Alumnus and company make combined gift in support of engineering education
Some of Ray Kowalik’s fondest memories can be traced back to the time he spent with friends while he was a civil engineering student at the University of Missouri — simple things, he said, like sitting outside and watching the girls go by, walking around campus, a few late nights at The Shack and attending football games and cheering for Mizzou.
“It was socialization,” Kowalik said. “I tell people the real challenge [at college] is whether or not you can manage the distractions. You find out if you can stand on your own two feet because you also have to take [courses like] finite element analysis, statics and dynamics.”
At 6 feet 4 inches, Kowalik stood tall on his own two feet both literally and figuratively, graduating in 1985 and returning to MU to receive a master’s degree in 1999.
“I knew that I wanted to do something related to math and science and enrolled in engineering to see what it was all about,” Kowalik said. “I had lots of really great professors, and you use the electives to round you out. I loved economics. It gave me a good sense of how the economy works.”
Of the several places he interviewed that offered him jobs after graduation, Kowalik said he picked Burns & McDonnell because he liked the sound of “employee-owned.”
Burns & McDonnell is a full-service engineering, architecture, construction, environmental and consulting solutions firm with home offices in Kansas City. The company is 100 percent employee-owned and consistently is ranked among the nation’s leading design and construction firms. For five of the last seven years, it has been recognized as one of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.”
Kowalik joined the company in 1987 as a structural engineer in its energy group and has been with the company ever since.
“I love Burns & Mac,” Kowalik said following his own advice to anyone pondering their career future: “Do what you love. You’ll be better at that than anything else.”
In 1994, Kowalik became a project manager at Burns & Mac and 10 years later, was promoted to general manager of the energy group. In 2007, he became group president, and in 2009, he joined the board of directors.
Early in 2015, Kowalik was named executive vice president and president of global practices. In this newly-created role, which includes purview of everything from aviation to transmission and distribution and construction design build, he will provide strategic vision for future growth at Burns & Mac.
Kowalik said he is grateful for the education he received at MU and has generously shared the fruits of his success with his alma mater, encouraging his employees to do the same.
In 2010, the College held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Burns & McDonnell classroom. The space includes three large plasma screen monitors, a projection system, remote feed capabilities, modular furniture and individual outlets for computer use — at the time, making it the College’s most technologically advanced classroom. The improvements were made possible by a $40,000 gift from the company, some of which was generated from fundraising events within Burns & Mac for its MU Engineering employees. Modeling philanthropy, Kowalik spearheaded these events for the company’s employees. At the dedication ceremony, Kowalik pledged an additional $25,000 for the classroom retrofit.
“Mizzou has been one of our breeding grounds for recruits,” Kowalik said. “Mizzou students are well-rounded. We’re looking for good communicators. That’s as important as being technically competent. And at MU, students are exposed to a lot more than just engineering.”
Nearly 300 MU alumni currently work at Burns & Mac including 230 MU Engineering graduates.
On Aug. 28, the MU College of Engineering held a check presentation ceremony at which the Burns & McDonnell Foundation made a gift of $400,000 toward the Thomas and Nell Lafferre Hall renovation project. Kowalik and his wife Jill generously rounded the gift upward by making a $100,000 gift of their own.
Kowalik said there are lots of reasons he feels it’s important to give back.
“It’s important to me personally because what the University gave me made me what I am today. It gave me a cultural and engineering education and made me a productive member of society. I owe them a debt of gratitude,” he said.
“Too many people think, ‘I paid for my education, and I don’t owe anything back.’ But your education made you who you are. It’s our duty as leaders in business and in the community to support the educational system; there’s nothing more important. All of the world’s woes can be made better with a good educational system.
“And I feel a duty to support the education system in the State of Missouri as funding mechanisms have changed and there has been a loss of state support,” Kowalik said.
“And more selfishly, it’s important for our company to have great engineers, and MU is growing great candidates.”
Kowalik’s one regret isn’t actually his regret, but rather his daughter’s. Sabrina Kowalik is a senior mechanical engineering student at MU who would love to follow in her father’s Burns & Mac footsteps. However, Burns & Mac’s anti-nepotism policy precludes her from working for the firm. But if she’s anything like her father, there are plenty of engineering firms that would be lucky to sign her on.