While most people do well to succeed in one career, Jon Smith has excelled in three. A U.S. Naval Academy graduate, he served 21 years as an active and reserve officer in the Navy. His personal commendations include Meritorious Service Medal, four Navy Commendation Medals, a Navy Achievement Medal, and numerous unit and campaign awards. He is a former chairman of the board for Veterans in Energy, a national nonprofit for veterans and the energy industry. Jon also spent a decade in the automotive sector, holding leadership roles at Ford Motor, Federal Mogul, and then moving to energy with Honeywell SmartEnergy as a vice president. He led growth in businesses in Europe, South America, and Asia during this time.
Jon has never stopped learning throughout his career, earning an MBA and MSIA at Central Michigan University, and a graduate degree from the U.S. Naval War College. He then attended Stanford University Graduate School of Business. Today, Jon holds more than 20 years of executive experience, and he has achieved global success—building exceptional teams, leading organizations in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, and consistently delivering results. He has been published multiple times, most recently by the America Gas Association and featured in Public Utilities Fortnightly. He was also a guest on the CNBC program, Advancements with Ted Danson.
Last year, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jon joined Hydromax USA (HUSA) as their chief executive officer —a Nebraska-based professional services firm specializing in data collection in support of locating and assessing the condition of the county’s aging water, wastewater, and natural gas conveyance systems. Since its founding in 2003, HUSA has used new technologies and innovative techniques to empower contractors, engineers, and utility owners in making the best replacements and rehabilitation decisions regarding their buried infrastructure. Upon becoming CEO and president, Jon quickly responded to the onset of COVID, pivoting the company commercially to reduce risk and to perform an essential service for customers. The Top 100 Magazine recently spoke with Jon, who shared more about HUSA, his responsibilities at the company, and how his diverse background experience helped to prepare him for his current role.
You’ve now been at HUSA for a year and a half. How much growth has the company seen under your direction?
We’ve experienced very strong growth after a very uncertain time in our country. Shortly after the COVID pandemic hit, we were deemed essential workers, and our teams stepped up to perform outstandingly. We’ve seen growth in revenue and in customers, which has allowed us to expand our team, offer more opportunities, and meet the increasing demand from our clients across the country. HUSA currently employs just under 500 people across job sites in over 30 states, and we serve over 200 customers—from the smallest municipalities to some of the largest energy companies in the world.
Tell us a bit about your primary responsibilities and your three-legged stool approach.
I’m responsible for leading the strategic growth of the company, keeping us focused on the customer experience, and returning value to our investors. Because I work with employees, customers, and shareholders, I call my approach the three-legged leadership stool. All three areas of leadership must be strong, in balance, and of equal importance, or the stool doesn’t work, so my focus has been on providing training and opportunities for growth, building upon the existing talent of our team, and bringing in people with diverse backgrounds who really want to succeed.
How does your experience in the automotive sector play a role in your work with HUSA and its clients?
The automotive industry gave me a basis in many execution-oriented positions and in cross training, which I would not have gotten anywhere else. The experience also provided me with the opportunity to lead teams or more than 200 people or be a part of just about all functional areas in a business—whether commercial, engineering, or operations. Because of this, I’m equipped with a breadth of leadership background that helps me to relate to what goes into everything they’re doing here at HUSA and to recognize what my leaders and teams need to do to fulfill the strategy.
Does your military background also inform your ability to lead and build successful teams?
It absolutely does because the military is all about teamwork. No matter your rank or your function, it’s all about the team. The other thing I feel especially fortunate to have learned is how to use the diverse experiences and backgrounds of everyone on the team to accomplish goals and maximize the team results. Today, leaders must have the ability to build a diverse and unique team in order to succeed. This means recognizing both present talent and untapped talent, as we help people expand their boundaries for their own benefits and for the betterment of the entire team—ultimately, leading to the success of our customers and partners.
How do you define leadership?
To me, leadership means more than just pushing the organization or the people. A lot of a leaders are responsible to those around them, helping them see their untapped potential because sometimes people don’t know what they can do. It’s our responsibility to help them recognize their abilities and to give them a path to grow and achieve things they never thought they could do, even if they think the path is too difficult. They grow, and that is a great thing about being a CEO…. impacting people’s lives. In nurturing and helping to build these skills, the strength of the entire team grows. Anytime a leader builds what I call “bench strength”— promoting from within and hiring in at the junior level—this allows management to build a strong organization and expand opportunities from within as the business grows.
What is your global background experience, and how has it been a benefit in your current role?
While in the military, I served in Europe and the Middle East, so I have insight into working with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and worldviews, and I learned to respect their differences. This has not only helped me to communicate with others and to build a diverse staff, but it also allows me to be a better leader for the people who have been entrusted to me, be it our staff or our customers. It has taught me to remove blinders.
What drives you, and what do you most enjoy about your work?
I draw strength and inspiration from my family, so I want to give a big shout out to my wife of over 20 years. She was an executive at Ford prior to leading our household, but I remain her biggest challenge by far. I’m so very proud of her and our three children. I love being able to balance family and career—and to see both flourish. As far as what I enjoy, no two days are the same, and I love being ready for the challenges and opportunities that every day brings.. and making others better. It’s very rewarding to see high performers on my teams growing and doing fantastic things in their careers and within their communities. I fully recognize that people are putting their livelihoods and futures in my hands, so I approach each day by thinking about the effects my choices will have on them. As a CEO and leader, you can’t ever forget it’s not about you. It’s the team.
CEO and President