Bill Higgs: On Bridging Military and Corporate Cultures

March 12, 2020 Updated: March 12, 2020
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Bill Higgs, one of the titans of American business, leveraged his experiences as a Boy Scout, West Point graduate, and in the military to build the offshore oil engineering and construction company Mustang Engineering.

Higgs graduated from West Point in 1974 and became a Ranger and officer in the U.S. Army. After he left the Army, he began working in the offshore oil and gas industry. After surviving stage 4 cancer, he started a business with two colleagues that strove to create an effective company culture. He’s also the author of “Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale and Succeed in Your Business.”

I had an opportunity to speak with Higgs about his young-adult life experiences, and how he applied what he learned to build a successful business in the middle of an industry crisis.

The Epoch Times: Where did you grow up, and what was life like growing up?

Bill Higgs: I was born in Denver, and then lived in Fort Collins until I was about 8. My parents had a bad divorce, and my mom moved us to Cleveland, and I stayed there until I was accepted into West Point. I thought [life] was pretty good. It was tough that I never really knew my natural dad until I was about 42. I had an older sister, younger brother, and lived in the suburbs. For about three years after the divorce, it was super-tough in Cleveland for my mom being a single parent.

Once we had a stepdad though, things pretty much leveled out. Both my mom and stepdad ended up starting their own companies. My mom had three yarn shops that she started, and my stepdad had a home construction company that also built some small commercial buildings. So I grew up seeing them having their own companies and felt that eventually, I’d probably do that.

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Bill Higgs working at his desk. (Courtesy of Bill Higgs)

The Epoch Times: What motivated you to join the Boy Scouts?

Mr. Higgs: In Cleveland, my mom wanted me to get some male role models that I could have contact with, so she pretty much encouraged me to get into the Boy Scouts. I think it totally turned my life around because in school, you’re learning a bunch of stuff, but in scouting, you’re out camping, [there’s] a lot of camaraderie, and it expanded things you’re learning in school and expanded things you’re learning on sports teams. So it seemed like a pretty good combination. I was 10 years old.

The Epoch Times: What lessons did you learn during your time in the Boy Scouts?

Mr. Higgs: One of the things I learned was how to organize to get a merit badge, so I would write down all of the requirements, figure out which ones took the longest, and then I’d sort of schedule out how I was going to go after that merit badge. I think that the discipline of planning it, figuring it out, setting a goal was something that helped me then in school and helped me later on in the Army and in the civilian world.

The Epoch Times: What motivated you to apply to West Point?

Mr. Higgs: It’s sort of interesting. I went to the dentist, junior year with my mom, and while he was examining my teeth, he said, “Man, your teeth are good enough to get into an academy.”

I’m driving home with my mom and my mom says, “What do you think about that?”

I said, “About what?”

She said, “About getting into an academy?”

I said I hadn’t really thought about it, but I looked them up and it seemed like it would be some more Boy Scout stuff on steroids. I applied for the Naval Academy, and during the physical fitness test, I found out that I was colorblind. You can’t be at the Air Force Academy or Naval Academy if you’re colorblind, so then I ended up applying to West Point.

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Bill Higgs graduated from West Point in 1974. (Courtesy of Bill Higgs)

The Epoch Times: Which experiences stuck with you the most from your time at West Point?

Mr. Higgs: I remember they really broke you down in base barracks to weld you together as a team, and they would always say, “Cooperate and graduate.” They broke you down to where you didn’t think you could tie your shoe by yourself. You couldn’t do it right unless a classmate was helping you. I thought it was interesting how they really welded us together. It built friends for life.

The Epoch Times: What were the core values instilled in you at West Point?

Mr. Higgs: Duty, honor, country [is one] of the two tenets for a West Pointer. Also, a cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal. You had a code of conduct that everybody just expected you to have, and then what they’re doing at West Point is you’re the cadre that’s now going into the Army to bring those values to the chain of command.

The Epoch Times: What motivated you to start your own business after the Army?

Mr. Higgs: In ’85, they let some people that were working really hard for me go in early November, and hired them back in the middle of January for $5 less per man-hour. It just rubbed me wrong, and the same with two other guys I was working with, Paul Redmon and Felix Covington. So in ’85, we started talking, “Hey, we should go start a company” that would be what we call “cycle-proof,” so it would not go up and down with the cycles.

We wanted to get 35 top-notch people, create a really strong company, and keep that team together and not go through this hiring and firing, which was so common in our industry. We started on July 20, 1987—the anniversary of landing a man on the moon—our vision for Mustang was that big so we called it a moonshot company. We were going to be totally people-oriented and project-driven. We didn’t call ourselves owners, we called ourselves caretakers of this thing called Mustang, and we wanted to see if we could change what was going on in the industry.

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Bill Higgs co-founded Mustang Engineering in 1987. (Courtesy of Bill Higgs)

The Epoch Times: How did you apply what you learned as a scout, cadet, and soldier to building Mustang Engineering?

Mr. Higgs: From day one, trying to create a culture that was people-oriented.

We had a new engineer come in, he’s putting his books on the shelf, and our $5 bookcase just collapsed. All the books came down around his knees. I come running out of my office, and he’s about buried in books. That weekend, I built a hell for stout bookcase [one built beyond structural requirements] and brought it in the next Monday. We threw all these books on it, and everybody goes, “Yeah, this is what we need, but we need 10 more of these things.” So I invited everybody to come over to my house the next weekend, and I said, “We’ll build bookcases.”

I was surprised. The people came, they brought their kids, they brought their spouses, they’re in my driveway, they’re in the front yard, they’re in the garage, and we’re building bookcases. My neighbors are coming over and meeting them, and our people are saying, “Man, I’ve never been to an owner’s house before. These owners are very real, and I really think they want to take care of us. They’re talking to us, they’re standing and cutting bookcases just like we are, we’re in it together.”

To me, that was something I learned in the Boy Scouts. To have these projects and get around them. I’d learned that at West Point. Have these projects. Get around them with teams. It was huge in the Army. I had all these projects, and you task people and you get together as a team and you just start to weld each other together.

The Epoch Times: Why is company culture more important than strategy?

Mr. Higgs: Culture eats strategy for breakfast because a lot of times strategy comes from the top down, so the people aren’t totally bought into it. Some companies try to get the top leadership involved in setting that strategy, but then you’re still trying to get all of your people to understand the vision and what their part is in doing it.

You can build a culture—we called it making heroes—where, top to bottom, everyone is trying to make a hero of everybody they touch, so … they’re trying to make sure that they’re giving that person everything they need to do their job right the first time. It’s hard to make that happen through rules and regulations and systems—you need the hearts and the minds of the people for that to happen.