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VOL. 45 | NO. 18 | Friday, April 30, 2021

God first, then family and business

Young Entrepreneur Award winner keeps priorities straight

By Nancy Henderson

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Bobby Haines had only been working as a structural engineering intern at a Jacksonville, Florida, firm for a couple of years – his first full-time job out of college – when he met with a consultant who was interviewing staff members about their strengths and weaknesses in order to place them in the right positions.

“I definitely want to own my own firm someday,” he announced without hesitation. “I want to be a leader and help other engineers.”

But the consultant wasn’t impressed. “Well, don’t you think you should perfect your craft and keep learning a little bit before you jump straight into that kind of role?”

Haines took a moment to think about what she’d said, then replied, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

The two shared a laugh, but Haines knew in his heart what he was meant to do. “Whether I admitted it or not, that was always my ultimate goal.”

Haines, 39, has achieved that entrepreneurial dream – and then some – as president of Haines Structural Group, a full-service engineering firm serving East Tennessee and beyond. In February, the confident-but-kindhearted business owner received the 2021 Young Entrepreneur Pinnacle Award, an honor bestowed by the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce to those 40 and younger who’ve taken risks to start and grow their own companies.

Haines’ early interest in construction was no doubt inevitable. At about 8 years old, he began spending summers tagging along to worksites in the family business, Haines Electric Company in Memphis, which his grandfather A.B. started in the 1950s. His dad, Mark, served as vice president, and several uncles worked for the company.

“I got to see what it was like for them to be entrepreneurs and leaders and developers of men who also did a craft,” Haines says. “My dad was a master electrician. My grandfather was a master electrician. And they both had the vision to run a company, to be entrepreneurs, although they never used that word at the time.

“I got to see the work environment. I got to see buildings and structures of all shapes and sizes. … I got to see the electrical systems and mechanical systems, the walls, the columns. When I was a kid, I didn’t think about structural engineering per se. I just loved seeing things being made.”

In high school, Haines began driving his grandfather, now more a figurehead than a day-to-day manager, to job sites on the backroads of Memphis in an old GMC Suburban. “Let’s go harass the men a little bit,” A.B. would joke, referring to his passion for interacting with the workers.

Haines wasn’t yet old enough to legally apprentice with his family – that would come later, during summers off from his civil engineering studies at the University of Tennessee – but he estimated conduit lines, studied blueprints and performed other tasks. When the time came for a real apprenticeship, Haines and his dad sometimes pretended they weren’t related so the contractors wouldn’t treat him any differently as he ran wire and installed fixtures and receptacles.

Still, he says, “I never got the bug for electricity. I wanted to be able to build and understand it and see it and hold it.

“Electricity’s invisible until you get shocked,” he adds, laughing. And besides, “The electrical contractor is the guy that gets it done. The engineer is the guy who tells you what to do.”

In his freshman year at UT, the lure of structural engineering grew even stronger when he was assigned to build a 4-foot-wide balsa wood bridge as part of a class competition. Haines didn’t win, but he remembers feeling “ill-equipped” because he didn’t know how to calculate the strength of the materials. Rather than discourage him in the long run, however, the dilemma spurred him to become a better problem solver.

Bobby Haines, president of Haines Structural Group, in his office in downtown Knoxville.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

After completing his master’s degree at Georgia Tech in 2005, Haines spent four years as an engineering intern at a large multidisciplinary firm in Jacksonville, where he worked on condominiums, retail shopping centers and apartment complexes. On his first day, the supervisor handed him a set of plans for a metal building and instructed him to design the foundations and assemble the drawings, which he didn’t know how to do.

“Their method of training was just to say, ‘Here’s the goal. Here’s the problem. Solve it,’” Haines recalls. “It was really a sink-or-swim mentality that I just loved. I was 4.0 (grade average) in grad school, 3.93 in undergrad. I was used to being the answer guy. And then I went to work and I had no idea what I was doing.”

Tragedy struck in 2008 when his younger brother committed suicide. Not long before, a Memphis engineer with whom Haines had interviewed after college had contacted him about starting an office in Knoxville. “I loved Knoxville, but I never thought I would be there as an adult,” Haines says. “I thought it was just my college town.”

His sibling’s death crippled the family, and Haines felt the need to be with them to mourn. So he stayed in Memphis for four months before starting the Knoxville branch of CSA Engineering. Despite his grief and the fact that he was only in his 20s, he knew the move would bring him closer to his career goals.

The office opened in February 2009 with one client, a 200-square-foot space and Haines at the helm, charged with building the Knoxville business from scratch with no established processes or procedures in place at the mother company. The culture shock was enormous for Haines, who had previously been able to learn from his colleagues at a 50-employee firm.

“I realized very quickly that, ‘Gosh, I’m on my own.’ That was scary but on the other hand, I thought, ‘I can set this business up however I see fit.’”

For the next eight years, Haines says, “I worked like crazy, built relationships, kept my head down and just worked really hard.”

He was grateful that he didn’t have to worry about a salary or bringing dollars in the door since the owner was responsible for the financial aspects of the company. And, thankfully, the branch was successful, with eight employees by 2017. But the job was super-demanding – Haines wore every managerial hat, from marketing and advertising to production and client retention – and required long hours, including frequent all-nighters just to keep up.

“On the outside we were successful, but we did not have a good culture,” he says. “We were all working ourselves to the bone, until 9:00 at night. I was chewing up and spitting out employees left and right who saw how hard we worked. But what for? It was very unfulfilling.”

With the onset of some major project challenges and the birth of Haines’ twins Coley and Grady, Haines knew it was time for a change. “That year I really started realizing that I wanted to give the business to the Lord, be a steward and set what we have now: our vision, our mission, our purpose, our core values … and to enrich the lives of those we serve. Through that process, it’s amazing how the Lord turned that business in that year.”

He assumed ownership of the CSA Knoxville branch January 1, 2018, and officially changed the name to Haines Structural Group the following year. The company, which employs 14 people, now adheres to the philosophy, “God first, family second, business third.”

“When we do that, man we are just so much more successful in everything we do,” Haines says. “And it’s just so much more fulfilling.”

Bobby Haines says he grew up around construction always loves being on job sites and seeing buildings come out of the ground. Haines is president of Haines Structural Group and is the winner of Knoxville Chamber 2021 Pinnacle Young Entrepreneur Award.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

The firm’s portfolio is diverse and expansive: the UTIA Vet Medical Teaching Center and additional buildings at UT, industrial facilities for Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other clients, hotels, condos and entertainment complexes. Helping build several Dollywood rides, including the foundations, queuing line shelter and infrastructures for the Fire Chaser Roller Coaster, was especially enjoyable, Haines notes. “The most fun part was getting to go ride it in their soft opening, which was just fantastic.”

But his favorite project to date is Pat Summit Plaza, an admittedly low-key UT structure with a retaining wall that resembles a basketball goal and a statue of its namesake in the middle. “It was really neat to get to do a memorial for her right before she lost the ability to recognize [what it was]. Basically, we went from zero concept to 100% constructed project in the span of like four weeks. It really is very geometrically complex. It doesn’t look like that, but that retaining wall is 2 feet thick in one part and 8 inches thick in another part and it’s got two different diameters in curves. It was a four-week scramble of trying to figure it out, but we got it done.

“It wasn’t too big or impressive from an engineering standpoint,” he adds. “But it meant a lot. And we get to see it on ESPN once a year, which is really cool.”

The majority of Haines’ clients are architects. One of the first was David Collins, who recently retired as vice president of McCarty Holsaple McCarty in Knoxville. Over the years, Collins hired Haines for a variety of projects, including medical clinics, utility district corporate headquarters, schools, churches and municipal structures. Most recently, the two worked together on the City of Knoxville’s Public Safety Complex, which updated the former St. Mary’s/Tennova Hospital campus.

“Bobby is a consummate professional and very easy to work with,” Collins says. “He is very intelligent and always comes up with creative structural solutions that complement what we are trying to express in the architecture of the building. He is very well liked by the clients and contractors we work with and fits in seamlessly with the other engineering consultants we have on our project teams.”

For Haines, helping his clients goes far beyond business. “We don’t have to just be people who help find the beam or tell people how big a foundation needs to be in the ground. We can listen to people, help them with whatever they’re struggling with.”

The same goes for his employees, although he admits it hasn’t always been that way. “When I first started, I truly saw people as units of production. … I was very much a micromanager, very on top of people, always watching over their shoulder and not trusting them to do their job. And as I have grown, as I have learned to bring my faith not just on Sundays but through the week, I have really learned to … trust my people and truly rely on them and know that God put these people around me for a reason.

“I just need to get out of the way.”

Says Collins, “Bobby’s greatest strengths as a business owner are his ability to establish and maintain a culture of professional excellence and doing so in an humble and gracious manner. He truly cares about the people in his firm and the people that he works with. We have always been able to work through tough project issues in a spirit of trust and cooperation.”

Haines had always dreamed of winning a Chamber Pinnacle award but was surprised to learn that his office manager and a consultant nominated him for this year’s Young Entrepreneur. He was even more shocked when he won, he says. “I was just so excited and honored to be in the company of all these great leaders in the city and to be in the company of all the other people who had won the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. It was such a platform for me to be able to tell others: This is who we are, this is what we do, and this is why.”

Settling in Knoxville was one of the best things that ever happened to him, says Haines, who loves running and has competed in at least 50 half-marathons and five full marathons, although none since his now-4-year-old twins were born. Jogging while listening to Christian hit music recharges him and leaves him “ready to attack the day.”

“We love having our hand in watching the city grow and really have a love for Knoxville,” he says. “I’m not from here, but this is where I’m going to live forever.”

As for his successful company, he adds, “I didn’t know where I was going when I started the business in 2009. I just had my head down and worked, but the Lord always knew where we were going. Who knows where we’re going from here?”

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