Scott Heidner, ACEC Kansas executive director and podcast host, aims to build connections with his program guests and direct their attention—and support—to some of the most critical issues facing the engineering industry. As one example, Heidner remembers the show he did with then-Kansas State Representative and Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman.
“We spoke about everything from his job as speaker to country music to sports to Qualifications-Based Selection (QBS),” says Heidner. “Three months after the podcast, he sent me a text message with a meme of a train traveling over a river on a collapsing wooden bridge. The text read, ‘This is why I support QBS.’” Heidner maintains that the podcast helped Ryckman become more invested in the importance of QBS.
Over the past three years, Heidner has interviewed nearly two dozen people representing state agencies, as well as legislative, committee, local, and municipal leaders for ACEC Kansas’ podcast, The QBS Express.
“The value of the podcast is in getting these folks to come and sit at an ACEC Kansas event and spend an hour or two with me and other organization leaders,” Heidner says. “The guests feel appreciated, and the exposure and the relationships we create make an impact.”
Since 1958, ACEC Kansas has been promoting and protecting the business interests of Kansas engineering companies and their ability to serve their clients. Comprising approximately 65 member firms and more than 7,500 Kansas employees, the organization represents small, medium, and large engineering firms that serve clients regionally, nationally, and internationally.
Since 2001, the organization has been led by Executive Director Scott Heidner. Other leaders include President Brett Letkowski; President-Elect Cameron McGown; and National Director Jeff Hancock.
The successful connections made by Heidner on the podcast underscore the power of partnership in relation to leadership. In 2006, Heidner participated in Leadership Kansas, an affiliate of the Kansas Chamber. Each year, Leadership Kansas selects 40 individuals to participate in its leadership skills program, which consists of training sessions in six communities in the state. During those sessions, participants meet with experts from a variety of fields to discuss topics such as business, education, agriculture, public policy, societal health and development, economics, and government. “My experience was extraordinary and impactful, and I saw an opportunity to build something similar for ACEC Kansas,” Heidner says.
In 2007, he and the ACEC Kansas leadership team developed the organization’s Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) for outstanding individuals in the A/E/C industry. The program runs from August through October each year, meeting for two days each month. Only 20 individuals are accepted into the program annually. They meet in person in various locations around the state. “Throughout the day, we have speakers who talk about topics such as leadership, business development, government affairs, risk management, human resources, and finance. And there are fun events at night,” says 2015 ELP graduate Joe Surmeier, president and CEO of Professional Engineering Consultants (PEC) in Wichita.
Surmeier, who was PEC’s division manager of municipal transportation and was mid-career when he went through ELP, says the experience was incredible and the networking was invaluable. “In the ELP program, you get to meet with people from other companies,” Surmeier says. “Even though many are competitors, you come together and see each other as partners.”
Surmeier says he still meets with five other participants every other month to talk about their companies.
“Having the opportunity to partner with young leaders both in Kansas and other states has been the most fulfilling part of my ACEC Kansas career.”
Four years after going through the ELP program, Surmeier became president of his company. He credits ELP with giving him the confidence and knowledge to take the leadership path. Now, as president, he continues the tradition by sending employees to the training. “I have a waiting list of those wanting to go,” he says.
Surmeier chooses candidates based on “their position, experience, and who might benefit the most from the program,” adding that he has noticed that ELP attendees gain experience and appreciate the value of networking. “They also speak up at meetings and are not afraid to disclose their ideas,” he says. “They seem more confident.”
Heidner says other Member Organizations have asked ACEC Kansas about opportunities to partner on developing leadership programs built on a similar set of values and objectives. “Having the opportunity to partner with young leaders both in Kansas and other states has been the most fulfilling part of my ACEC Kansas career,” he says.
The leadership program supports the Member Organization’s legislative initiatives by encouraging ELP participants to meet with state representatives and senators to make their concerns and priorities known.
Heidner reiterates the importance of relationship building. “In the ELP, we teach participants that when meeting with legislators, they should invest in relationships first before asking them to look at something on our behalf,” he says. “We encourage them to humanize their projects, show legislators the good that engineers do in the community, and find ways to be helpful. That allows them to become trusted experts for local and state officials.”
Heidner works closely with Brett Letkowski, ACEC Kansas chapter president and senior vice president of TranSystems in Wichita, on legislative issues. The pair monitors issues and determines the best way to address legislators to influence positive outcomes for the Member Organization. This can mean testifying in person, or sometimes it means writing to legislators or contacting them by phone. Letkowski says that any member of the organization can testify.
ACEC Kansas closely tracks and lobbies dozens of bills and testifies on many of them. For illustration, ACEC Kansas is closely following three bills at the state level in early 2023: a bill meant to promote entrepreneurship, a bill regarding a vehicle registration fee that impacts transportation funding, and a bill that increases the on-call threshold for vertical work.
“Once we started asking questions, the state legislator embraced those suggestions and began working with us on improved language.”
In the entrepreneurship bill, H.B. 2123, ACEC Kansas took issue with confusing language. The bill suggested that 5 percent of state work be awarded as a target to companies that have been in business less than five years and whose principal place of business is in the state of Kansas.
Letkowski and Heidner got in touch with the writer of the bill. “Did they mean 5 percent of every department? Did a subcontractor count? Was it for every state department or just specific ones? How would the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) track it and award it?” Letkowski says. “There was no clarity in the language. We got them to see that they would be taking opportunities away from long-established firms, and that’s not what they were intending to do. Once we started asking questions, the state legislator embraced those suggestions and began working with us on improved language.”
ACEC Kansas also is testifying in person and in writing against the identical vehicle registration bills, S.B. 90 and H.B. 2148. These bills called for removal of a $4 fee that originally went toward DMV modernization. The fee was later repurposed as a funding source for state transportation infrastructure, raising $12 million to $13 million a year for transportation. “We don’t want them to pull funds from our state infrastructure money,” Letkowski says.
ACEC Kansas also testified in support of H.B. 2234, a bill that would increase the on-call threshold for vertical work for each individual company involved in a project. The on-call amount is $1 million per project, and the bill would raise it to $1.5 million per project. “With the costs of construction now, it’s appropriate to raise that on-call,” Letkowski says.
Aside from working with the legislature, ACEC Kansas has partnering committees with KDOT, the Corps of Engineers, and state agencies in vertical infrastructure, water, and many other areas. ACEC Kansas also works closely with the Kansas Society of Professional Engineers. “We team together a lot on legislation we want to chase,” Letkowski says. “And we have a meeting as part of their annual meeting each year. Doing that is fairly unique to ACEC Kansas.”
“In the ELP program, you get to meet with people from other companies. Even though many are competitors, you come together and see each other as partners.”
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Overall, Heidner says the organization puts a lot of effort into being ahead of issues rather than reacting to them. His vision for the future? “I want to see our emerging leader graduates grow into the backbone and strength of grassroots lobbying efforts,” he says. “In a perfect world, I’d like to see them run for office. We don’t have one licensed engineer, surveyor, or architect in a legislative office. It’s a void; our voice needs to be much more present.”
Stacey Freed is a writer based in Pittsford, New York, who has contributed to This Old House, Professional Builder, and USA Today.