Burns & McDonnell names Houston exec as company's first female CEO

Leslie Duke has served as regional president and general manager in Houston for the past six years.

Burns & McDonnell names Houston exec as company's first female CEO

Houston's largest engineering firm has appointed its first woman CEO in the 125-year company history.

Burns & McDonnell, based in Kansas City, Missouri, announced on April 18 that Leslie Duke has been promoted to chief executive. This promotion will be effective when current Chairman and CEO Ray Kowalik retires at the end 2023. Duke, a native of El Paso, served as regional president and general manager in Houston for six years.

Duke's family and she will move to Kansas City when Duke takes on her new position.

Duke joined Burns & McDonnell as a structural engineering in 1999. She has held multiple leadership positions, including the opening of new offices. She was named senior vice president of the company in 2014, and then the first woman president in its history in 2016.

Burns & McDonnell said Duke has played an integral role in launching the firm's engineer-procure-construct delivery method in the South Central region and her efforts have led to the development and execution of many projects and programs.

In the last two decades, Duke has helped expand Burns & McDonnell's client base, from one Houston-based client when she first joined the company, to over 650 clients local, regional, and national in the industrial refining and chemical manufacturing, power utility, and refinery markets.

The company reported that during her tenure the region delivered more than $5 billion worth of environmental, engineering, consulting, procurement, and construction services.

Burns & McDonnell, the second largest civil and structural engineering firm in Houston, is now a part of Burns & McDonnell. According to research by the Houston Business Journal, Burns & McDonnell's Houston office will earn $1.18 billion dollars in revenue by 2022.

Kowalik stated that Leslie has a strong track record of achievement and an exceptional vision for the future, making her the ideal person to lead the company forward. Kowalik said: 'Leslie will lead our organization to a new era in technology, innovation, and growth. I am confident that she will continue to build upon our ownership legacy, caring for clients, communities, and each other.'

Duke said in an interview with the HBJ, that Houston was one of Burns & McDonnell’s most successful markets throughout the years. Under her leadership, Burns & McDonnell plans to focus on the Gulf Coast region as a growth market.

Duke stated that the majority of revenue generated by his company is from this area. While my family is moving to Kansas City I will still be spending a lot of time in Houston. Our clients are in Houston, and that's part of our DNA.

Duke stated that she plans to maintain the company's strong growth trajectory for the next few years when she becomes CEO. She said that there are certain areas in which she wants to increase the company's focus.

Duke stated that he would be putting an even greater emphasis on safety. It's always been an important issue, but we expect to keep improving it. I'll be focusing more on the development of leaders. We're growing and expanding so we need leaders who are ready and able to handle this growth.

Duke also said that the company will continue to focus on technology. She said this is an area in which it has many opportunities.

She said: 'We need to unleash data, and develop a forward-thinking capability to use it in predictive analytics.' "Analytics is becoming increasingly important to how we manage projects and run our business. You'll notice that all of this will be heightened over the next few years.

Duke's vision of Burns & McDonnell doesn't just apply to the United States. She stated that the company has huge opportunities outside of the United States in the next few years.

Burns & McDonnell has 69 branches, 10 of which are in foreign markets.

Duke said, 'Europe will be our first focus.' We're already in Europe, and are growing our business there. I do think that there are many opportunities in Europe for companies with almost no market share.

Duke also said that it is not lost on her the fact that she's one of only a few women who hold a C-suite role in engineering -- and that she hopes to make this change going forward.

Duke described it as a humbling honor. I love that the promotion gives me a chance to help others find their way. Nobody can imagine not being CEO of Burns and Mac one day. As the first person outside Kansas City to be appointed CEO, this shows that anyone could become the CEO of Burns and Mac. Kansas City is definitely our center of gravity. It's thrilling to see someone's career progress to the point that we can become CEO.