Next Generation Drives Walker Engineering Forward
Health care and data center projects are the bread and butter for Irving, Texas-based Walker Engineering. The firm has played a major role in some landmark hospitality projects such as the Dallas Omni Hotel and the Houston Marriott Marquis, both completed within the last decade.
Charlie Walker founded Walker Engineering 36 years ago. In 2013, his son Scott and nephew Brent took over the company as CEO and president, respectively, and since that transition, the company has continued to flourish.
In the last four years, the electrical subcontractor has grown its regional revenue by about $80 million, $65 million of that in 2016 alone. The firm attributes the increase to a strong economy in Texas as well as its own procurement strategy.
“Both 2016 and 2017 have been very good years for Walker Engineering. The economy here in Texas is just very good right now, especially here in Dallas, which is our home office,” says Scott Walker. “A lot of the guys who have worked for Walker Engineering for 25 or 30 years can’t remember a time where it’s been this good, with this amount of work, the sizes of projects and the different types of projects—it’s really amazing.”
The second generation of Walkers also have taken a much more aggressive stance to growing the company across the state and have made several management changes that are proving beneficial today.
It is a cultural shift that aims to return to the roots upon which the company was founded. “With Scott and I actively engaged in the day-to-day operations of the company, it gives our customers easier access to our leadership,” Brent Walker explains. “It also allows us to be nimble in situations where other organizations with more complex ownership structures might have a harder time reacting quickly.”
The firm also is investing in its younger leadership. Many of its managers are between 35 and 50 years old, with the majority in their 40s. They’re highly motivated and eager to make their mark, Scott explains.
Walker has seen significant growth across its four divisions, especially in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, thanks to the many corporate campus developments and data center projects. Meanwhile, the firm’s Houston division has had steady growth because of the strong health care market. Austin has proven to be a stable market as well, with steady work in hospitality and some corporate-campus projects. The company reopened an office in San Antonio to pursue the data center and private development markets.
“San Antonio was new revenue that we didn’t have previously, while the other divisions just really all gained their goals and did more revenue than they had done previously,” Scott says. “In 2017, we saw another uptick, it’s just continued to grow within our groups. Really, all four of our divisions—Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston—have all been relatively busy. A lot of good opportunities out there.”
While the availability of qualified project managers and superintendents has been a limiting factor for many electrical subcontractors, Walker continues to develop individuals within the company and attract talented employees from its competitors.
“That’s the biggest obstacle we’ve been facing as we grow, trying to find qualified, skilled people to man all the projects that we’ve been able to land,” Scott says. “Being an electrical subcontractor, I think the biggest challenge to this state and industry moving forward is finding qualified, skilled electricians. Other trades are affected by this as well, but across the board, just more and more people don’t want to get into the trades and do this line of work.”
In the last four years, the firm has doubled the number of field employees. “We have about 2,000 employees total, which is almost double where we were four or five years ago,” Scott says.
At the same time, Walker has also grown its safety team to 30 safety professionals from six, Brent adds. “By identifying the connection between safety, quality and production, we have realized the value of providing the same level of talent in our safety program as we do in estimating, engineering, QA/QC, BIM and operational teams,” he says.
The firm brought on a safety director, Scott Sears, who has helped Walker Engineering develop its culture of safety over the last five years, Scott explains.
“The way that we approach safety is we want every employee to really buy in and believe that it’s their job every day to focus on safety. We don’t want people on the jobsites that are safety people going around being the safety cop,” he says. “We want our people to understand how to work safely and to buy into that philosophy. We believe that if employees all buy into it that, they’ll keep themselves safe as well as watch after each other and try to reduce the number of safety incidents.”
Walker’s EMR in 2016 was 0.47, and this year is tracking around 0.53 with an incident rate of 0.99.
“We both spend a lot of time trying to come up with new ways to implement new programs that we think are beneficial for our employees,” Scott says. “It’s definitely one of the top focuses for our company and will continue to be a focus for us moving forward into the future.”
Walker Engineering has played a role on several major projects across Texas, including the Dallas Omni Hotel, which has been a signature element in the Dallas skyline since its completion in 2011.
“The Dallas Omni was a key hotel for the downtown Dallas Convention Center,” explains Donald R. Powell Jr., principal at Dallas-based design firm BOKA Powell LLC. “We were in a design-build relationship with Balfour Beatty Construction, and we had a design firm that did the performance specifications on the electrical, and then Walker did design-assist and the subcontracting. What I would say is they did an outstanding job meeting every one of the expectations from the standpoint of schedule, cost and quality.”
The iconic LED system that lights up the exterior of the Dallas Omni was added late in the project, Powell says. “That’s a unique case where the contribution of the lighting consultant and Walker really became a big part of the success of the architecture. [It is] a fairly simple building by design, but the lighting really elevates it into something that’s iconic in terms of the Dallas skyline.”
Over BOKA Powell’s 30-year history with Walker, during which the firms have completed more than 4 million sq ft of projects, Powell recalls the Make A Wish Wishing Place in Irving as one of the standouts.
“Walker Engineering donated 100% of the electrical system for that entire building. It was 13,500 square feet,” Powell says. “Walker throughout that period not only helped us build the initial building, but came back and helped make any changes that were required for Make A Wish. I don’t have a dollar amount or donation amount that they gave, but it was well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars they contributed to that project.”
Another recent project BOKA Powell managed was the Perot Family Offices on Turtle Creek in Dallas, where Walker was involved in a design-assist role and electrical subcontracting.
“Just as a general rule, I’m very comfortable every time I hear that Walker is our partner because of the caliber and the quality of people that they bring to the table,” Powell says.
Many of Walker’s projects are design-assist, Scott notes, with the team being brought on early in the design phase, allowing for close coordination with the consultant, general contractor and ownership group to help find ways to save money on the job.
Walker Engineering is currently executing an $80-million electrical and low voltage contract, which includes 875,000 sq ft across the 20-level North Campus Expansion for Houston Methodist Hospital. The overall construction cost of the project is $500 million. Work will wrap up in spring 2018.
Other recent projects include the Houston Marriott Marquis Hotel, a 1,001-room high-end hotel with a total electrical, lighting and audio-visual contract of $23 million that was completed late last year, and CyrusOne San Antonio, a 300,000-sq-ft multiphase data center with a $25-million electrical contract.
Walker has been an important partner to Austin Commercial on health care work as well, particularly in the Houston area, notes Brad Brown, president of Austin Commercial. Walker served as the electrical subcontractor on the Memorial Hermann–Cypress Hospital interiors build-out, a $62-million project completed in February.
“Our regional industry is fortunate to have many partners that support general contractors through great preconstruction services, commitment to zero safety incidents on projects and meeting deliverables throughout the project,” Brown says. “Walker certainly exhibits this commitment and understanding and works hard managing their relationships to ensure they are meeting expectations.”
Growth to Come
Looking ahead, areas with the most potential for growth at Walker are in the low-voltage, network technologies division as well as industrial markets.
The network technologies division currently brings in about 10% to 15% of the firm’s current revenue, but Scott sees that division growing over the next five years to possibly comprise 25% to 30% of revenue.
“We’re trying to do more in oil and gas, water, wastewater, manufacturing, food and beverage, those types of projects. So that’s another major focus for us,” Scott says. “I really see those two areas as the main growth areas for Walker moving forward.”
While there could be potential for growth on the commercial side in San Antonio or Austin, the prospects for doing additional work in Dallas or Houston is more limited, given that Walker is already doing a large amount of work in those areas, Scott notes.
“There’s probably not a ton of growth on the commercial side for us unless we were to go to a new market, but right now I don’t have any plans to go to Oklahoma City or Louisiana or something like that,” he adds.
The company continues to pursue new opportunities. It is competing with several other electrical subcontractors to work on the new Texas Rangers ballpark in Arlington, with that award to be announced in the near future.
While data centers and hospitals may not be as glamorous as something like a stadium project, Walker will be pursuing a lot of those jobs in the coming year, Scott says.
“Once you get past 2018, it starts to get a little more vague, but I think 2018, 2019, especially here in the Dallas market, looks strong,” he adds. “The economy overall in Texas is very strong, and this state is going to continue to grow. There’s going to be a lot of construction opportunities into the future.”