For Three-Timer, Exponential Growth Starts With People, Safety




This article was originally published on written by Dawn Bailey

In 2020, MESA, a small business in Oklahoma, became the first and only (to date) three-time Baldrige Award recipient.

From a one-person consulting firm founded in 1979, MESA has grown to support a workforce of over 250 people. The largest privately owned company in its market, it is a manufacturing and field services firm headquartered in Tulsa, with 10 U.S. locations. According to Terry May, MESA president and founder, MESA’s national footprint positions it as the third largest company in the underground petroleum pipeline industry. MESA’s specialty is cathodic protection, an electro-chemical process that prevents corrosion on underground or submerged pipelines and storage tanks.

A Culture that Values People

Speaking at the first virtual Baldrige Quest for Excellence® conference, May said, “We’ve accomplished some extraordinary things and created an incredible team of people that we call ONE MESA. . . . If you ask us what makes us unique, I have an easy answer. It’s our people.”

CEO Kelsey May echoed the sentiment of a culture that values people in her Quest conference one-key-takeaway presentation:

By putting people first, we know we will empower our workforce to take care of our customers, execute our projects well, and ensure financial success. Employees are at the core of everything we do, and we won’t see success in any of our VFOs [vital few objectives] unless we prioritize our team.

Kelsey May, CEO, MESA headshot
Kelsey May, MESA, 2020, 2012, 2006 Baldrige Award RecipientCredit: MESA

During its 2019 strategic planning cycle, Kelsey May said feedback loops—including a strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats (SWOT) analysis, employee engagement survey, and Baldrige feedback reports—helped MESA identify a need to work on communication with field teams, along with engagement for all groups. In addition, the small business had two planned operational challenges: the integration (and significant reorganization) of field construction teams and a strategic acquisition. Kelsey May said both initiatives had to be carefully coordinated with the strategic plan to improve employee engagement.

As a result of a 2020 engagement initiative that included care packages sent to each member on every construction crew; each employee on every services crew receiving a hand-written, thank-you note from the director; employee focus groups; surveys; and other communication methods, as well as a focus on accountability, MESA’s employee engagement score rose by 16%.


As the first and most important VFO for MESA, SAFETY is intentionally capitalized, always.

MESA’s business involves excavating and working on high-pressure pipelines carrying hydrocarbon liquids and gas, and employees driving millions of miles every year to work sites. Construction crews work in remote locations, sometimes 10 hours per day, 6 days a week. Weather, driving, and the local environment, including wildlife, add additional safety challenges.

Terry May said, “The consequences of a single mistake can cause catastrophic damage to people, property, and the planet. We start every meeting at MESA with a safety moment to make sure it’s foremost on our minds.”

He added, “It’s important for both commerce and insurance reasons to keep our safety metrics low, but what’s most important for us is that our people go home every day without getting hurt. That’s a goal that all of us at MESA share.”

To emphasize this goal, SAFETY is the first component of the strategic plan, said Kelsey May. She added,

SAFETY shows up first, it gets talked about first, and it gets measured first. . . . Without a strong SAFETY culture, we couldn’t do what we do.

Slide image of MESA's Strategic Challenges and Opportunities with a focus on SAFETY (World-Class Performance, Great Place to Work, Exceptional Customer Experience, Opportunistic Growth).
MESA’s Strategic Challenges & Opportunities slide from its Quest for Excellence senior leadership plenary presentation.Credit: MESA

An Essential Business During a Pandemic

As an essential business during the COVID-19 pandemic, MESA’s operations were not shut down, but that meant that sustainability could not jeopardize SAFETY, said Terry May. A safety team developed a pandemic preparedness plan and worked to source appropriate personal protective equipment. The marketing team coordinated weekly video messages from senior leaders, and the accounting team developed a family-first leave process. In addition, a taskforce created additional SAFETY plans for remote workers, including temperature screening and mask requirements.

“We all know how difficult last year was,” said Kelsey May. “The situation was ever-changing, which meant we needed to be talking to our people on an almost-constant basis.” Communication included weekly messages from leadership, Wednesday weekly chats, a texting process for field teams, meeting software that allowed anonymous questions, and immediate collection and action on feedback. Learning from these communication methods even led to a 2021 internal communications calendar, said Kelsey May.

“While we didn’t hit our financial targets,” added Terry May, “we kept our people safe and engaged.”

Business Growth

MESA most impactful results graphic, showing improving results over time
MESA’s Most Impactful Results slide from its Quest for Excellence senior leadership plenary presentation.Credit: MESA

Terry May said he submitted MESA’s first Baldrige application in 2002, but the small business began its formal quality journey in 1993. “Our small business was growing almost despite our recurrent mistakes and failures. We went through a 10-year period of sporadic improvement initiatives, including TQM, ISO 9000, and Lean,” he said. “They weren’t all successful, and we weren’t particularly good at sustaining improvements. But that experience prepared us for . . . when I became aware of the Baldrige Criteria.”

He added, “Our business has grown exponentially over the last 20 years and that growth coincides almost perfectly with our Baldrige journey. . . .

We’ve maintained an average growth rate of almost 10%. So, for anyone, who is wondering whether the Baldrige process is worth the time or money, I’d offer this. . . . We were on a path of growth before we started practicing Baldrige, but that growth line shifted exponentially after we started.