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Updated: July 25, 2022 Focus on Real Estate/Construction/Design

Engineering firms rev up: Acquisitions, new hires, larger offices and big projects

Photo / Tim Greenway Ellen Belknap, president of SMRT Architects and Engineers in Portland, says the firm is ahead of budget projections for 2022.

When Bangor-based engineering firm Haley Ward Inc. this year hired its first chief operating officer in the firm’s four decades, it represented the next logical step in a growth strategy that has included acquisitions, new internal processes, continued education, and the latest technologies that are all designed to enhance client services and employee engagement.

“Creating a COO position in our company is an essential strategic step to support our continued growth,” says President and CEO Denis St. Peter.

In 2021, Haley Ward acquired the GeoEnvironmental division of cross-town partnering firm S.W. Cole Engineering and Whitman & Bingham Associates LLC, a surveying and civil engineering company in Leominster and Chelmsford, Mass.

Photo / Fred Field
Haley Ward President and CEO Denis St. Peter and COO Travis Noyes say recent and prospective acquisitions and organizational changes reflect the Bangor firm’s growth strategy.

In 2020, the Maine company, then called CES Inc., acquired Haley and Ward Inc. of Maynard, Mass. (In the midst of rebranding, CES shortly afterward changed its name to Haley Ward.)

Financial performance has grown an average of 18% annually over the last five years, and staff doubled to about 140 employees across its Maine, Massachusetts and Florida locations.

Acquisitions, the new COO position and other organizational changes are part of Haley Ward’s geographic and service line growth strategy, with several prospective acquisitions in consideration this year.

“We perform better as a company by growing,” says St. Peter.

Travis Noyes, a 20-year employee who became the new COO, says a primary driver of growth for the company, which became employee-owned in 2020, is its culture of employee empowerment and opportunities.

“People move up, and someone else moves into their role,” Noyes says. “It’s one big snowball rolling down the hill. That’s the most exciting part for me – we say it, we live it, we do it. I think that motivates people to want to be with us.”

Industry snowball

That snowball is rolling throughout the industry, where engineering firms are undergoing transformations, buying other firms, moving into larger quarters or expanding in other ways.

What’s driving growth? Factors include strong construction trends, organic and opportunistic acquisitions, new technologies and innovations.

“We’re not the firm that wants to do the repeat cookie-cutter projects,” says Ellen Belknap, president of SMRT Architects and Engineers in Portland. “We’re much better when we’re asked to stretch and when we’re innovating with our clients.”

As SMRT grows its nationwide practices, it’s gone from 114 employees in 2020 to 125 today, with 15 additional hires expected this year. Offices are in Portland, Bangor, Schenectady, N.Y., and Andover, Mass.

“We’re seeing huge growth and transformation to the positive,” says Belknap. “It’s an incredible time to be practicing.”

SMRT recently relocated its Portland headquarters to a 20,000-square-foot space, at 75 Washington Ave., that provides better flexibility for how people work.

“We’re seeing an increase in the new projects we’ve brought into the firm,” says Belknap. “In 2022, we’re ahead of our budget projections and anticipate continued positive financial performance.”

The type of projects follows trends. Clean manufacturing is strong. For example, SMRT’s growing clientele includes manufacturers of lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles, expanding the firm’s geographic reach across the U.S. and Canada.

The firm has also seen a huge increase in its workplace practice.

“People are thinking about the return to work and how the workplace is different,” she says. “There is a strong focus on wellness, balance, and positive employee engagement.”

High visibility

This year, engineering, architecture and design firm WBRC Inc. transformed a former Rite Aid store at 701 Forest Ave. in Portland as its new office, giving it ample parking, good lighting and the opportunity for signage to provide higher visibility.

Founded in Bangor in 1902, WBRC expanded from Bangor to Florida 20 years ago and has been in Portland since 2006. It outgrew its previous Portland space at 30 Danforth St. and wanted easier parking.

The new location will help people know that WBRC is in Portland, says senior principal Richard Borrelli. WBRC employs 58 professionals in five offices in Bangor, Portland, Lakewood Ranch, Fla.; Columbia, Md.; and Birmingham, Mich. Clients in the education, health care, civic/government and commercial sectors hail from New England, Florida and the continental U.S.

WBRC Inc. architect and senior principal Richard Borrelli, left, with Jocelyn Boothe, architect and principal, right, stand before WBRC’s new Portland offices.

WBRC continues to hire and even grew during the pandemic. The new location is an opportunity to draw people who have worked remotely for two years back to the office, considered especially important for mentoring younger professionals, Borrelli says.

The growth is mainly due to the firm’s many long-term, repeat clients, including Northern Light Health and the University of Maine System. The geographic spread to Maryland and Michigan is due to projects with the U.S. Postal Service and the Veterans Administration health system. But WBRC has seen growth on all fronts.

“It’s been the advancement of our efforts in a number of our studios,” says Borrelli.

Full steam ahead

Late last year, Sebago Technics, a South Portland-based engineering and land development consulting firm, expanded its office space to make room for growth and acquisitions.

The employee-owned company, founded in 1981, added 6,001 square feet at 75 John Roberts Road, bringing the total footprint to 23,541 square feet.

Despite pandemic- and economy-related uncertainties, Sebago Technics is on an upswing. It recently acquired Titcomb Associates of Falmouth and Bath, which provides surveying services, and Sawyer Engineering and Surveying, an engineering, surveying and septic design services company in Bridgton, to gain a foothold in the fast-growing Lakes Region.

CEO Mark Adams says the acquisitions support Sebago’s continued growth and future opportunities. Now it’s looking to expand its market, with more hiring and acquisitions in the works.

The workforce, in the low 40s a decade ago, is over 105 today, across locations in South Portland, Bridgton and Bath. Project and revenue numbers in 2021 were at historic highs, a trend expected to continue this year.

Photo / Tim Greenway
Sebago Technics President and CEO Mark Adams, near the Maine Medical Center construction site last year in Portland, says his firm expanded its office space to make room for growth and acquisitions.

Despite potential impacts from rising interest rates, many projects that were on hold due to labor and supply chain issues are largely full steam ahead now, he says.

“The first federal stimulus package is just now hitting the street in terms of projects and purchases, and there’s a large package that’s coming,” Adams says.

“We’re seeing, in some instances, institutional clients that were active throughout the pandemic but, due to construction prices and supply chain issues, were holding off. Now a number of those are moving forward. That being said, I think we all can expect that there will be some impact due to some of the indicators in the economy.”

Next-gen talent

Woodard & Curran, a Portland-based science, engineering, design-build and operations company specializing in water and environmental projects for public and private clients locally and nationwide, has seen significant growth since 2015.

The 2016 acquisition of California-based environmental engineering company RMC Water & Environment expanded its national footprint. In 2018, it launched a new Woodard & Curran Constructors division.

In 2022, the company’s new CEO, Alyson Watson, introduced a five-year strategic plan for continued growth.

“Some of the core tenets of that plan are around being able to enable and leverage distributed teams, because we’re working in a much different atmosphere now, recruiting and retaining next-gen talent, enhancing our technology and data science capabilities,” says Vice President of Marketing Jennifer Andrews.

The company is planning a move from its outer Congress Street location to a larger space at 12 Mountfort St., where veterinary technology and services supplier Covetrus Inc. is headquartered.

“We want to invest in spaces that make people want to come back to the office to collaborate and innovate,” says Andrews.

Over 15 years, the firm grew its revenue four-fold to $263 million in 2021 and tripled its workforce to 1,200 employees across 27 offices and over 50 water and wastewater treatment plants throughout the U.S.

“That makes us the largest engineering firm that’s headquartered in Maine,” Andrews notes.

Service line expansion and new technologies aid growth. For example, more clients are implementing artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“Helping clients make sense of their data is something we’re asked to do a lot,” she says.

Natural expansion

This year, Hermon engineering firm S.W. Cole Engineering Inc., offering geotechnical engineering, construction materials testing, and special inspections services, acquired Geisser Engineering Corp., a Rhode Island engineering and construction testing and inspection firm with clients in that state and in Massachusetts.

The acquisition marked S.W. Cole’s first formal foray into the Ocean State, although the company had done work there previously.

The expansion was only natural, given the Maine company’s past projects in Rhode Island and desire to expand service offerings there, says President and CEO Robert Chaput Jr.

Founded 43 years ago, S.W. Cole has acquired numerous companies throughout New England within the past two decades, most recently an engineering firm in Taunton, Mass. The company has eight locations in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island.

S.W. Cole hired all of Geisser’s employees, and now has a total workforce of about 120, giving the company an expanded network of offices and team members throughout New England.

Photo / COURTESY of S.W. Cole Engineering Inc.
S.W. Cole Engineering Inc. President and CEO Robert Chaput Jr. says the Hermon firm has acquired numerous companies throughout New England within the past two decades.

S.W. Cole started focusing on acquisitions in 2013 as part of a strategic growth initiative, says Chaput. The goal was to provide new opportunities for employees.

“We felt we had really done everything we could to grow in Maine,” he says.

That year, it opened its White River Junction, Vt., office and purchased a construction materials testing firm in Augusta. Two years later, it bought a similar firm in Burlington, Vt. The purchase of its first drill rig and establishment of a subsidiary, S.W. Cole Explorations LLC, provided in-house capabilities previously subbed out. By 2021, four drilling crews were generating major revenue.

The next big step occurred last year, when the company sold its geo-environmental service line to focus on other core services.

The various strategies resulted in revenue growth from $8.2 million in 2013 to $14.7 million in 2021.

Like other engineering firms, S.W. Cole is still focusing on growth. Says Chaput, “We continue to look for opportunities that fit with our culture.”

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