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VOL. 6 | NO. 25 | Saturday, June 15, 2013

Engineers Surviving by Shifting to Market Needs

Traveling to other cities, taking on different projects keep local engineering firms afloat

By Amos Maki

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Engineering firms are still dealing with an up-and-down economy, one that seems to fly high at times and another that slows almost to a halt.

SSR Ellers Inc. performed civil, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and technology engineering for the recently completed $240 million expansion of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

“We’re a long way from where we were when the recession hit and I don’t know if we’ll ever get back there,” said Scott Barry, president of SSR Ellers Inc. “It’s not back to where it was before the economic crash. It seems like we’re bouncing around the bottom.”

Barry said it is critical for firms to quickly identify areas in need, and that companies that survived the recession adapted to new market demands.

“You try to shift to where the market is,” he said.

“Perhaps there aren’t a lot of office buildings, so you look at industrial. You look for where people need services and try to provide those services.”

Michael Pohlman, president and CEO of the Pickering Firm Inc., said his company was able to survive the recession’s choppy financial waters because of good planning, although the business hasn’t grown as much as he liked.

“It stunted our growth,” Pohlman said. “I think we had a good game plan in a strong economy in good markets and I think our plan was verified.

“We have been able to maintain staffing levels. We kept all our good people and we’ve still been able to get a return to our investors.”

What frustrates Pohlman and other business leaders is the sluggishness of the economic recovery, which has lingered long after the so-called “Great Recession” ended four years ago, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“It frustrates me to not grow the company more, but when you look around at the turmoil the other companies went through, and you wish for them, but we’re ready for the next jump in the economy,” Pohlman said.

Pohlman also said his company was taking on more work outside of Memphis, with potential projects in California and Texas.

“We’re having to travel more,” he said.

Barry said he believes the economy won’t reach pre-recession levels and that firms should plan for an overall weaker economy.

“It’s the new normal and you have to learn to play in this new environment and that is what we’re trying to do,” Barry said.

Pohlman said one key to keeping the local engineering sector driving is the continued recruitment of new businesses to Memphis and Shelby County.

“We have to recruit and bring in people and bring jobs, and Memphis has been pretty good at it,” he said.

James Collins, senior vice president at Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc., said much of his business was fundamentally changed by the recession.

“We are absolutely doing things differently than we were in 2007, absolutely we are,” said Collins, who noted the recession caused him to correct course and search for business opportunities outside of the private sector.

Kimley-Horn began working on municipal, state and federal government projects and working in the energy industry.

“Probably the biggest change for us at that time was the change in clients,” Collins said.

“Private sector work came to a stop at the time. So we changed our focus to different sectors, looking for other opportunities where we might work.”

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