Randy Reaves – Schnabel Engineering
With retirement looming at the end of this year, Randy Reaves is doing something most people with one foot out the door probably wouldn’t: crisscrossing the country and training project managers on risk management.
During 2023, Schnabel Engineering’s general counsel plans to visit all the Virginia-based firm’s offices nationwide. When he retires from Schnabel, a $100-million company which specializes in geotechnical, dam and tunnel engineering projects, an assistant general counsel will take his place.
“During the pandemic, we have become busier than ever,” Reaves says. “That’s done a couple of things in terms of risk. One, we’re obviously growing—there are more contracts, which present contractual risk. It also means newer folks who perhaps don’t have as much experience in project management the way that Schnabel does it.”
The past six years, the company has hired new engineers and geologists, growing from 328 staffers in 2017 to roughly 500 today. As a result, senior reviewers—who check the work of more junior engineers and geologists—now face ramped-up volume.
To help, Reaves trains new hires on basic legal considerations, as well as risks involved in finance and insurance. He provides more advanced project management training for senior engineers. Reaves provides training for project managers to help them manage potential risks in contracting, as well.
Avoiding contractual risk
As Reaves reflects on his time with Schnabel, he says he’s proudest of overhauling contracts to make them fairer to his company. When he joined Schnabel in 2010, the company relied on part-time legal help for things like contract review and legal questions.
Reaves, who spent 15 years working as a litigator, had learned to analyze contracts with an eye to avoiding risk. He was surprised to find many client contracts that were “draconian and one-sided”—essentially promising favorable outcomes to the client in the event of a dispute.
“A well-drafted contract can sometimes help prevent legal disputes,” Reaves says. “People will look at the contract and realize that the rights and remedies of the parties are very well spelled-out.”
As Reaves explains, it’s the job of Schnabel’s employees to perform to a standard of care and to exercise due diligence—not to guarantee outcomes.
So, Reaves started revising the contracts. Soon enough, his phone started ringing with calls from worried engineers, who told Reaves they were scared to send his contracts back to the client; that Schnabel might lose work.
But Reaves was steadfast. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” he asked. “They don’t agree to the changes?” He trusted that his efforts would not result in Schnabel losing work. Most of the time, he was right. Occasionally, Schnabel walked away rather than accept a one-sided contract.
Mentoring the next GC
Over the last decade-plus, Reaves’ colleagues have embraced his strategies, which include everything from strengthening contracts to upping Schnabel’s client communications game. Reaves is currently in the process of training a replacement, whom he hopes colleagues will trust as they now trust him.
“My goal is to get him firmly involved in everything, so he can carry on that same mentality,” Reaves says.
Because his replacement, Assistant General Counsel Mike Steele, didn’t come from the engineering services industry, Reaves sees the upcoming year as an opportunity to have a dialogue about the demands of the general counsel role at Schnabel.
Steele joined Schnabel in October 2022 and had spent the past five years as associate general counsel for two of the largest hospital systems in Virginia. Before that, he spent nearly a decade at large law firms including Williams Mullen.
“I’m super happy to have found somebody who we all believe, meaning myself and leadership, is going to be a great general counsel for us,” Reaves says.
Buying the farm
While he’s certainly left his mark on the company, it took decades of training before Reaves was ready to tackle his role at Schnabel. A 1980 graduate of the University of Virginia, Reaves earned his J.D. from the UVA School of Law in 1985, then went on to serve as a litigator at Hirschler, Fleischer until 1991.
Reaves joined Signet Banking Corporation as senior counsel managing litigation before becoming deputy general counsel at CarMax Auto Superstores in 1998. Before joining Schnabel in late 2010, he also held a few in-house roles at manufacturing companies.
“This company did not really know what to do with an attorney when I first came on—nobody likes attorneys until you need one, right?” Reaves jokes. “Now I attend board meetings, and that’s rewarding.”
Having climbed that mountain, Reaves says he’s ready to retire. He and his wife bought a 31-acre family farm in 2019 where their middle child is now raising his family. They also are amid an “extreme makeover” of their backyard, adding a pool and other kid-friendly features for their brood of grandchildren.
“We have a lot of good ideas about what we’ll do with the farm,” Reaves says. “My wife and I are also looking forward to relaxing by the pool.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Spring I 2023 Edition here.
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