Newsmaker: Charlene Wheeless, Bechtel

Using a strong reputation management strategy, Bechtel's principal VP, global corporate affairs, has constructed a new positive brand image for the organization.

After just five months on the job, Charlene Wheeless took a big risk. She stood in front of Bechtel's board of directors and operating committee and said that the more-than-century-old construction, engineering, and project management company needed to change the way it was doing business. "It was a bold move to tell them basically, 'your baby isn't ugly, but it needs a makeover,'" says Wheeless, the company's principal VP of global corporate affairs.

Specifically, Wheeless wanted to push the organization to have a more proactive reputation management strategy that relied heavily on communications.

Bechtel, like other privately held organizations, put little emphasis on external outreach as it is under less responsibility to speak to outsiders, compared to publicly traded companies that have their fates tied to the satisfaction of numerous stakeholders.

While others might have continued with the status quo, save some minor tweaks, the self-described achievement junkie felt it was her duty to highlight the inherent value that strong strategic communications could have on the company's bottom line.

December 2009-present
Bechtel, principal VP, global corporate affairs

2004-2009
Raytheon, VP, comms and site executive, Raytheon intelligence and information systems (IIS)

2002-2004
American Management Systems, SVP, global corporate comms and marketing

1996-2002
DynCorp, corporate officer and VP, corporate and marketing communications

1995-1996
PRC, director, employee communications

1991-1995
DynCorp, corporate comms manager

Before presenting her ideas, Wheeless conducted months of research in which both internal and external audiences were interviewed. The findings revealed a consistently positive viewpoint internally, but found that the outside world had a less than favorable perception of the company.

"We asked ourselves how can it be that we would have such a disparity and we found it was because they did not know about Bechtel," explains Wheeless.

"There was a lack of awareness because we were not communicating at all. There was no balanced information anywhere in the marketplace about us."

However, Wheeless knew it would take more than these findings to change the course of how Bechtel did things, so her team created a plan that highlighted data and facts to show how communications under a more proactive reputation strategy would help the company meet its business needs.

Backing her vision
Ultimately, Bechtel executives decided to back her vision and the Good Company 2.0 initiative was born.

"It was different and uncomfortable, but the leadership team took a step back and then pushed forward, giving me the support I felt was necessary," she says. "It was a huge testament for them to recognize the need to challenge the status quo."

Another data point that gave Wheeless' plan credibility was that she previously performed a similar transformation during her time as a corporate officer and VP of corporate and marketing communications at DynCorp, now a unit of Computer Sciences.

"Charlene was key in the successful transformation of DynCorp from a services company to a leading IT business. Communications were critical," says Paul Lombardi, former CEO of DynCorp. "We had to inform our staff and the public. We could not have had the internal push with-out the external surge. She made it happen."

Evidence that Wheeless is on to something at Bechtel can be found in Gladstone, Australia, a small city about 340 miles north of Brisbane. The company is now working on a multibillion-dollar project to construct three liquefied natural gas plants on Curtis Island, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Gladstone Regional Council.

Two years ago, relations between the city's leadership and Bechtel were tense. Reports at the time paint a picture of the organization being reluctant to talk about what impact thousands of employees would have on traffic and community resources.

"Some form of communications was needed, and quickly," explains Wheeless. "If the community does not want you there, they can keep you from executing projects."

Company executives met with city officials and emphasized the long history Bechtel already had in the region, and highlighted its positive impact and commitment in the community by building things for residents in the region, including a skate park.

The organization also emphasized it was mindful that adding so many employees to the area in a short period of time could cause some headaches, so as a result many were on fly-in, fly-out rotations. In addition, onsite facilities were built with amenities such as weight rooms, basketball courts, and movie screening rooms to prevent employees from making unnecessary trips into town.

Saving man's best friend

When not managing the communications of one of the world's largest engineering, construction, and project management companies, the married mother of two daughters is a passionate advocate for homeless animals, specifically dogs.

She is working with her attorney to establish the CKCR Foundation, named after her late dog, Cognac, and surviving canines Kahlúa, Chivas, and Remy. The foundation will provide grants to rescue organizations.

When asked where this passion comes from, Wheeless' emotions are visibly noticeable and she goes quiet before responding. “I know what it's like to be neglected, not matter, and be helpless. So to me, through animals, I can make up for that,” says Wheeless, reflecting on her childhood with her single mother in Oakland, CA, and later Albuquerque, NM.

Improved relations
Today, relations between the city and Bechtel are transparent and consistent, says Gladstone Regional Council Mayor Gail Sellers. "The communication lines are open," she adds. "I am confident that if any problems were to arise, I could just pick up the phone and call Charlene directly."

Had Bechtel not adopted Wheeless' reputation strategy, "I don't believe we would have had that happen," adds Sellers.

The company has also enjoyed great success in the digital space since the new strategy was implemented. As recently as 2009, "Bechtel didn't have a social media platform," says Wheeless. Now it is the leader among its peers. Bechtel's Facebook page has more than 15,000 likes. Twitter has more than 26,000 followers, and its YouTube channel has 252,000 views.

Fluor, one of Bechtel's major competitors has only 657 followers on Twitter and its YouTube channel has 9,373 views. Another rival, B&W Engineering, has no presence on Facebook or YouTube and has just 11 followers on Twitter.

From the Hoover Dam to the Channel Tunnel, Bechtel has been instrumental in the engineering and construction of some of the world's most iconic projects. The company is wrapping construction of phase one of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail expansion outside of Washington, DC, and the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert. Ivanpah will be the first large-scale solar thermal project built in California in about two decades, and the largest of its kind in the world.

In July, the Qatar Petroleum - Qatar Petrochemical Company partnership selected Bechtel to provide project management services for construction of the Al Sejeel mega-petrochemical complex in Qatar.

Bechtel's 2012 revenue was $37.9 billion, up 15% from $32.9 billion in 2011.

The progress the company has made in the area of sustainability is a source of pride for Wheeless. For Bechtel, this area not only applies to being environmentally friendly, but also to maximizing the human resources available in the community. In Australia, the company created one of the largest adult construction apprenticeship programs in the country's history and has trained more than 8,300 local workers in Angola on project processes and safety culture to prepare them for work on oil and gas projects in the region.

On the organizational front, the company recognizes its current employees are its strongest advocates. As a result, Bechtel has worked to communicate better to potential staffers the benefits of joining the company and it provides context on why certain corporate decisions are made. Wheeless' superiors are delighted with the impact she has made since her arrival.

"Charlene has brought a welcome perspective on reputation management and has put in place the team and processes that help ensure our reputation is fairly judged," says Mike Adams, Bechtel's CFO, and Wheeless' boss.

Despite the new strategy's success, there are still some hurdles to overcome. For a company that has 53,000 employees with projects in approximately 50 countries, "making sure there is consistent communications across the board is challenging and something we work on constantly," says Wheeless.

The problem is exacerbated further in markets where it has more than one business unit. Bechtel designs, oversees, and builds projects in the realms of civil infrastructure; power generation; communications and transmission; mining and metals; oil, gas, and chemicals; and government services.

However, Wheeless said the company has seen progress in this area. For instance, in the UK where three of Bechtel's business units are pursuing different types of work, there was the potential for confusion caused by each department communicating different messages. Instead, the company implemented an integrated strategy that emphasizes core ideas such as the company's tireless push to ensure safety on all of its worksites.

Further expansion
Moving forward, a major focus for Wheeless and her team, which has 100 people across various units, will be getting the word out about plans to establish a base in Dubai. Bechtel also needs to raise awareness about the fact that it needs 25,000 employees for a recently won contract to help build The Riyadh Metro in Saudi Arabia.

In terms of the new office, the company will be performing "stakeholder mapping," which means targeting influential individuals and organizations to make sure they know about the company and its values.

"We are the ultimate b-to-b or b-to-g company," adds Wheeless. "The average person walking the street isn't our customer."

For the employee initiative, Bechtel is planning a multifaceted effort that involves partnering with recruiting firms. It will look to hire as many locals as possible, but will also cast its net outside the region to ensure staff with the right skill sets are hired.

Overall, Wheeless says she constantly works with one key understanding: "As a private company, reputation is our currency and we take that very seriously."

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