Strata-G founder Dan Hurst talks about selling the company to his employees.
Knoxville News Sentinel
For the first time in 18 years, Strata-G founder Dan Hurst has just one decision to make: finding and conserving 100 acres of land meant for Strata-G employees to enjoy.
It’s a transition for someone who, as a small-business owner, made thousands of decisions year in and year out.
Ranked as the largest veteran-owned business in East Tennessee by the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Book of Lists, Strata-G has been sold by Hurst to two longtime vice presidents.
Elliott Barnett will take on operations as CEO, and John Patterson will handle business development and growth as president.
From left, Dan Hurst, Darrell Daugherty and John Patterson pose for a portrait at their company, Strata-G, the largest veteran-owned business in East Tennessee, on Aug. 2, 2020. Hurst has sold the company to employees Patterson and Elliott Barnett. (Photo: Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel)
This Labor Day season, Hurst is reflecting on the company he built from the ground up with senior engineer Darrell Daugherty. The two will transition over the course of several years into new roles and eventually retirement.
The sale is two years and many heart-to-heart conversations in the making.
“Succession is a fun word,” Hurst said. “We’re all succeeding together, and we’re doing it by them not kicking us over the hill; that’s in our benefit and theirs. The fact that we’ve got a path that lets all that ‘juice’ stay in the company, I think, is useful.”
US Chamber awarded business
Founded in 2002, engineering firm Strata-G has 250 employees and was named the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Dream Big Small Business of the Year in 2019.
Long prospected by other companies, Hurst began to think about what a healthy exit would look like. For him, that meant finding a solution that would care for Strata-G employees and clients and continue the company’s commitment to community outreach.
“These guys that have been with us 15 years are natural leaders, they know our business, they’ve built and are committed to our culture,” Hurst said. “We just had to figure out the right financial mechanism and details of business to make it work, and we did. I think we’ve done it in a way that we’re proud of each other for and thankful a lot for.”
Hurst will work about 80% of the time this year focusing on long-term strategy and outreach.
“I’m shifting from the responsibility of making decisions to being refreshed with the opportunity to present ideas,” Hurst said.
Dan Hurst, right, built Strata-G from the ground up with senior engineer Darrell Daugherty. (Photo: Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel)
Daugherty will continue to serve as lead engineer until Barnett and Patterson appoint his successor. He’ll continue client work a few days a week but said he’s looking forward to more time to think about his seven grandchildren.
They’ve started communicating the leadership change with clients and employees, but said the culture and core values of integrity, service and quality will remain the same.
“Our people are by far and away our most valuable capital, and so continuing to take really good care of them and reward them and build out programs that make Strata-G a destination company that recruits other high-performing individuals is really what I’m focusing on,” Barnett said.
The transition has been an ego-free zone, which the team views more as “shifting seats” than outright change.
“These guys have risen to a place where now their gifts need to be unleashed more, and it’s creating that opportunity for them,” Hurst said.
Patterson said Strata-G has experienced 10%-15% growth each year for the past several years and he anticipates continued growth, if not at the same rate. They’re focused on keeping employees connected as the spread of COVID-19 has limited in-person interactions and recruitment.
That means a first-class benefits package, Barnett said, and opportunities for growth.
The leadership shift has made room for senior managers Leah Berry and Kevin Mitchell to become minority partners and principals in the firm.
Successful succession planning takes early planning and an open mind, Hurst said. Not every offer will be the right one, and it’s OK to say no. Bring in smart advisers along the way, Daugherty advised.
“In Dan’s case, I’ve drawn the analogy of birthing a child,” Daugherty said. “He really gets a lot of that credit for bringing (Strata-G) into existence. So turning loose that child or giving it the keys to the car and letting it go to college, continue to mature, that’s tough.”