; pavement evaluation and construction management. Bain, who doesn’t have an engineering degree, became involved in the business following her marriage in 1982 to Henry Bain, at the time the sole owner of Henry Bain Engineers Inc. Just months into the marriage, Henry asked her to come in to hire and train a new secretary. Before long, the new bride found herself becoming increasingly involved with various tasks at the office, first as a volunteer and ultimately as a paid office manager.
“I taught myself how to do bookkeeping, I did payroll, got to know the clients and helped with the writing of proposals,” she explains with a chuckle, recalling her “closet-size” office of yesteryear. “And by osmosis, I also learned a lot about the engineering side of things. The hardest thing about being a family member is that you have either to work very hard or you are vilified.”
She evidently worked hard, but she couldn’t have anticipated that she would one day become the person in charge. Life has a way of writing unexpected twists into our personal scripts.
Challenges and growth
Back in the 1980s, the company was engaged almost exclusively in planning infrastructure work for new residential subdivisions, which was akin to having all of one’s eggs in one basket. When that basket unraveled during the savings and loan crisis of the late ’80s, new construction was halted more or less overnight. The Bains struggled to keep afloat by borrowing from their retirement funds and maxing out their credit cards. But misfortune didn’t stop there. In 1990 Henry became seriously ill, and Pamela had no choice but to assume greater management responsibilities. Two years later, Henry transferred his stock and his leadership role to his wife, who joined forces with Henry’s son, Carl, and Raymond Medina, both engineers, to create the Bain Medina Bain partnership that exists today.
“It was scary on three levels,” recalls Bain, now sitting in a vastly more comfortable office adorned with drawings of San Antonio missions. “It was scary being the boss; I was scared about my husband’s health, and there was the economic onus. We had to figure out how to manage all three of these situations. Had I just walked into the office at that moment, I wouldn’t have been successful, but I had learned so much already doing all those different jobs. Still, I had to pick my battles. There were some engineers who didn’t want me to be the president, but in the end we lost only one person.”
Under her leadership, BMB started to diversify, going after city, county and school district projects mostly as a subcontractor. “I called every architect and every (large) engineering firm in town to offer our services,” she says. “We would do a small piece of a large project. Subcontracting like that worked for us. It became our bread and butter for several years.” Like a true leader, however, she also realized that the firm must grow in numbers and expertise to be able to compete with the large engineering outfits that were moving to town. In 2002, the president created a five-year plan that included new services, new personnel and new premises. It was at that time that transportation and structural engineering were added to basic civil engineering capabilities. Today, BMB is a respected and successful operation that counts among its clients the City of San Antonio, Alamo Community College District, the San Antonio River Authority, UTSA, San Antonio Water System, the National Park Service (San Antonio missions), smaller cities in South Central Texas and many others.
What makes BMB thrive is the values and principles nurtured by the partners. It’s that family concept again. “Many firms hire people short term to work on a specific job and then let them go. We don’t do that,” explains Bain. “When we hire someone, I always keep in mind that the person is not a commodity. I am essentially hiring an entire family (because they depend on the employee). That’s the start of the value thing. But we also develop relationships with our clients; they are our friends. Because we are a small company, organized as a chain rather than a pyramid, we can respond quickly and in person to unforeseen situations.”
A particularly dramatic example of the latter occurred when an irate Floresville farmer called her office one day to protest the presence of BMB surveyors on his land. “If they show up tomorrow, I’ll shoot them,” he informed the president. Bain lost no time getting to the sheriff, who put her in touch with the county judge, who in turn spoke to the farmer. It turned out he had planted a crop on land that actually belonged to the Park Service, and ultimately, and happily, no one got shot. Sticking to its principles, BMB has won the reputation of keeping its professional promises. “They deliver quality services that we need in a timely fashion,” says John Strybos, director of Facilities Operations and Construction at ACCD. “Many firms claim they can do that, but then you find out that they can’t. BMB performs consistently, and they do a good job.”
If you are for real
Bain’s story is an eloquent example of how an intelligent, dedicated person can succeed, not only in learning a new field, but excelling in it when necessity or opportunity comes her way. With a degree in English, Bain moved to San Antonio with her first husband, who had enrolled in the medical school here. After the marriage fell apart, she stayed in town, pursuing a career in education, eventually as the principal of the Maverick Elementary School. It was then that a friend “dragged” her “kicking and screaming” to a blind double date with a handsome engineer named Henry Bain and his buddy. Her first impression was not exactly encouraging. Apparently also dragged there semi-willingly, Henry had a bit of an attitude. By the end of the evening, however, impressions had changed. “As we were parting, I told him, if you are real, call me. If not, don’t waste your time or mine,” recalls Bain, still amused just thinking of it. The next morning, her school phone started ringing before she even got in. When they finally spoke, Henry assured her that he was indeed for real and asked her for a second date. “It was an instant thing,” notes Bain. She married him six weeks later despite knowing that she would be wife No. 4.
“I quit my job and changed my life, but I thought I was going to spend time reading mysteries and eating bonbons,” jokes Bain. It didn’t quite work out that way, but the real challenge came when Henry fell ill. In August 1990, while on a vacation in Panama, he complained that his foot was bothering him, and by Christmas he was virtually paralyzed from the waist down. The early diagnosis was spinal cancer. What followed was a terrifying period of going from doctor to doctor until it was eventually established that he suffered from multiple sclerosis. “He is a poster boy for MS,” says Bain affectionately. “He has a fabulous attitude. He comes to work every day, but MS and age take their toll.” It was Henry who decided that she should take over the firm as he considered his son, Carl, too young at the time to shoulder that responsibility. Having never run a company before, Bain fell back on her experience of running a school. “Business management is all about people management,” she notes. “Carl and Raymond managed the technical part; I did the rest. All three of us were there if a client needed us. We are old-fashioned. Our word is our bond.”
So how does the firm deal with the general downturn in the economy?
“We have learned from our earlier experience (in the late ’80s),” she says. “We’ve been on a prolonged high stretch, but we knew the downturn would come, so we did some pre-planning. 2007 was our best year ever, but in 2008 business fell off by one-third. We pared down our expenses a year ago. With our banker and CPA, we developed a plan for the worst-case scenario, and we intensified our marketing effort. Our revenues were $5.8 million in 2008, but this year we’ll be lucky to see $3 million. Still, we have enough to keep us busy, and we haven’t laid off anybody.” Until two years ago, Bain was doing much of the marketing herself. Today, that job belongs to “spectacularly consummate perfectionist” Sandra Lenz, freeing the boss to become more active on other fronts, such as professional and civic organizations. Her professional memberships include three chambers of commerce, the Downtown Alliance and the San Antonio Council of Engineering Companies. An avid supporter of the arts and historical preservation, Bain also lends her able support to the Carver Community Cultural Center and to Los Compadres, the organization that helps the San Antonio Missions Historical Park.
And she also knows how to have fun. With Fiesta coming up, the BMB family plans to have a float in the King William Parade to mark the 50th anniversary of Henry Bain’s tenure with the firm. At 61, the genial president will get a chance to ride in an old convertible clad in 1950s garb. “I will get to be the homecoming queen,” she says, laughing.
Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams