My Toughest Challenge: Bill Fenstermaker

C. H. Fenstermaker & Associates Inc. Chairman and CEO Bill Fenstermaker (Photography by Terri Fensel)

Bill Fenstermarker
Chairman/CEO, C.H. Fenstermaker & Associates Inc., Lafayette

WHAT THEY DO: Engineering, survey/mapping and environmental firm offering a combination of services to a variety of markets and clients to complex contemporary challenges. Experienced in collaborating with many types of organizations and government agencies, the firm understands the requirements and goals of public work from procurement to project completion.

CAREER: In 1971, Bill Fenstermaker joined the company his father founded, working summers on the field surveying the operations side of the business while attending college at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He later took over field operations, then ultimately moved into management roles. Today, as chairman and CEO, Fenstermaker works with the board of directors and the executive management team to provide strategic leadership for the company. In his position, and previously as president of the firm, Fenstermaker’s entrepreneurial talent transformed a small, regional company into a multi-disciplinary consulting firm. Active in numerous professional organizations, he is chairman of IBERIABANK Corp., and has served as chairman of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and Lafayette General Medical Center.


In the Gulf South, nothing was quite so consequential as the bottoming out of the oil market in the mid-1980s. Oil prices plunged to below $10 a barrel, and the death knell sounded loudly for many energy companies. For those with all their eggs in one basket, it was a dismal time. It made for some hard decisions at Fenstermaker, as the firm had to prepare for the worst. The company had 30 employees at the time. “I would talk to my employees and say, ‘Look, if we have to take the next step, you might be on the chopping block,’” says current Chairman and CEO Bill Fenstermaker. “But we’re going to do the best we can to keep you employed.’”


To make that happen, the company turned to geographic expansion. “We had to adjust during that time, traveling to different parts of the country and telling a lot of engineering firms that if you need help, we’re here to help you,” he adds. Fenstermaker’s purchase of a New Orleans firm proved fortuitous, as the acquisition eventually caught the eye of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans District. Ultimately, the Corps awarded them a sizeable contract to map the Atchafalaya Basin. It was a veritable lifeline. “We were very big into automated mapping at the time,” Fenstermaker says, “so we were able to keep most of our people busy.” Today, the company is better equipped to handle the energy market’s ups and downs—including the most recent downturn—thanks to its sheer size and diversified skill sets. Ironically, much of their current success sprang from those dark days in the 1980s. Nonetheless, Fenstermaker calls himself the “worrier in chief,” as he never takes tomorrow for granted. “I can’t think of a day that goes by that I don’t make sure that we can easily cover our payroll,” he says. “My job is to look to the future and make sure we’re prepared for it.”


The big “lesson learned” from the years and decades of ups and downs? Keep your clients and your people happy. “I think everybody wants to be happy, and we always strive for that,” Fenstermaker says. Happiness, however, is not achieved by telling people how great they are, but by creating a pathway to success.” When someone takes on a project, does a good job and makes a client happy, that makes them happy. A job well done is the key, as well as helping those around you accomplish things.” That means giving employees the tools they need to do their job. The company excels in that regard. Fenstermaker points to a sizeable line item in his company’s budget for technology. “I would say that we are very innovative. We love technology here. If you don’t like to change, this might not be the company to work for.” In fact, the company has its own development shop, and has created patented software that assists oil and gas companies in doing their jobs. Now at 300 employees, Fenstermaker realizes that “reasonable, sustainable” growth is critical for retaining employees and providing a pathway for advancement. Still, while somewhat counterintuitive, he says a successful business shouldn’t focus solely on making money. “Instead, I think about solving client problems,” he says. “If we can stay relevant and we can solve problems, then we’ll be fine. The rest will take care of itself.”