A lesson in perseverance: WK Dickson celebrates 75 years of client service

In October 1929, the stock market collapsed and a quarter of the nation's workforce was soon unemployed. It was the beginning of the worst economic depression in U.S. history, a terrible period that would last more than a decade. Despite the economic uncertainty of 1929, a 34-year-old engineer from South Carolina, William Kenneth Dickson, opened a small office in Charlotte and established a civil engineering firm...

Dec 2nd, 2004

CHARLOTTE, NC, Dec. 1, 2004 (BUSINESS WIRE) -- It was the era they called the "Roaring '20s," a time of flappers and prohibition, Al Capone and Babe Ruth. Radio was still in its infancy and silent movies had just begun to talk.

Herbert Hoover was president, Albert Einstein announced his Theory of Relativity, and a young daredevil named Charles Lindbergh flew his flimsy, single-engine airplane all the way across the Atlantic.

Then, in October 1929, the stock market collapsed and a quarter of the nation's workforce was soon unemployed. It was the beginning of the worst economic depression in U.S. history, a terrible period that would last more than a decade.

Despite the economic uncertainty of 1929, a 34-year-old engineer from South Carolina, William Kenneth Dickson, opened a small office in Charlotte and established a civil engineering firm.

A Dream and determination
Seventy-five years later, WK Dickson & Co., Inc. has become one of the most respected engineering firms in the Southeast, with 200 employees in seven offices. The growth of WK Dickson from a small one-person practice to a multi-disciplined community infrastructure consulting firm is truly an American success story.

Dickson was born in 1895 in the small town of Walhalla, S.C. He came from a family of modest means but his parents taught their son the values of education, hard work and determination.

Since his youth he dreamed of attending The Citadel, the famed military school in Charleston, S.C. After securing a sponsor, Dickson passed the exam and entered The Citadel, graduating in 1917 with a bachelor's degree and a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He served 18 months overseas with the infantry during World War I and left the service as a captain in 1919. Dickson then returned to school at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and earned a degree in civil engineering in 1921.

Little is known about Dickson's early career but there is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the owner of the tiny engineering firm he worked for, weary of battling the sour economy, told Dickson, "I've had enough. If you want the business you can have it. I'm going to Arkansas."

It was a terrible time to start a business; particularly an engineering firm that relied heavily on publicly funded projects. Municipal projects were cut back or delayed as the depression deepened and there is no doubt Dickson struggled to find projects.

The young firm survived the next decade by doing water and sewer work for the many small towns surrounding Charlotte. Money was tight and Dickson often had to wait for his fee to be paid, but during this period longtime relationships were developed with dozens of municipalities - most of whom the company still does work for.

To weather the depression, Dickson also worked as a surveyor for Mecklenburg County from 1932 to 1934 and was listed as both an engineer and surveyor in the City Directory for several years thereafter.

Dickson was proud of his ability as a surveyor and did most of the survey work himself, walking literally thousands of miles locating sewer and water lines throughout western and central North Carolina. Once, while surveying a project that ran through a swamp, Dickson found himself mired to the hips in mud and had to be rescued with a rope from local residents.

Dickson's reputation for professionalism and dependability served him well during the dark days of the depression, and relationships were forged that continued for years.

According to David Peeler, the firm's president and CEO, Dickson developed close relationships with his clients and treated them as friends. "His clients just thought the world of him," Peeler says. "If one of these towns needed something done he would do it and worry about getting paid later. Over time he developed a reputation among the smaller municipalities as the guy to go to."

During the late 1930s, Dickson's business continued to improve. However, as war clouds gathered, Dickson was called back into the Army in 1940 and served as Post Quartermaster at Ft. Bragg, NC for three years before going overseas where he served two years on the European front with the rank of Colonel. In all, Dickson served 33 years on active and reserve Army duty, and from World War II on he was known affectionately as "The Colonel."

Years of transition
As the decade of the 1970s dawned, Colonel Dickson was in his mid-70s and beginning to think about slowing down. Fortunately, a young man by the name of Ralph "Buck" Johnson had joined the firm a few years earlier and the Colonel had quickly become his mentor.

Johnson, a native of Samson, Ala., began working for WK Dickson & Co. during summers while attending school at Clemson University. Johnson received a degree in civil engineering from Clemson in 1953 and, after a few years in the military, he became a full-time employee.

"His entire career was spent with WK Dickson & Co.," explains Johnson's son, Joel. "He and the Colonel shared an office for several years and the Colonel became sort of a father figure for Dad.

Johnson became a partner in the firm in the early 1970s, then purchased majority interest and became president in 1978. The colonel kept an active interest in the firm until his death in 1986 at the age of 91.

WK Dickson & Co. faced a major crisis with the death of Buck Johnson in June, 1984. Business had been slowing for some time and Johnson's death raised serious questions about the future existence of the firm - which had already survived for more than half a century.

Colonel Dickson was still a consultant to the firm he had founded but, at age 89, he had neither the energy nor inclination to provide a leadership role.

Johnson's wife, Anna, took over day-to-day operations, which had dwindled to a minimal staff of only three. She finally concluded that her best option was to find a buyer for the company her husband and Colonel Dickson had devoted their lives to building.

A blueprint for growth
David Peeler was ready for a change in the summer of 1984. Experienced in airport planning and design, Peeler had worked nine years for a Charlotte firm that specialized in airport engineering. Peeler, however, was looking for new opportunities. The problem was that he and his family liked Charlotte and did not want to relocate. At the same time, there were very few openings for airport engineers at other local firms.

"I was reading the classified section one day when I saw a small, very discreet advertisement about an engineering firm for sale," Peeler remembers. "I had no idea what firm it might be but I called the broker, who introduced me to Mrs. Johnson."

Peeler and Mrs. Johnson met several times and despite the potential pitfalls, Peeler was intrigued by the firm's possibilities. "The last time we met was at a little Chinese restaurant on Independence Boulevard," Peeler remembers. "I explained to her that I wasn't quite sure I could afford it, but I did have an interest in keeping the firm alive and keeping the WK Dickson name going."

Details of the purchase were finalized and Peeler took control of the firm on Oct. 1, 1984.

The new owner concluded he had to accomplish three things if the firm of WK Dickson & Co. was to survive. "One, we had to keep the existing clients and let them know we were not going to disappear. Two, we had to recapture the clients who had left us. And, three, we needed to start building an airport practice."

Peeler's expertise was in airport engineering and his plan was to grow the company by finding a niche in this field. At the same time, he needed someone to oversee the firm's basic business of water and wastewater infrastructure projects. That person turned out to be David Pond, now the company's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

In October 1985, Pond was searching for new opportunities and heard that WK Dickson & Co. was under new leadership and was expanding its staff.

Pond arranged an interview with Peeler and the two men clicked immediately. "Our business philosophies are similar and David and I really hit it off," Pond continues. "We decided that I would take care of the municipal side of the business and he would concentrate on the aviation side."

Both Peeler and Pond are goal-oriented individuals who set definite targets for the firm's revenue and staffing each year. Under their direction, WK Dickson began to grow from a small, highly respected municipal engineering firm into a more diversified consultant offering a wide range of services throughout the southeast.

The plans Peeler and Pond put into motion began to pay big dividends in the 1990s and the decade became one of tremendous growth for the firm. "We wanted to be aggressive but avoid bureaucracy at the same time," explains Pond. "We love what we do and have some great, great people who help us meet our goals."

As WK Dickson grew, additional disciplines were added to the services provided for clients and today the company offers consulting services for airports, highways, water and wastewater, stormwater, watershed sciences, geomatics and landscape architecture.

"We're going to stay with what we know and what we do well, but we need to grow to provide opportunities for both current and future employees," says Peeler.

Pond adds, "We've got some great people and I'm excited about where we've been and where we're going. We've always felt that the sky is the limit!"

For more information, visit the company website: www.wkdickson.com.

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