CH2M Hill chief Jacqueline Hinman is a female engineering role model

Jacqueline Hinman is in rare company. As a female chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, there are only 25 others like her in the world. As the chief executive and chairman of CH2M Hill, she’s also the only woman in charge of a global engineering consultancy with revenues knocking around the US$6 billion mark.

Married, with adult stepchildren who “don’t think they need any parenting”, she’s still relatively new to the dual roles at the company – an employee-owned organisation – with her tenure under the two-year mark, but her positions are the culmination of years of work.

As a young engineer Ms Hinman first joined CH2M Hill in 1988 and worked there until 1996, when, bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, she struck out on her own.

“I had always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit,” says the American, who was in Dubai recently for one of her regular meetings with the company’s regional management team. “I wanted to try my hand at it instead of working for a big company. With one or two others we created a small financial management consultancy and grew it to 50 people.”

Aware that they didn’t have the funds to keep the business capitalised, they successfully planned to sell it to a larger firm in the same sector.

“After that, I had done my thing and always felt that if I was ever going to come back to a large company it would be CH2M Hill,” says Ms Hinman, 53, who is based in the company’s Colorado headquarters.

Her role as an engineer was perhaps inevitable, influenced by her engineer father and biologist mother, not following the sciences “never occurred” to her. Motivated by environmental concerns of the time – it was the era of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident – she wanted to help clean up the environment. She earned her degree in civil and environmental engineering and started out cleaning up hazardous waste sites.

“It wasn’t as glamorous as I thought,” she says.

A few years into her career, Ms Hinman found herself getting pushed into managing teams and interfacing with clients, which is how she came to take steps into leadership teams.

“Somewhere along the way I found out I’m a pretty good engineer, but I’m not a great engineer,” she explains. “I was a better project manager and leader of people. I like the strategy more than I like the details and I was always pretty good at talking to people, understanding stakeholder needs and framing questions.”

Returning to CH2M Hill in 2005, her journey to the top job began in earnest. Roles with the company’s major programmes group, during a period which included the delivery of projects for the London 2012 Olympics, then its international division, covering everything outside the company’s US headquarters, enabled her to gain responsibility and staff. She credits the international role with giving her a great feel for how the business works around the world. By September 2013 she was announced as the next chief executive, moving into the role officially on January 1, 2014.

“I can tell you that as a young engineer it never occurred to me that I would wake up and want to be the chief executive,” she says. “It’s probably not something a lot of young engineers do in their careers.”

Today, CH2M Hill is involved in more than 700 programmes and projects in the region, including landmark contracts such as Dubai Expo 2020, the Step tunnel programme in Abu Dhabi, Qatar’s similar Idris project, plus the Riyadh Metro in Saudi Arabia. In the UAE, the company has more than 1,000 employees with plans to double in size by 2020.

“On a percentage basis, the Middle East will be our fastest-growing region over the next three years,” says Ms Hinman.

As a female engineer in a leadership role, Ms Hinman is also acutely aware of her place as a role model and confesses to being passionate about women in science and engineering fields because of her own background.

“I think I have always worked very hard to be a role model,” she says. “We are seeing more women than we have traditionally seen coming into the industry. I try to be a strong role model for them but also, frankly, to be a strong model for men that have wives and daughters, and everybody that they want to see in the profession as well.”

Despite the multiple responsibilities of leadership there are still occasions when the engineering skills get put to use.

“I still do enough not to be too rusty,” says Ms Hinman. “I do miss it sometimes because it’s the reason I went into the business. This whole idea of laying the foundation for human progress and making a difference really is the reason I came into it.”

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