The vast majority of CEOs of companies that are winners in the Top 100 Places to Work 2019 said in a survey that they expect 2020 to be another productive year for their firms. They also see Dallas-Fort Worth’s economy continuing to climb and outpace other metro areas. (Vernon Bryant/Staff Photographer)


Top 100 CEOs forecast blue skies for 2020
Competition winners expect banner year for their firms and D-FW, but not all are upbeat about U.S. economy

The leaders of our Top 100 Places to Work 2019 are an optimistic lot.

Two weeks ago, we announced the winners of our 11th annual competition, which honors employers that are setting the standards in North Texas.

This year’s winners are a broad array of public, private and nonprofit companies in financial services, education, construction, real estate, health care, tech and hospitality — big, small and in between.

To take advantage of that diversity — and learn from it — we asked them how optimistic they are about 2020 for their companies, Dallas-Fort Worth and the national economy.

The overwhelming majority of our 98 respondents (two leaders didn’t answer our survey) said they think 2020 will be another banner year for their companies. They expect D-FW to continue to outpace other metro areas. And while they worry about signs of a U.S. recession, none of them forecast anything resembling a steep downturn.

We asked them to use a 1 to 10 rating system, with 10 being the most optimistic.

Bart Yates thought we started our scale too low.

“I’m an 11 out of 10 when thinking of our future in 2020,” said Yates, CEO of Charity Advertising & Marketing Partners, our No. 5 small company. “Fortunately, we are in a recession-proof and noncyclical industry. We currently have more business than we can take on.”

Robert Earley, president and CEO of JPS Health Network (No. 30 large), was similarly pumped about the year ahead, saying prospects were “beyond a 10” for the county hospital system.

“We have a role to play in the well-being of each and every Tarrant County resident,” Earley said. “No one cares more than our 6,700 team members. Our patients know that, and I believe that’s why they come to us more than ever before.”

About a dozen were practically giddy about all three economic scenarios.

Clancy Fossum, CEO of Embark (No. 17 small), didn’t want to sound overly simplistic but gave a resounding 10 to all three.

“Our firm is already one of the fastest-growing private companies in the nation and is still picking up steam,” said the head of the Dallas-based financial consulting firm. “Both D-FW and the U.S. economy display extremely strong unemployment and economic expansion data, so the outlook is very bright across the board.”

Chris Kelly, president and CEO of Ebby Halliday Cos. (No. 11 large), is sold on D-FW and sees nothing but 10s ahead for the Berkshire Hathaway residential real estate affiliate.

“Real estate is historically a local business, and the North Texas area continues to be a beacon for the country,” he said. “I believe the North Texas economy will thrive and the country will, too.”

Mike Bowman, president of Century 21 Mike Bowman Inc. (No. 6 midsize), also enters 2020 with visions of 10s. “After being in real estate for 50 years and having my own real estate company for over 48 years, we have experienced many ups and downs of the economy. At this point, the economy looks very strong. Texas and the D-FW metroplex is the preferred destination for many people relocating across the country, so real estate here will be in high demand.”

Stephanie Kinser, executive vice president of enterprise solutions for Salesforce, which ranked No. 20 among midsize companies, put it this way: “Without hesitation, I can confidently say that I’m at a 10 in all areas. We have a beginner’s mind and a sense of optimism for our future. We’re going to cultivate that optimism and manifest it into our business because that is how we operate here.”

Ayush Sukhani, CEO of Lumos Marketing Group (No. 4 small), is also 10 out of 10 on his company, D-FW and the U.S. “Our company is rapidly growing, and we project that we will open at least two new offices in the D-FW area in the next year. Since we work with U.S. Fortune 500 companies as well as nonprofits, our growth can also potentially affect the U.S. economy in positive ways.”

But most CEOs were considerably less enthusiastic about U.S. prospects. The consensus forecast was a 7, which was often a 2- to 3-point drop from the expectations for their own companies. Some rated the future of their companies and D-FW as 10s and the U.S. economy at 6.

Todd Wagner, senior pastor of Watermark Community Church (No. 1 midsize), foresees continued growth times for the megachurch and D-FW but worries about untended business nationally. “We are already on borrowed time unless we get a handle on our debt, so I’m a lot less optimistic here.”

Axcent Networks CEO Kenneth Tutton said his clients are investing in 5G, creating “exciting opportunities” for the Plano-based telecommunications management services company, which came in at No. 18 small. Meanwhile, D-FW continues to attract headquarters to the area. “Jobs are plentiful, and the cost of living is low compared to other large metro areas.”

So he gave Axcent and D-FW 9s.

But his national outlook is 7 — still pretty good in his book. “For 2020, the U.S. economy continues to show growth at a healthy yet slightly slower pace.”

Darcy Zirbel-Smith, senior vice president of Custom Ink (No. 13 midsize), was among those giving the widest separation.

“While many economists remain optimistic about the U.S. economy, some experts are warning of signs that indicate potential softening, such as the recent inverted bond yield curve [where long-term debt instruments have lower yields than short-term debt] and the trade war with China.”

Todd Graves, CEO and owner of Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers (No. 16 large), is hearing more uncertainty from fellow top executives. “My best guess is the U.S. economy does well in 2020 through the presidential election and holidays [giving it a 7], and then starts to slide into recession in 2021,” he said.

“There’s gotta be a recession at some point, so we need to prepare for it,” Graves said. “We are focused on serving high-quality chicken finger meals, and if a recession occurs, we plan to be in a position to continue to grow restaurants, increase sales and provide new opportunities for our current and future crew members.”

Josh Harley, CEO of Fathom Realty (No. 2 large), gives his company prospects a 10. “Our growth has been nothing short of explosive. In just nine years, we now rank as the 16th largest independent real estate brokerage in the country,” he said.

Nationally, he sees an 8. “While the political climate is shaky at best, the U.S. is strong and resilient. I feel confident that the U.S. economy will continue to grow.”

Katherine Krause, president and CEO of VNA Hospice MOW (No. 17 midsize), which provides Meals on Wheels and hospice and palliative care for seniors, rated her organizational optimism at 8, given increasing demand and decreasing Medicare and Medicaid funding. “Despite those decreases, we have grown overall as a company due to the generosity and strong sense of philanthropy from donors in the North Texas community,” she said.

Krause rated D-FW’s outlook at 7 because she feels its growth is “amplifying many of the challenges we face as a community, such as child and senior hunger, availability of affordable housing, and access to transportation and health care.”

Jennifer Fleming, practice administrator for Cornea Associates of Texas (No. 20 small), expects to face some Medicare reimbursement challenges and has some worries about increasing signs of a recession.

But Fleming thinks Cornea is well-positioned to handle both.

“Our corporate culture, primarily our exceptionally experienced team, allows us to run our practice at optimal efficiency, which guards our overheard ratios in good financial times and bad,” she said, rating the Lasik surgery specialist’s prospects at 9. “I have complete confidence in our team’s ability to succeed in 2020. After all, what better year for an ophthalmology practice?”

Those new Medicare repayment rules also concern April Anthony, CEO of Encompass Health (No. 13 large). “It looks like it will be a hard year to grow given the cuts that are upcoming.” And while she expects D-FW’s expansion to continue to burn brightly in 2020, she thinks “election chaos will put a bit of a damper on the national economy.”

Kathy Enochs, CEO of GPA (No. 30 midsize), said the third-party administrator of group health plans has a bright future of 10. “As the election comes around, people will have more focus on the root of the health care coverage issues,” she said. “This attention will allow GPA to continue to be successful and, most importantly, an innovator.”

Jimmie Stapleton, CEO of Ardent Hospice (No. 13 small), rates the company’s outlook at 10 because his team “has done a great job of taking care of our patients and their families, which has resulted in a very positive image in the medical community. We expect that to continue into 2020.”

But he’s less enthusiastic about both D-FW and the nation, giving them 6s. “We think the overall economy is due for a small setback after years of momentum.”

Rick Allen, CEO of Paragon Healthcare Inc. (No. 22 midsize), said the Dallas-based infusion and specialty pharmacy and the D-FW economy should enjoy 10 years but rated the U.S. outlook at 7 — “primarily due to legislative gridlock and lack of a bipartisan Congress.”

Washington worries were on the minds of a number of CEOs. But they concluded that the comparative strength of the U.S. economy to the rest of the world would prevent a deep fall.

Rupak Lohit, co-founder and CEO of Copper Mobile Inc. (No. 12 small), sees repeatable growth for the mobile app developer, giving its 2020 future an 8.

“For D-FW, I would say 7 on 10, as industries continue to move their headquarters or new offices into the region, adding more industry diversification and business opportunities,” Lohit said. “For the U.S. economy, I’m averagely optimistic, 6 on 10, due to politics and trade wars going on, while job growth and inflation looks promising currently.”

Mike McCabe, CEO of WebTPA (No. 29 midsize), said his third-party benefits administration company should have a 9 year but sees prospects for the U.S. as a 6. “Political issues are such a wild card, but in general, I feel the U.S. continues to be a global leader.”

Hoteliers were optimistic about travel expectations but cautious about what effect a slowdown nationally might have.

Peter Strebel, president of Omni Hotels & Resorts (No. 28 large), is especially optimistic about D-FW, giving it a 10. “There’s so much growth and development in our city, and many businesses want to move here. I believe that trend will continue through 2020.”

The Dallas-based company is growing exponentially, with plans to open a hotel in October 2020 in Minneapolis-St. Paul and hotels in Boston and Oklahoma City in early 2021. So he’s an enthusiastic 8 about the company.

But he has two concerns: recession and competition from an abundance of new hotels and alternative forms of lodging. “To remain successful, we need to stay focused on our goals and continue providing exceptional service and memorable experiences for all guests and clients, which is what Omni is known for.”

Keith Spinden, general manager of Grand Hyatt DFW (No. 9 midsize), gives the parent company a solid 10. “Hyatt’s growth trajectory is stronger than I have seen in my 30-plus years with the company,” he said, adding that D-FW will continue to attract growing businesses and flourish at a rate of 8.

But Spinden gives the U.S. economy a more uncertain 5, “due to headwinds and many national and international concerns.”

Chuck Pacioni, general manager of the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center (No. 5 large), said owners of the resort and convention center in Grapevine will continue to reinvest big dollars in the expansive property because they are confident in the brand and D-FW’s continued development.

“With a strong economy and job market, low unemployment and more people traveling than ever before, we feel confident that families and companies that will continue to plan even more leisure and group experiences,” Pacioni said.

Jorge Corral, Dallas office managing director of Accenture (No. 20 large), is bullish for 2020 and beyond because the professional services giant is helping clients reinvent themselves.

“All companies are fighting to transform themselves, and many will need to rapidly innovate their business models to survive,” Corral said. “Playing safe is simply not an option.”

Corral has high expectations for D-FW with a slight caveat.

“We have to keep our pedal on the gas and keep investing in attracting and growing our own talent, businesses, and ecosystem for D-FW to remain a leader for innovation and sustainable growth.”

Projects already in the works and resiliency locally had our Top 100 construction-related businesses thinking big for 2020 but not euphorically.

Paul Driscoll has no doubts about the year ahead for Hill & Wilkinson General Contractors (No. 14 midsize), giving it a perfect 10, but he gave D-FW a slightly lower 9.

“While we have seen a plateau in a few select markets, the construction industry as a whole is moving forward at a fast pace,” said the construction company CEO. “Our diverse portfolio of projects and clients allows for our company to maintain steady growth in the D-FW market.” Driscoll is “realistically optimistic about the future of the U.S. economy,” giving it an 8.

Anthony Diesch, president of Nova Landscape Group (No. 6 small), rates his company’s 2020 prospects as a 10. “Our pipeline for the first two quarters is already booked, with some of the highest-profile and largest construction projects in the D-FW area.”

He rates D-FW at 8. “We have started seeing pricing getting more competitive on the marquis projects.” His forecast for the U.S. economy is a 7.

Fred Perpall, CEO of The Beck Group (No. 35 midsize), sees another steady, robust year with a healthy backlog of projects ahead, giving 8 ratings to both the Dallas-based architectural and construction firm and D-FW.

“The beauty of D-FW is its ability to thrive in uncertain times. Based on the influx of companies coming to North Texas, it is fair to say we will remain one of the most vibrant regions for growth, jobs and economic stability in 2020,” he said.

“The U.S. economy is doing well despite all the predictions to expect a recession in the coming day, month or quarter. We are cautiously optimistic that the economy will remain steady in 2020 — 7 out of 10.”

All in all, our Top 100 leaders are looking forward to what lies ahead.

Twitter: @CherylHall_DMN