A determined mother and a love of golf attracted Colombia native Willy Stewart to North Carolina, launching a career marked by a growing business and community leadership.
It all started with a billboard.
Growing up in Barranquilla, Colombia, a seaport city of about 1.2 million people, Willy Stewart remembers the massive highway sign plastered with a handsome, grinning face proclaiming “ingeniero” — Spanish for engineer.
You know, I would love to have my name up on the big billboard sign,” he thought. “I guess I need to be an engineer.”
Stewart, now CEO of his own 200-employee Raleigh-based engineering, design and planning firm, grins thinking about that moment. He’s sitting in his office atop The Dillon, the 18-story mixed-use building he helped engineer, overlooking the heart of downtown Raleigh.
“I actually found out 25 years later that the guy who had his name up there wasn’t even an engineer — he was a developer,” he says. “My dad said, ‘I guess you became an engineer by mistake.’ But I love math and numbers, so it actually worked out really well.”
Stewart’s handiwork can be seen throughout the state and beyond: the East Carolina University’s Coastal Studies Institute, Carolina Panthers practice fields in Charlotte, Durham Innovation District, Raleigh-Durham International Airport’s new terminal, the infrastructure and overlay planning of several Professional Golfers’ Association of America tournaments and more. It was named one of Engineering News-Record’s 500 largest design firms in the U.S. in 2019, with revenue of $32.5 million.
“[Willy] is passionate about his work and enjoys life to the fullest,” says John Kane, chairman and CEO of Raleigh-based Kane Realty, which developed The Dillon. “He and the entire firm are a pleasure to deal with. Their ethical standards are unapproachable.”
Asked how he grew the small company focused on structural engineering to 200 employees in eight engi-neering disciplines since 1994, the normally exuberant extrovert pauses and sighs, shifting in his seat. He adjusts his glasses before explaining he feels uncomfortable in the spotlight. He “loves to lead,” but wants to “lead from behind. I don’t want to be the face. I don’t want to be the guy on the cover. … Stewart is not Willy Stewart. It’s an incredible group of leaders that are committed, humble and respectful and live the culture that we are promoting here.”
Stewart, who attended a private American school in Barranquilla, was a scratch golfer, playing for a nation-al junior team in a South American tournament at 17. His father managed a cargo airline company. Three of his high school teachers were Western Carolina University alumni. Through those connections, he scored a golf scholarship to the Cullowhee college, where he played on the team for two years before transferring to N.C. State for the engineering program. In Raleigh, he earned a master’s degree with a structural engineering concentration. A big adjustment was the weather: He wore a winter coat when the weather got down to 65 degrees. “It is 90 degrees year-round in Barranquilla.”
Attending college in the U.S. was inevitable, he says, because of a determined mother who had a vision for his future. She had attended high school in Virginia. “She said, ‘You go to the U.S. to go to col-lege, whatever it takes.’ And by that time, frankly, my parents couldn’t afford for me to come. So I was able to get a golf scholarship, and then after my second year, I paid my own way.”
Though he grew up in Colombia attending an afflu-ent school and enjoying golf at a nice country club, his experience in the U.S. as a young college student was totally different. “Once I got here, I was on my own. I couldn’t make my monthly payment in my rental apartment. But it’s a mindset, right? It was all temporary. As my mom said, I had to.”
Stewart worked throughout his college career in a variety of jobs. He was a laborer with a construction company during the day and worked at Kmart at night and on weekends. While in Raleigh, he worked for the J.M. Thompson construction company. “I ground the bottom of the Optimist Pool in North Raleigh!” During two summers in graduate school, he worked for structural-engineering firm W.H. Gardner Jr. & Associates.
His plan to return to Colombia after graduation changed because of the country’s bloody civil conflict in the early 2000s among the Colombian Armed Forces, paramilitary groups and rebels. The violence left thou-sands dead or missing. “Everybody was leaving Colombia because of the security [issues] that were going on that started with the drug trading and all that.”
His siblings also immigrated to the U.S. One brother also went into civil engineering, the other ran a Shelby-based metal-fabrication company, and his sister served as a Colombian consulate in San Francisco before becoming a Gastonia real estate agent.
After graduation, Stewart got married and moved to Miami to be closer to his parents in Colombia. He laughs, describing his experience as straight out of a scene of the 1980s TV series Miami Vice. “It sounds far-fetched, but everything about that show was really true. … It appeared that there was a lot of money flowing into the city.”
Stewart, who has since remarried, ended up back in Durham in 1988, working as a partner for W.H. Gardner. Six years later, he opened his company.
The idea was to have a small, 10- to 12-person structural-engineering company that would focus on the creative process of integrating architecture with building structure, breaking down the goals and objectives of a building’s project design and formulating engineering solutions. But in 1996, a Rocky Mount architectural company asked Stewart to add a civil engineer to their joint-project team to facilitate a better integration of the overall engineering design.
“I said, ‘Sure.’ … In fact, he’s still here with us. At the same time, I had a guy who had been certified by the N.C. Department of Transportation to do bridge engineering. And he said, ‘You need to hire another bridge engineer, and we can go chase work at NC-DOT.’ So I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”
All of a sudden, the small structural firm was also a civil and transportation engineering company, “whether it’s through luck or just necessity.”
Since then, Stewart has added geomatics (land surveying), geotechnical (subsurface materials investigation and testing) and construction services, landscape architecture, municipal planning, and sports and events practice areas to its repertoire. The company now has eight offices in Raleigh, Wilmington, Durham, Charlotte and Columbia, S.C.
Over its 26 years, Stewart says diversity and inclu-sion have remained at the forefront of the company’s values. About 38% of Stewart’s executive team and two of its three corporate directors are women. That’s a big contrast with his industry overall: Women only ac-count for about 15.7% of architectural and engineering careers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The numbers are even lower for people of color: 6.8% Black, 13.3% Asian, and 9.2% Latino.
Barriers such as hostile or unwelcoming environments, social perceptions such as limited representation of minorities in a certain profession, and interpersonal discrimination and microagressions have historically limited diversity in STEM fields, research shows.
Stewart acknowledges more needs to be done to create a more diverse company. For example, the company’s practice leadership is made up entirely of men.
“Great decisions are made around a table when people bring different points of view,” Stewart says. “If you have people from diverse backgrounds, diverse cultural experiences, diverse ages, diverse races, they’re going to bring to the table their background, their experiences, what that particular decision may mean to them.”
Recently, the company launched a racial equity committee of 20 people focused on educating employees about the present and historical struggles of people of color, identifying organizations that are aligned with racial-equity initiatives, creating financial scholarships at historically black colleges and universities, improving the hiring process to increase diversity, increasing purchases from minority-owned companies, and influencing policy and legislation that promote racial equality.
As a Latino, Stewart has experienced his own share of discrimination. He says in the ’90s, he dreaded telling people where he was from because many people would associate him with infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. He decided to avoid mentioning his Colombian heritage and simply tell people that he was “just an American.”
“It became somewhat of an identity issue for me,” he says. “I went to a job site, and I recorded myself as I was walking around inspecting the project. … When I got home that night, I had to write the inspection report. I hit play and started to listen to myself talk. I remember calling my son, who was about 10 at the time, and said, ‘Listen to this. I have an accent!’”
His son laughed. “Dad, of course, duh, you have an accent. You’ve always had an accent.”
“It was like, oh my God, I’ve deceived myself for two years,” Stewart says. “It’s sort of in that moment I realize, you know what, I’m from Colombia, and I’ve got to be proud to be from Colombia. … I’m not going to be ashamed. I think my whole level of confidence as an individual, when I recognized and embraced my identity, gave me confidence.”
He feels his identity issues and discrimination he’s faced as a Colombian are insignificant when looking at what’s going on in the U.S.
“[My experiences] are hardly worth discussing. … I’m not a Black man waking up every morning knowing I’m a Black man. … Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusivity is being asked to dance. Belonging is dancing like nobody’s watching. Belonging is having a voice. You enable belonging by saying, ‘I need your opinion. I want your opinion.’ That’s what would really truly make a difference in business. … We’re taking this pretty seriously.”
Stewart’s eyes light up when he talks about the firm’s 2-year-old company culture program, THREAD, which stands for trust, humility, respect, excellence, accountability and discipline. Each employee attends a two-day class at the beginning of the year to learn how to “integrate culture with business intelligence.”
“We have declared and embraced a culture where trust, humility and respect guide how we treat each other, our clients and our partners, and excellence, accountability, and discipline guide how we approach the work that has been entrusted to us,” explains Chief Operating Officer Lee Ann Nance. “We try to live this every day.”
Vulnerability-based trust is “the foundation for creating high performing organizations where people are humble and empathetic,” Stewart says. “They treat each other with the utmost respect which creates a safe haven where people can bring their authentic self to work every day.”
Stewart is an active civic leader, spending about 20 hours a month chairing the board of WakeMed Health & Hospitals, the state’s 10th-largest hospital system with about $1.4 billion in annual revenue.
He also joined the N.C. Museum of Art Foundation board and previously served on the N.C. Governor’s Advisory Council on Hispanic/Latino Affairs, the N.C. Small Business Development Fund board of directors, and the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors.
In addition to his volunteer work, he says it’s rewarding to see how his company’s work is impacting the community. “For example, The Dillon building is this iconic project right here in the warehouse district in Raleigh that’s getting ready to completely change what’s happening all around us,” he says. “There are projects already planned for buildings and restaurants and residential in one great place.”
Kane approached the engineering company with The Dillon project after several successful previous partner-ships, including the $80 million, six-story Stanhope Stu-dent Apartments, which opened on Hillsborough Street near N.C. State’s campus in 2015. “Stewart has and will be a positive force and contributor to all they touch in our market and the other markets they serve,” Kane says.
Nance says that the company’s work helps strengthen the communities and create “places where people live, love, worship, pray, learn and heal,” which she says is Stewart’s brand promise. The fellow N.C. State grad had her own economic-development and marketing-consulting practice and worked as a local and regional economic developer for 16 years before joining the company in 2016.
“[Willy] reminds us often that our work is bigger than a beam, survey or bridge,” she says. “He truly cares about the people, the business and the community. He is smart as heck — he has a seriously amazing photographic memory with regards to numbers, he’s ethical — I don’t say this lightly [because] I’ve seen this exhibited multiple times, and he’s kind. … He’s a great teacher; I learn from him every day.”
INTO THE UNKNOWN
As with most businesses, the pandemic has shaken Stewart’s enterprise. While much of its work with the financially plagued N.C. DOT is on hold, business in other practices has remained steady over the last few months with a strong backlog of projects. The company laid off about 4% of its workforce in March, cut expenses, and temporarily cut salaries by 10%.
“You have to be very careful,” Stewart says. “It’s not like there are people waiting there for you to knock on their door, and they’re gonna say, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ You’ve got to figure out ways to either acquire a company or merge with someone that already has relationships and has work, and you can build from that. So I think we’ll continue to grow. I think we’ll look at the opportunities as they come.”■