University of South Florida
Hillsborough Community College
Although Cornerstone Earth Group, Inc. (Cornerstone) officially opened its doors in 2007, the seeds that grew into Cornerstone were planted years earlier. The founders originally met at Lowney Associates, where Cornerstone President and CEO, Ron Helm, had been since the late 1980s, eventually becoming COO, and later, President. But they became unhappy with the direction the company took when they were acquired by a larger public engineering firm in 2003. The future Cornerstone founders found themselves in agreement that the new company placed too much focus on dollars and cents and too little on customer service.
Eventually, the lack of priority given to the client’s needs became unacceptable, and Mr. Helm, along with Barry Butler (retired), Scott Fitinghoff (deceased), Laura Knutson (retired), Danh Tran, John Dye, Peter Langtry and Ron Massone launched the fledgling enterprise. They opened for business in Sunnyvale, California where, although it has since expanded, Cornerstone’s original office is still located today. Soon after, Kurt Soenen came on board. Before long, the company opened a second office in Walnut Creek, California.
In the beginning Cornerstone had no employees; the Principals drew no salary; and the Sunnyvale office was so wide open that they would amuse themselves and release the stress of working long hours by holding chair races on the premises. Who eventually became the chair racing champion remains a subject of contentious debate. The founding Principals generated their own business; performed the field work; performed the engineering analyses; and prepared their own documents.
After a year or two, enough business began to roll in that the first few employees were hired and, although they might not have known it, were actually paid more than the founders in the beginning. Over the next few years, the Principals found themselves happily surprised as some early successes occurred and the amount of business generated significantly increased. As an example, Mr. Helm describes an early meeting he had with Facebook when it was a small privately owned company. Even though at the time Facebook’s projects were small, Cornerstone treated their business the same as they would their largest client, and as a result Facebook remains a loyal client to this day. Eventually, many more Bay Area giants retained the services of Cornerstone Earth Group such as Adobe, Google and LinkedIn, to name a few.
As the company has increased in size, emphasis was placed on organic growth, with most new customers coming through recommendations and word-of-mouth. It is also a core belief held by Cornerstone that to continue the growth of the company it is critical to follow our four corners of success: 1) Be Exceptional; 2) Add Value; 3) Learn and Improve; and 4) Have Fun. In addition, it was clear that Cornerstone also emphasized providing employees with a clear path forward to success by consistently creating opportunities for employees to grow with the company.
Mr. Helm is quick to point to the selfless teamwork and genuine friendship among the founders, along with their client-first approach and cost-effective practical recommendations, as the primary reasons the company at first survived, and eventually, thrived.