While some businesses shrink Neel-Shaffer finds way to grow
The regional planning and engineering powerhouse Neel-Schaffer Inc., is headed by a chief operating officer who has accomplished a lot at an early age.
Joey Hudnall, 44, a native of Columbus, graduated from Mississippi State University in 1990 with a B.S. in civil engineering. He went to work for his father’s Columbus firm, Charles Hudnall Engineering, after college, and began running the business soon after when, at age 23, his father became sick.
“In 1995, I merged the business with Neel-Schaffer and in 2009 I was named senior vice president and COO,” he said.
“In 2010, our family moved to Madison.”
Neel–Schaffer has grown to become one of the largest privately held engineering firms in the South. Headquartered in Mississippi, Neel-Schaffer also has offices in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Core disciplines include civil, water/wastewater, storm water, aviation, structural and hydraulic engineering, as well as environmental science and planning services.
There have been some lean years since the recession began in 2007. Hudnall said Neel-Schaffer weathered the storm and maintained their business through the recession because of their diversification.
“When Hibbett Neel and Gorman Schaffer started this company 30 years ago, the main discipline was traffic engineering,” Hudnall said. “We have since branched out into many different disciplines. We did better in some areas than others during the recession but, because of our diversification, we were able to maintain our number of employees and still move in a positive direction.”
Hibbett Neel has a friend who made the comment, ‘Don’t let a good recession pass you by,’ and by that meant you can look at a recession two ways.
“You can look at the negatives or you can look at the positives,” Hudnall said. “While some firms were shrinking, it gave others the chance to grow. We acquired two businesses during the recession, an engineering firm based in Arlington, Texas, and an architectural firm with offices in Shreveport, La., and Houston, Texas. Both acquisitions have helped us diversify and grow our business in Texas.”
Due to healthy growth, Neel-Schaffer’s ranking in the Engineering News-Record Top 500 Design Firms in the U.S. improved from 458 in 1994 to 197 in 2013.
Hudnall said he feels good about where the firm is headed, but is also scared, for this reason: If you’re not always somewhat scared, you’re going to lose your edge, and you’d better not lose your edge.
“We’re going to have to continue to be as innovative as we can and continue to be at the top of our game,” he said. “We need to be a firm that’s recognized as having the best and the brightest. Our engineering capabilities are how we take care of our clients.
“We’re also going to have to do more with less, and by less I don’t mean less people. I’m talking about less effort and being more efficient, and that’s through innovation and by embracing the new technology that’s becoming available as we move forward.”
One important strategy is to continue to diversify in every state they are in, and to sell all of their services. Hudnall said that’s going to be a key. “We don’t sell every service we offer in every state yet, but we’ll do that,” he said. “We need to have experts in each of these fields and somebody needs to step up and be a champion in every discipline. There are more opportunities in our company than any other company, in my opinion.”
In addition to diversification, Hudnall considers the major strengths of the company to be their core values and their people.
“I know that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true,” he said. “Our number one strength is our employees. I already feel we have the best and brightest employees, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve. I also truly believe that we put our clients’ best interests at heart and try to do the right thing at the end of the day, and that goes back to our core values.”
For Hudnall, one of those core values is giving back to the community. One way he is doing that at present is serving as president of the Mississippi Main Street Association board of directors.
“I was involved with Main Street when we lived in Columbus and I’ve always had a passion for Main Street, mainly because I think it’s the heart of a community and it’s about the quality of life,” he said. “If you can improve your downtown and the heart of your community, you can usually improve and make the rest of your community grow.
“One thing I really believe is that for Main Street to continue to serve the communities in the best way we can, we have to figure out ways to do business a little bit differently. We’re at a point where we have to think differently. We can’t say, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’ We’ve got to do some things differently.”
When Hudnall is not working, he enjoys time with his family and outdoor recreation. He married his high school sweetheart, Neely, 19 years ago, and they have two boys, Harper, 15, and Hampton, 12.
“Harper’s passion is basketball and Hampton plays football and basketball,” Hudnall said. “They’re both also into hunting and fishing.
“I have always loved to hunt and fish. Growing up in Columbus, I did that with my father and my buddies. It’s always been one of my biggest outlets. Now that my boys are old enough, I’m enjoying taking them. We go deer hunting, duck hunting and dove hunting. We bass fish and we’ve also fished for redfish off the coast of Louisiana.
“I love it and my boys love it, too.
“I also like to play golf. I’m not good at it, but I like to go out with my friends and clients and play.”
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