One-on-One: Engineering firm CEO's past trauma helps him lead - Albuquerque Journal

One-on-One: Engineering firm CEO’s past trauma helps him lead

Chris Youngblood has an unusually strong affinity for the Grand Canyon.

You pretty much have to if you’re going to make your 55th trip down to the bottom as a way to celebrate your 55th birthday.

The Grand Canyon is what Youngblood does. He leads groups of female cancer survivors, at-risk kids, and community and business leaders down the South Rim and sometimes, across the canyon floor and back up the North Rim. Last year, he guided a grieving band of mourners who held a memorial at the bottom for their 43-year-old friend, who was to have made the trip with them nine days later.

Youngblood, president and CEO of Chavez-Grieves Consulting Engineers, is committed to helping others — especially young people — because of his own traumatic background.

The Army veteran says he knows he’s “one of the rare ones,” overcoming abuse as a youngster and living as a teen in a Winnebago parked behind a gas station at which he worked in Truth or Consequences. He was deceived about who his father was for years, and didn’t meet his real dad until he was 29.

“Because of my personal story, I have a real passion for working with young people, especially being a mentor, coming into their life, being that catalyst because I had one in my life, and it changed everything for me,” Youngblood says.

People are his passion at work, too. One of his proudest achievements came in 2020, when the company won a Rust Award for Excellence in Ethical Business Practice.

As for the Grand Canyon, he’s taken more than 200 people nearly 10 miles to the bottom since 2003. (Short treks several miles below the rim don’t count.)

He can tell you all the best spots, but his favorite is what he calls “balanced heart rock,” a massive boulder with an embedded heart-shaped rock that’s at a 45-degree angle atop another boulder.

“That rock has had to have been there for hundreds of years, maybe thousands of years,” he says. “And I guarantee you, it’s going to be there for hundreds, thousands of years after I’m gone. Every time I come out of the canyon, I have a renewed sense of purpose and really a mindfulness about being a part of things that are much, much bigger than me.”

What has made you successful?

“I think I learned early on that as a leader, my No. 1 job, whether I’m leading in a nonprofit organization, a company or a team, I need to figure out what my most valuable asset is, and then do everything I can to have that asset reach its greatest potential. Without exception, our greatest resource is our people. What I focus on is putting the right people in the right positions and having the right people in the organization, and then giving them the resources to do their jobs.”

What was a difficult time for you professionally?

“The Great Recession was the most difficult time in my life. We went from 50 employees to 25. When we started losing work, the first thing we did was our board of directors, our partners, took pay cuts. Then, we went six months without paying ourselves. … Finally, we ended up having to go through three rounds of layoffs. I sat across the table from almost 25 people who were friends and family and had to tell them they no longer had a job. It was the most difficult time of my life. Looking back now, it was probably the period of the most absolute growth, personally and professionally, in my life.”

How so?

“You learn what you truly value, what your true purpose is. Personally, you know, there was a time where I just thought everything was coming to an end, and that’s something I’ve had to deal with — imposter syndrome. I didn’t want to be CEO of Chavez-Grieves. Board members came and said, ‘You gotta do this. You’re the one.’ Here’s this kid from Truth or Consequences — even though I’d been in the military, I’d been through so many things. It’s a lot to overcome all that childhood trauma. I was told I was a nobody and would never amount to anything. It takes deep root in you. But getting through the Great Recession, seeing that I came out the other side and I’m still standing — that was one of the greatest lessons for me.”

Do you ever get bored with the Grand Canyon?

“The canyon is my favorite place on Earth. But the reason I’ve gone so many times is not about me. I’m a relationship guy. I’m all about building relationships. Right in the middle of COVID, we took a group of female cancer survivors. One of the ladies, her name is Cheryl, we just had a reunion trip to see her. She had aggressive breast cancer. She had eight rounds of triple-dose chemotherapy. She had six surgeries, multiple pulmonary embolisms. She beat all of that, and then trained for six months to hike the Grand Canyon. The way that changed her life, to have overcome cancer and now she has this community coming around her … It was a large feat to get her there. In fact, the last four miles of the hike, I literally put my right shoulder on the back of her shoulder, I took her pack and put it on mine. When we got her up, you could just see the renewed sense of hope. So it was literally the most inspirational weekend of my life.”

Who was your mentor?

“In April of 1984 — just before I was to graduate high school — a couple of my friends talked me into dropping out and going with them to west Texas to work in the oil fields. I didn’t think I was going to graduate anyway because I was living to survive, and I was working. School wasn’t a priority. One of my best friend’s older brothers … every time I was about to do something really stupid, he would always somehow find out about it and kick me in the butt. At the time, he was going to New Mexico State (University). He drove up (to TorC), and he said, ‘So tell me this grandiose plan that you’ve got.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yes, it’s going to be great. I’m going to make all this money.’ I remember he was very quiet, and he looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen.’ He said, ‘I’m going to take you down tomorrow, and I’m going to introduce you to a recruiter. You’re going to go into the military. You’re going to grow up. You’re going to become a man. You’re going to go to college.’ And I just remember thinking, ‘OK.’ It was better than the plan I had thought of. That was in April. In May, I graduated and in August, I shipped off to boot camp.”

How do you spend your free time?

“Right now, I’m spending a lot of time on my nonprofit (The LifeQuest 4:13 Journey). The way we set up (this) adventure-based ministry youth program is that we can take it in any community and can replicate it. We’re majority privately funded, so I do radio, TV interviews … look for corporate sponsorships.”

How would you describe yourself in three words?

“Person of gratitude. Can I explain? Part of our youth program is about getting these kids hopeful and to show them that … You can climb a wall. You can rappel. You can do this — what I never had. I have a shot to make a difference today, to take the next group to the Grand Canyon, to pour it into the next young person and make a difference in their lives. It’s me, recognizing that I’m grateful for everything.”

THE BASICS: Chris Youngblood, 55, born in Albuquerque; son Corey, 28, and stepdaughter Mariana, 25; bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, New Mexico State University, 1993.

POSITIONS: Chavez-Grieves Consulting Engineers, president and CEO since 2002; joined the firm in 1993.

OTHER: Volunteer, LifeQuest USA, an adventure program for at-risk youths; developer of The LifeQuest 4:13 Journey, an adventure-based youth ministry; volunteer, Project Athena, for female cancer survivors; co-chair, Board of Ambassadors, Junior Achievement of New Mexico; U.S. Army veteran.

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