2018 Influential Women in Business: Sheri H. LeBas

Sherri Lebas
Photo by Collin Richie

Hometown: Baton Rouge

Age: 55

Family: Married to Bill Firnberg; three sons, Andrew, Patrick and Michael LeBas; daughter-in-law Melissa; and stepson Cameron Firnberg

Profession: President, G.E.C. Inc.

Years with company: 2


In the late 1980s, Sherri LeBas was a young engineer at the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, 26 years old and fresh off maternity leave for her first child, when she was tapped to oversee a major project: the Interstate 49 interchange in Shreveport.

LeBas spent 10 years of her DOTD career managing that project, which required construction of a new interstate from the Bert Kouns Industrial Loop to I-20. It was a project that, in many ways, made her career, as she began working with the executive level of DOTD, proving herself while learning the ins and outs of management, road design and construction. As one of few women at DOTD at the time—in the male-dominated engineering sector, no less—LeBas was quickly making a name for herself.

“Looking back, that project was huge for my career. It’s what set me apart,” she says. “Here I am a young engineer, traveling to Shreveport once a week, involved in the construction. The rewarding part was seeing it developed from start to finish. It’s tangible. It makes you realize what an impact you’re making.”

And her impact would spread far wider in years following, as LeBas rose through DOTD ranks to its highest position in 2010, becoming the first female secretary in the department’s history. In her six-year term, LeBas was responsible for a $1.7 billion annual operating budget, more than 4,000 employees and the administration of the state’s massive infrastructure system.

LeBas, now president of engineering firm G.E.C. Inc. in Baton Rouge, says some of her proudest work as DOTD secretary included improving safety by implementing roundabouts and cable barriers in the medians of interstates, initiating the study of the I-10 widening in Baton Rouge and the study of a new Mississippi River bridge, along with opening the John James Audubon Bridge, advancing the I-49 project and passing the 2015 Louisiana Statewide Transportation Plan.

A supportive staff is to credit for much of her success. LeBas succeeded William Ankner as secretary, who resigned suddenly in 2010, leaving some uneasiness within the department. But LeBas felt it was right to accept the position, and her colleagues backed her.

“I knew the people there and had been with them for years,” she says. “I felt I had their sincere support.”

The staff at DOTD is comprised of the hardest working people LeBas knows. She recalls past emergency situations—hurricanes, freezes and other natural disasters, of which Louisiana has many—when her staff, and LeBas herself, were out shovelling salt or checking conditions to ensure public safety.

LeBas was hands-on and led by example in more ways than one. As the first female secretary, she blazed a trail for women for years to come. When LeBas joined DOTD in the 1980s, there were no women in executive positions. Under her leadership, she appointed the first female chief engineer. Today, her daughter-in-law is a DOTD engineer who sees nothing unusual about women vying for senior level positions, LeBas says, which is indicative of a transformed culture.

“There’s no ceiling anymore for women at DOTD,” she says. “I’ve had women tell me I’m an inspiration, just by being an example. It’s humbling.”

Milestones

1985: Starts her DOTD career as a designer and project manager in road design

1998: Joins the state Division of Administration as project manager in facility planning

2003: Is named DOTD assistant to the program manger of the TIMED program

2010: Appointed the state’s first female DOTD Secretary

2011: Inducted into the LSU Civil & Environmental Engineering Hall of Distinction

2016: Joins G.E.C. Inc. as vice president of business development

2018: Is named president of G.E.C. Inc.

Q&A

Hardest lesson learned

If your job or position is not working out, then it may be time for a change. Listen to your inner self and be attuned to what your body and mind are telling you.

Proudest business achievement

Being secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development provided me an opportunity to set the vision of Louisiana’s multimodal transportation system for the present and future, thereby improving the quality of life for the citizens of Louisiana.

Who inspires you

My inspiration came from my parents’ work ethic, faith, positive “can do” attitude and instilling in me the importance of education. My parents were always open to whatever path I wanted to take, but the expectation was that I would do my very best in whatever I chose to do.

Meet the other 9 members of this year’s Influential Women in Business class