Freese and Nichols’ Leaders and Legacies: Barbara Nickerson

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Freese and Nichols

By Kimberly Buckley, Environmental Science/Coastal

As part of our 125th Anniversary celebration, we’re recognizing past leaders whose vision continues to drive us forward.

When Barb Nickerson started at Freese and Nichols after completing her master’s in environmental science at Texas Christian University, environmental staff at the firm had mainly provided support services for other groups, especially after federal regulations enacted in the 1960s and 1970s became increasingly integral to our projects.

Barbara Nickerson helped present an Innovation Award to winners Peter Bartels, Brad Kirksey and Misty Thomison at the 2016 Annual Dinner

But in the mid-1980s, FNI carved Environmental Science into its own group. Barb later became its first woman manager, and she played a major role in shaping its identity.

Now, we continue to provide essential environmental permitting work and assist other groups across the company, and we identify and pursue our own projects, including environmental impact assessments, coastal habitat protection and restoration, and environmental remediation.

As a group manager, Barb supported her team members and went to bat for us within the company. If she felt stressed by the demands of being a manager — things like workload issues, corporate expectation and progress reviews — she didn’t show it. Instead, she handled her responsibilities in a way that let us focus on our jobs.

Being the only female technical group leader for a time occasionally brought out a tough demeanor in her, but that’s not the persona we usually saw in our group. She enjoyed work and encouraged us to find ways, like our group’s distinctive motivational posters, to add light-heartedness to our intensity.

While she expected you to set high expectations for yourself, she didn’t dictate them. She helped you realize your capabilities. I balked for years at selecting sales as a career path on my IDP, but Barb helped me see that many things I already was doing fell into the sales category even if I didn’t view them that way.

When I started working for her in 2002, I had the advantage of knowing Barb since I was in the fifth grade because my father had worked with her husband, Bob. As a result, I always knew where I stood with Barb. She pushed me and helped me identify opportunities to advance my career, such as doing in-house environmental work for some of our major clients.

She was generous in supporting others, too, like advising the Environmental Science staff to find mentors outside the group to get a broader view of the industry. And she mentored young women across the company.

Barb was upfront about the challenges of work-life balance when I got married and became a mother. It meant a lot that she recognized the importance of that part of my life.

She knew how to keep things in perspective. When one of my assignments required me to use a Blackberry, I felt tied to technology and compelled to answer emails immediately. But Barb, who still carried a flip phone, would tease me and say slow down, spend more time thinking before responding. What seemed like her old-school ways taught me to process more and take things in stride, both essential skills for a young professional.

In the FNI tradition of community involvement, Barb took on various philanthropic roles — then bequeathed them when she retired to her beloved Cape Cod in 2017 after 37 years at FNI. I not only got her office but her spot on the Fort Worth Chamber environmental safety committee. She also introduced me to Kids Who Care, a nonprofit organization that teaches entrepreneurial leadership and other skills through musical theater and arts, where I now serve on the Board of Directors.

Barb once said she’d like her legacy to be that “she and her team were successful in making Environmental Science an important and contributing part of FNI.”

She achieved that goal, and we’re much better for it.


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