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Meet 5 Most Admired CEOs: Jonathan Brinsden, Chad Burke, Janis Burke, John Mark Cavitt, Anna Coffey

Houston Business Journal | 08.14.2019

The Houston Business Journal named 59 leaders around the Houston area as 2019 Most Admired CEOs.

In selecting our honorees, a panel of judges looked for characteristics such as contribution to company success, civic involvement, career achievement and more.

The judges selected 42 for-profit leaders and 17 nonprofit leaders for this year's award. The 59 honorees will be recognized in a special section of HBJ's Aug. 23 weekly edition and at a luncheon on Aug. 22. Click here to learn more about the event and to purchase tickets and tables.

Below are five of the honorees.

JONATHAN BRINSDEN
CEO, Midway

Company employees: 120

Education: Bachelor’s and Master’s, Texas A&M University

Boards and affiliations: Buffalo Bayou Partnership; Central Houston; Houston HX; SEARCH Homeless Services; Urban Land Institute

How would your employees describe you as a leader in one word? Visionary.

What was your biggest professional mistake and what did you learn from it?Early in my career, I assumed all our team members had the same goals and aspirations as I did. I remember seeking advice from several people, sharing that I was perplexed that I didn’t understand why people were not motivated the same way I was. Each of them smiled, laughed and responded, “Have you considered the fact they are normal and you are the different one?” Perspective is a beautiful thing! That advice changed the way I thought about leadership and the need to create a culture where everyone can achieve their goals.

What advice would you give to emerging leaders? It always starts with people. You can have the greatest ideas, business plans and strategies, but you have to get the people right to have a chance.

What is your leadership philosophy? There are hand painted plates on the wall of SEARCH’s board room recognizing past chairmen and their impact — mine says the word “clarity.”

I believe my leadership philosophy is based on having a unique ability to make complicated things simple, being able to communicate why a lofty goal is possible and attract really great people to work together toward shared success.

Additionally, I believe organizations need to have a stated purpose and set of values, not just exist to make money. Leadership is about creating something people believe in and I believe we have built a company that believes in what we do, that doing well and doing good are not mutually exclusive ideas and assembling a group of people who share a common set of values is incredibly powerful.

What are you most proud of accomplishing as a leader? This is a difficult question to answer; however, my hope is that my work — for profit, non-profit, civic and education — does indeed make our great city better and change people’s lives for the better.

My life has evolved from thinking about all the various organizations I work with in isolation and today think about it all more broadly and collectively as an opportunity to make an impact. The goal is to leave a legacy of making a difference, always leaving our city — and the organizations that make a difference — better than I found it.

How do you relax/unwind? I am blessed to have a wonderful family and most enjoy spending time with them. They have always served as my inspiration and foundation. Personal interests include fitness, soccer, design, cars and Formula One, which is a fascinating sport. On the surface it’s about racing cars, but it is really about teamwork, technology, expertise, excellence and pushing to unbelievable limits.

“In his CEO role at Midway, I find that he is excellent as a vision setter while also energetically leading staff in working toward its achievements.” Robert Eury, president at CentralHouston.

CHAD BURKE
President and CEO, Economic Alliance Houston Port Region

Company employees: 8

Education: Bachelor’s, Texas A&M University

Boards and affiliations: Deer Park Opportunity Center; Deer Park ISD Education Foundation; Project Joy & Hope; Innovative Alternatives Legacy of Leadership; Cenikor Foundation; Career & Technology Association of Texas

How would your employees describe you as a leader in one word? Passionate.

What was your biggest professional mistake and what did you learn from it? I made the mistake of repeating some information that I assumed was correct and common knowledge. The information turned out to be inaccurate, and the person it referred to heard about my comments. As a result, I endured a very uncomfortable conversation with one of the most powerful and respected elected officials in Texas. Lesson learned: Be quick to listen, slow to speak and verify all your data.

What advice would you give to emerging leaders? Learn to trust your instincts, but at the same time surround yourself with proven successful leaders who you can learn from. Soak up as much advice and knowledge as you can, and never, ever think you’ve learned it all. It’s a journey and an ever-evolving process of improvement.

What is your leadership philosophy? Paint a vision that your team can believe in, then empower them to act each day in a way that is constantly moving toward that vision.

What are you most proud of accomplishing as a leader? Seeing the growth of employees as they reach their potential and their independent ownership of our vision. Also, as a non-profit membership-based organization, it’s very gratifying to see our members lead the organization because they find value in the mission and activities.

How do you relax/unwind? I actually raise honeybees. This is my second year and it’s fun and relaxing. They are amazing creatures who work as team and are incredibly industrious. There can be as many as 30,000 bees in one hive, and each knows its job and works tirelessly to accomplish it. In the end, I help take care of them and they provide me (and my friends) with loads of homegrown honey. My grandfather raised honeybees when I was young and I was able to help him, so it had always been a goal of mine to follow in his footsteps.

“Chad Burke has been a key player in bringing projects and new business to the region.” Brenda Hellyer, Chancellor at San Jacinto College District.

JANIS BURKE
CEO, Harris County Houston Sports Authority

Company employees: 15

Boards and affiliations: Financial Committee for Delray Plants in Sebring, Florida; Great Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau; Destinations International in Washington D.C.; Power Company Kids Club in Detroit, Michigan; National Association of Sports Commissions in Cincinnati, Ohio; Women in Sports & Events (WISE) Houston

How would your employees describe you as a leader in one word? Innovator.

What was your biggest professional mistake and what did you learn from it? I move too fast for others that need time to digest and wish to have more information or explanation. Although this can still be a weakness for me, the mistakes tend to be less obvious because over the years I've learned to recognize when I need to take a step back to build more trust, provide additional detailed reporting or adapt my communication style.

What advice would you give to emerging leaders?

  1. Be true to yourself and don't try to imitate anyone else. People can see through when you aren't genuine or honest. It's great to have mentors or leaders that you look up to and learn from, but at the end of the day you must be who you are — flaws and all. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Be you.
  2. Find your passion and know your strengths, then put them to good use through your career choices.
  3. Don't dream about success, but instead work hard for it every single day.
  4. Have fun and enjoy the journey. Sometimes we are in such a hurry to get somewhere else or reach a higher goal that we forget to find the pleasure or satisfaction of where we are today.

What is your leadership philosophy? Teams that hold each other accountable and are committed to excellence — where it's not an act, but a way of life — are the most successful. We should not settle for average or "good enough," but instead look for ways to be revolutionary, innovative, pioneers and true contributors no matter what position we hold in an organization.

What are you most proud of accomplishing as a leader? Watching employees grow personally and in their careers to take on larger roles. I enjoy being a small part of helping individuals reach their highest potential, as well as helping departments, divisions, and organizations become trailblazers. I'm also proud of the many ways the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority has been able to touch the community through positive economic impact by hosting meaningful sporting events, launching the Houston Hall of Fame and Sports Awards event, helping the youth of our region through our many outreach programs and by just showing overall compassion for those citizens in need of our assistance.

How do you relax/unwind? My favorite relaxation time is with my husband, no matter what we are doing. One of our favorite places to unwind is at our little yellow house on a lake in Michigan, where we enjoy boating in the summer and snow activities in the winter.

“On many occasions, I have worked directly with Janis and her team on various prestigious sporting events that have been awarded to Houston and enjoy a mutual rewarding partnership.” Jamey Rootes, president at Houston Texans.

JOHN MARK CAVITT
Founder and CEO, Covenant Testing Technologies

Company employees: 900

Education: Bachelor’s, Hardin-Simmons University

Boards and affiliations: Petroleum Equipment and Services Association; Blue Cone Monochromacy Family Foundation; The Hope Project; Second Mile Mission Center; Young Presidents’ Organization; Living Legacy Award

How would your employees describe you as a leader in one word?Approachable. I consider a company’s greatest asset to be people, namely the 900 people who make up the Covenant team. I run my business by the basic principle of treating others the way you want to be treated. When people feel respected, honored and empowered, they tend to take more pride in their work.

What was your biggest professional mistake and what did you learn from it? In less than two years after I launched Covenant, oil prices were struggling, the market was in a downturn and my wife suffered a stroke. It was certainly an emotionally charged season for me both personally and professionally. I had the opportunity to acquire a competitor for a great value. Despite knowing in my head that it would be a strong move, I hesitated in my uncertainty and fear. That company went on to become one of our biggest competitors. Seasons of volatility both in the marketplace and in our personal lives are inevitable. Leaders learn from their mistakes and also learn the art of standing firm on tough decisions when the waters are rough.

What advice would you give to emerging leaders? There will be times of quick growth and high pressure to keep up with demand, but slowdowns will come too. Do not be afraid of a slow in the market. Good leaders see dips and the ebb and flow of markets as opportunities rather than time to panic. Accustomed to our tremendous growth during our first five years, the Covenant team was used to living in a constant state of change and fast pace. Keeping up with a 375 percent employee base growth rate over a few years’ time created immense pressure.

Today, we live in a new reality of lower pricing and a slowdown of the market. I communicate this regularly to our team — this is a good opportunity for us. We are now in a phase of running the business, rather than growing the business. Now is the time to evaluate the systems, improve our efficiency, invest in new technologies, and create a better value of service for our customers.

What is your leadership philosophy? Innovative ideas can come from anyone at any level in any department. I believe that in order to be truly successful, it means a leader must demonstrate humility and be a “yes man.” I want to be the guy who says “yes” to new ideas as much as possible. This plays a key role in cultivating a pattern of creativity throughout the company.

What are you most proud of accomplishing as a leader? In addition to building the largest, privately held well flow management company in the country, I am most proud of the work we have done to build a culture that is distinct. I am very proud of Covenant Cares, APEX and Brother’s Keeper.

Covenant Cares is a proactive employee assistance approach to infuse the team with compassion, character and integrity. Covenant employs two in-house chaplains, to care for the oil field workers and their families through marriage coaching, grief care, celebrating achievements, highlighting the good done in the field every day or to be just a listening ear in times of need. Our monthly newsletter and regular communication pieces are used to celebrate wins taking care of one another and servant leadership.

APEX leadership academy is an ongoing training effort to raise up new leaders from within the company. Leaders rotate through sessions where they learn in a small-group format about company culture, core competencies, conflict management, self-evaluation and leading others well.

While safety of personnel and communities is of top concern for those in oil field work, Brother’s Keeper is a company-wide commitment to safety ensuring the 900-person team stays safe on the road and on location. Each employee is invited to voluntarily commit to be a safety guardian of their fellow worker or “brother.” All of these initiatives are part of the language within Covenant, they are actively used to engage the team. They have laid a foundation for a team which is highly sought after by customers that recognize the value and integrity of hiring Covenant.

How do you relax/unwind? A midday bike ride or work out of some kind reorients me during the weekdays. But my joy comes from spending time with my beautiful wife and five children.

“(John) founded his company at the beginning of an oil and gas downturn and had to overcome adversity from the very beginning in order to make his business a success.” Sanjiv Shah, managing director at Simmons Energy.

Anna Coffey
CEO, The Women's House

Company employees: 48

Education: Bachelor’s, Marquette University; Juris Doctor, University of Houston Law Center

Boards and affiliations: Texas Lyceum; American Leadership Forum; Confederation of Meningitis Organizations; American Immunizations Registry Association; Texas Bar Association; American Bar Association; American Public Health Association

How would your employees describe you as a leader in one word? Genuine.

What was your biggest professional mistake and what did you learn from it?My biggest mistakes happen when I don't trust my instincts. Usually I will get an intuitive sense of what the right or wrong answer is for a particular issue, but if I don't pay attention I can miss it. The place where this is usually the most obvious is in hiring decisions. I have learned that if I can tune into my instincts I can make really good hiring decisions and that makes all the difference to running a successful organization.

What advice would you give to emerging leaders? Take the time to learn about yourself. In knowing ourselves, we can better understand others. This knowledge is powerful and will help you to adjust your leadership style for the different issues you encounter. Also, use coaches and mentors along the way. It's very helpful to have another perspective of someone who is a neutral third party and they can help you identify how you shine as well as your blind spots — we all have them.

What is your leadership philosophy? "Be truthful, gentle and fearless." - Ghandi

What are you most proud of accomplishing as a leader? I am most proud of creating environments where people can do their best and highest work. There's nothing more satisfying than seeing my staff excel and the organization grow into a powerful force for good.

How do you relax/unwind? Restorative yoga, spending time with my friends, regular massages, traveling with my family, walking my dog, and the occasional Netflix weekend.

“(Anna) is a born leader. She sees what needs to be done, finds paths to fulfill those needs and then makes it happen.” Mary Axelrad, board chair for The Women’s Home board of directors.