Ken Anderson grew up with one foot in the city and one in the country.
Raised in urban Richmond, he spent summers in Buckingham, Virginia, on his grandparents’ 300-acre tobacco farm. The contrast gave him an appreciation for each lifestyle, he said, and likely led to his choice to become a civil engineer.
“I grew up with the infrastructure of an urban environment, but appreciated the openness of a rural environment also,” Anderson said.
A neighbor put him even further on the path when, John Foster, an engineer and surveyor, recruited him to work in the field during his high school summers off. That practical real-world experience was invaluable.
But Anderson also always knew he wanted to run his own business, an urge only strengthened by the regimented structure when he worked for the Virginia Department of Highways as a junior drafter while a co-op student. While in the co-op program, Anderson alternated three months of class time with three months of real work experience.
It was interesting work. Between semesters, Anderson was involved with the design of I-64 between Richmond and Charlottesville, and also worked on I-581 in Roanoke, a spur off of Interstate 81, overlapping route 220 with exits designed with cloverleaf interchanges. As a drafter, he enjoyed the hands-on aspect, but didn’t care for the lack of flexibility in the schedule. Later, as a company leader, Anderson put the focus and emphasis on getting the work done, not a structured schedule.
When Anderson came to Tech in 1957, membership in the Corps of Cadets was required and was quite rigorous. He was a year or so older than most of his peers and that little bit of maturity led to holding responsible positions throughout his cadet career. The high point was his senior year living in the Eggleston Tower as the Regimental Operations Officer. “Planning parades and train trips was one of my responsibilities. One of my goals was to reduce the time we spent waiting for things to start. As well as I can remember we started every parade on time and left no one behind on our trips to Roanoke or Richmond”.
Having come from Thomas Jefferson High School in Richmond, Virginia, he was well prepared academically, but still had to work hard for good grades. Seeing the outside working world as a co-op student was helpful, but making the transition from work to school every three months and changing gears, proved to be difficult.
After graduation and receiving his commission as a Second Lieutenant, he joined the U.S. Army as a Corps of Engineers officer, serving for two years in post-war Germany during the height of the Cold War.
“Those were serious times,” he said. “The threat that Russia would invade Western Europe was high. My job as a combat engineer was to go east and destroy bridges and mountain passes to impede Russian and East German advances.”
While in Germany he and his wife Ame were able to travel extensively. He remembers his visit to Berlin where they had passed through Checkpoint Charlie and attended a communist rally at the Reichstag on May Day of 1964.
His oldest son, Scott was born in a former German Army hospital in Wurzburg in June of 1964. The family returned to the United States that following September. The family, which now included daughter Karen and son Derek, was able to revisit Germany on vacations in 1975 and 1984.
After the Army, Anderson went to work as a design engineer with J.K. Timmons and Associates (now TIMMONS) in Richmond. While working on the design for a low-level parkway alongside the James River, Anderson realized he would benefit professionally from the advanced education of a master’s degree.
He returned to Blacksburg and Virginia Tech in 1968, and while working on his master’s in what was then called sanitary engineering, launched Anderson & Associates. “Ken Timmons had told me if I hadn’t gone into business for myself by the time I was 30, then I never would,” Anderson said. “I was 30 when I started my own company.”
Ownership and classwork made for a busy life, working weekends and studying weeknights. Anderson was up until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. many nights. Blueline prints were made in the open garage. Anderson said there are still some around with moth prints on them.
Anderson’s company became widely known widely known as a leader in technological innovations that improve engineering practice. He didn’t operate his company in the usual fashion. He believes in almost total open-book management, a concept that employees should have enough information about their company to understand both how to do their jobs and how the company works as a whole. Anderson opened up company information and activities on the company intranet.
He eliminated salaried employment, making every employee hourly. “I didn’t like two classes of employees,” Anderson told The Roanoke Times. “We can’t all be on salary because the wage and hour rules won’t let you do that. But we can be hourly. The hourly system provides great flexibility to the employees and to the company”.
The company became known for other types of innovation, especially using technology to improve engineering accuracy and productivity.
In 1987, Anderson set up an Employee Stock Ownership Plan for his company, allowing employees to be issued stock in the company at no cost to the employee. In 2005, the employees became the full owner of the company when the ESOP purchased his remaining stock.
Anderson remains chief executive officer of the company and has plans to step down in the near future.
As CEO, Anderson said he deals more with human resources than engineering at times, but enjoys it. “One of the best compliment I’ve ever received was that I have the ability to bring out the best in people,” said Anderson with a smile.
Anderson’s community involvement is substantial, both in Blacksburg and around the state. He served as a gubernatorial appointee on the Virginia Geographic information Network Board of Directors and also on the Virginia Department of Health Appeals Board.
As an entrepreneur himself, Anderson has worked hard to develop the regional economy, serving on the New Century Council that worked to craft a common economic vision for the future of the New River and Roanoke Valleys. He was co-chair of the Economic Development Committee of the Commission on the Future of Southwest Virginia and chair of the New River Valley Economic Development Alliance.
He has served as president of the Virginia Society of Professional Engineers (VSPE) and vice president of the Virginia Council of Engineering Companies. VSPE honored him with its Distinguished Service Award and Engineer of the Year Award.
A long-time resident of Blacksburg, Anderson considers serving the college community and beyond an easy task. He served on the Advisory Board of the Center for Transportation Research and the Economic Development Advisory Committee. He is also a member of the College of Engineering Committee of 100 and served as chair of the College’s Advisory Board in 2005-06, during Richard Benson’s first year as dean of the college. He is also a past chair of the CEE Alumni Board.
In 1999, the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering honored Anderson with their Distinguished Alumni award.
Anderson and his wife, Ame, enjoy visiting with their three children — Scott, Karen and Derek — and 10 grandchildren. He and Ame will be moving to Richmond to be closer to Scott’s and Derek’s families as he reduces his role in Anderson & Associates. Daughter, Karen, lives in England and visits with her twin boys at least yearly.