Mid-sized Wantman Group has a key role in design of Florida transportation upgrades.

John Carrato, CEO of Alfred Benesch & Co. (Top 500, No. 127), credits the engineer’s growth over the past five years to a decision to expand into new regions and service lines at a time when economic jolts and consolidation have appeared to thin the ranks of midsize design firms.

Benesch is among designers with revenue of between $19.4 million and $122 million, based on ENR Top 500 Design Firms data in 2013, a group whose data researchers now are studying to determine how midsize firms thrive and even outperform many peers, decade after decade.

The study is the second phase of a University of Colorado-Boulder analysis, the results of which were first revealed in 2013. The research team was led by Paul Chinowsky, professor of sustainable development, along with Rod Hoffman, CEO of S&H Consulting; Jeff Holcomb, chief development officer of Larson Engineering; and industry management consultants Gerry Salontai and Colvin Matheson.

The analysis and executive input offer a look at the characteristics shared by these firms, from efforts to broaden their range of work to talent management and succession planning.

Megafirms, which the researchers categorize at $1.7 billion and up in 2011 revenue, did boost their share of Top 500 volume to 41% in 2011 from 10% in 1986—taking some of that away from the large and midsize firms. Those groups have lost 12% and 21%, respectively, of their revenue since peaking in 1986.

But the researchers emphasize that the design sector "is not a monolithic entity," with midsize firms still propelling growth in key sectors. They have made up at least 60% of the general building sector since the 1980s, with researchers including firms that reported 60% and up of all revenue in that market. The sector comprises 20.4% of all Top 500 revenue in 2014, the second-largest chunk.

In transportation, the midsize share has shrunk to 31% currently from 45% but is only 1% less than that held by large firms. Transportation revenue was the Top 500's largest share, making up 20.8% of this year's total. Midsize firms also fared well in the researchers' performance metric: a revenue increase linked with list-rank gains over the analysis period. Ten of 17 firms in the study's "leadership quadrant" are midsize. Only one very large firm is among "the best of the best," say researchers.

This list-topping characteristic for firm survival and success is a commitment “to investing in and developing staff, retaining talent and encouraging work sharing and collaboration,” the authors say.  Other attributes include “smart diversification,” and delivering financial performance, Hoffman says.

"The flurry of engineering-firm M&As by larger multinationals left many talented engineers looking to get out of the cumbersome and multilayered bureaucracies inherent in firms of that size," says David Wantman, president of Wantman Group Inc. (No. 338 on the Top 500). The firm is lead designer on a $250-milion highway project in southern Florida. "WGI offers them the ability to make an immediate difference" that can "translate to higher revenue and highly satisfied clients," he adds.

Adds Henry Chlupsa, president of D&B Engineers & Architects (No. 307), "We have a need to keep reinventing ourselves ... to be successful and exist in this challenging business where we are constantly competing with large, national firms as well as with local, much smaller consultants."

“The companies that tend to be the leaders also focus much more on long-term succession planning and leadership development,” notes Chinowsky, director of the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities. “They keep the focus on the organization versus the owners. They really put the organization first instead of the leadership first.”

But, notes Salontai, companies often talk about doing these things, many still don’t do them or are inconsistent in execution

In recent discussions with two studied firms, Salontai found some interesting differences.

The first company made it a routine practice for its top executives to spend “face time” with key clients. The second firm, when asked if the company’s leaders spent time with clients, responded with a quick, “Oh yeah, we have that program,” he recalled.