Less than 20 years ago, Aztec Engineering, Phoenix, was a disadvantaged business enterprise firm looking to make its mark. Today, the firm is the fifth largest on ENR Southwest's Top Design Firms ranking based on annual revenue. Aztec reported $27.83 million in regional revenue in 2014 and moved up 15 spots on the survey over the previous year, when it logged $14.95 million. The firm also ranks atop the survey's transportation category, with a plethora of projects in Arizona.

Robert Lemke, CEO of Aztec, says the reason for the firm's growth and industry recognition is the most important thing at any design firm: its people.

"We like to say it is the people that make the firm, not the firm that makes the people. It's not always the larger firms that have individuals that are capable of doing high-quality work," Lemke says.

James Waller, national manager for design-build services at Granite Construction, calls Aztec a "world-class" firm. "For a small to mid-sized company, they are able to perform like a large firm," Waller says. "They just execute very well. They're one of our engineering firms of choice."

Fast Lane to Growth

Lemke says Aztec's staff is able to perform at a high level because the firm has made a specific effort to recruit top-tier talent from international firms.

"What sets us apart is that several of us came from larger firms and we wanted to take our experiences and employ them at Aztec," he says. "We have professionals that have come over from larger firms, including URS, HDR and AECOM. Even so, it is kind of unheard of that a small firm such as ours with about only 130 people is proposing on such large jobs. It comes down to the people that we have. Most of us are fairly young—50 or under—and we have a lot of motivation to succeed and provide extra efforts."

Lemke joined Aztec in 1997, the same year that the firm landed a contract with the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community to design nine miles of water and sewer lines. The project set the stage for the future growth.

"We started out working on that, and then we were able to win some statewide Arizona Dept. of Transportation on-calls," Lemke says. "Then it led to design work on mainline and some drainage, and we just kept building."

Scott McKenzie, executive vice president of Aztec, says the firm's addition in 1999 of an urban freeway design group led by Curt Slagell resulted in another turning point when Aztec won a contract to design the Country Club Drive to Gilbert Road section of the Red Mountain Loop 202 Freeway east of Phoenix.