As chief strategy officer, Josh Szymanski sometimes starts his day in work boots and ends it wearing a suit and tie. Photo by Michael Buck
Josh Szymanski felt more in danger leaving Iraq at the height of the Iraq War than when he drove in to start his stay dredging a river near the border of Kuwait and Iraq in 2003.
“By the time we left, we were in black suburbans, and it felt way more dangerous going out than in because we were bringing attention to ourselves,” said Szymanski, now chief strategy officer at Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. On the way in, the dredging crew meandered across the border in Toyota Land Cruisers.
The five months Szymanski spent in Iraq took place less than a year out of college, but he garnered many responsibilities, as he stuck around longer than many employees of the same company, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, who just wanted to say they went to Iraq.
With so little infrastructure in the war-torn country, the dredging crew took on challenges normally unseen in common dredging operations. With no offshore lodging for off-shift employees, a barge pulled aside the dredge, and 91 people lived on board in a makeshift hotel made of shipping containers.
With extra logistical needs created by the living quarters, Szymanski added to his role of making sure the dredge was in the right place at the right time and at the right depth.
“It was a great job for a young 20-something kid, if you wanted to stick it out, you get a lot of responsibilities,” he said. “Once we started the 90-guy hotel, I had to be involved with the supply boats.”
The area was not safe, as the main site of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s had landmines everywhere, but it prepped him and made it easy to transition into civilian construction operations.
“When I came back, there were challenges, but I’d look up, and after what I’ve been through, this isn’t so bad,” Szymanski said. “That was a big part of formative development, even with how short of a time it was.”
Growing up in Frankenmuth, Szymanski’s career practically was foreshadowed. His father was a mechanical engineer, and it was always all hands on deck when it came to making something a reality. Both his father and grandfather built their first homes.
“If we wanted something and had the time, we went and built it,” Szymanski said. “It was always hands on and mechanical.”
Despite the predictors, Szymanski was unsure of what he wanted to do as he prepped for college. He selected Michigan Technological University in Houghton, because he felt it was a cultural fit for his interests.
At Michigan Tech, he picked civil engineering as his major and hasn’t turned back.
Following his graduation, Szymanski had the decision of whether to follow one of two engineering paths: design or build. He chose build and went to work at Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, where he first traveled up and down the eastern U.S. shoreline before heading to Bahrain just as the U.S. began sending troops into Iraq. Shortly thereafter, the crew was heading into Iraq as the first contractor into the country after the British cleared southern Iraq.
“It was really awesome, but not a long-term path for me,” he said. “It was a career decision point.”
Upon returning in fall 2003, he went to Purdue University on the recommendation of his friend, and he graduated with his masters in civil engineering in 2004.
“At that point, I had decided I wanted to be in the Midwest, I like the climate, culture, so I applied to jobs in areas where there was activity,” Szymanski said.
He applied to a variety of jobs in Grand Rapids, including Pioneer Construction and Wolverine Building Group, before accepting an offer as an estimator at Triangle Associates Inc.
He spent several years in the position, a time he said were some of the best moments of his life and also taught him the way the industry works. He was an estimator on nearly 40 Wal-Marts during the Great Recession.
“I was able to work with an exciting team of guys, and it charged me up,” he said.
“When you can stay up until 2 a.m. and just enjoy it and love it, I think that’s where I realized this career path was a good fit.”
Until his late nights loving his job, Szymanski still pondered what other career options he could choose. At Purdue, he took some MBA classes, but his exhilarating times as an estimator left those courses on the table.
“I know a lot of people who are 35, 40 and they don’t know if this is right for them,” he said. “You never rule anything out, but I’m happy with what I’m doing.”
At Triangle, Szymanski worked his way to project manager before transitioning to business development in 2011, eventually being named the firm’s vice president of business development in 2013.
“There are a lot of ways to approach it, mine is I’m not the best-looking guy, the flashiest guy, but I can tell you how long it takes and how much it costs,” Szymanski said. “I can tell you how to get there. It’s an approach of how can I best serve you?”
An offer came to Szymanski, who was not actively looking for a job, when O-A-K’s President and CEO Frank Stanek came calling.
Again, the cultural fit made the decision easy for Szymanski, who jumped to be O-A-K’s business development director. He said he is thankful for the 10-plus years he spent at Triangle and the skills he gained while there, but with a long career in front of him, he had to be somewhere he felt comfortable culturally.
“They’re hands-on guys, that’s what I am. Pass a hammer and board around the room, and they know what to do with it,” he said. “These guys are low ego, head down, hands on. It’s nice when you can walk into a room, and my partners and I know we’re on the same page.”
In March, O-A-K promoted Szymanski to his current job of chief strategy officer.
“This position gives him the opportunity to utilize his versatile skill set in a manner that will best serve our clients and O-A-K,” Stanek said of Szymanski’s promotion.
O-A-K’s title structure isn’t meant for internal purposes, but Szymanski’s moniker allows him to jump in wherever he feels he might be needed.
“I can do whatever I feel needs doing,” Szymanski said. “Some days, I have my boots on in the morning and a suit and tie in the afternoon. It’s a perfect job.”
O-A-K recently went through a leadership transition, so many of the firm’s executives are relatively young, but at 36, Szymanski knows there might be another one in the future.
“Where do I go from here?” Szymanski said. “I’m satisfied being partners with the rest of the guys at the firm and do what we do well. O-A-K has a long legacy and part of that torch is to put people in place who will be there a long time.
“We’ve gone through one (transition), and we’ll go through another, but I’m happy to be here and help wherever I can to help continuity of O-A-K.”