Skill-Set Diversity Drives Southeast Growth at Dewberry
The ability to offer a variety of skills and services in a booming market typically produces positive results for design firms. And in the Southeast, that proposition is proving true for Dewberry.
Over the past several years, the Fairfax, Va.-based multidisciplinary professional services provider, ranked No. 42 among ENR’s Top 500 Design Firms, has made great strides in raising a regional profile established 35 years ago with the opening of a branch office in Raleigh.
Along with capitalizing on long-standing relationships with several federal clients, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance and disaster assistance programs, Dewberry has beefed up its existing North Carolina and Florida operations via acquisitions of local companies with complementary capabilities, giving the organization 20 offices in four Southeast states. Strategic hires have also provided Dewberry with instant entrees in current and emerging markets, including energy infrastructure and port and intermodal facilities.
This multipronged growth strategy has paid off in terms of revenue, with Dewberry’s 2018 Southeast billings totaling just under $123 million—approximately double the figure reported two years earlier and a factor in its selection as ENR Southeast’s Design Firm of the Year.
“The Southeast is where people want to be,” says David Maxwell, Dewberry senior vice president, explaining how the region’s seemingly unstoppable population growth has helped open the door to new opportunities. “States and communities need to expand and repair their infrastructure, an area where we’ve always been strong.”
Dewberry’s expertise in road and bridge planning and engineering is well suited to a state such as North Carolina, which has doubled the annual output of its transportation improvement program (TIP) to $3 billion over the past two years, thanks in part to streamlined review processes, according to James Trogdon, state secretary of transportation. Conducting reviews of locally submitted candidate projects for TIP funding is just one of Dewberry’s nearly 20 North Carolina Dept. of Transportation contracts for stand-alone projects and on-call technical services. The firm is also developing updates to the state’s long-term rail plan for passenger and freight service.
Trogdon says that in addition to offering a variety of services and resources, Dewberry’s work in other states affords access to new ideas for other process improvements.
“We’re getting bigger as a state, but our challenges are growing as well,” Trogdon adds. “Everything they bring contributes to our efforts to get better.”
Dewberry’s 2013 acquisition of Orlando-based Bowyer-Singleton & Associates Inc. has helped the firm make inroads into Florida’s highly competitive transportation market. Recent project awards include a three-year surveying assignment for the Florida Dept. of Transportation’s District 5 and development of a five-year, $1.36-billion work plan for the Central Florida Expressway Authority. Tasks for that assignment include program management, bond financing support, long-range planning, environmental permitting and utility coordination.
While clients appreciate Dewberry’s full-service capabilities, Maxwell stresses the need to provide a level of service inherent in a community-based firm.
“Our focus is on growth, but we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we’re here to serve clients,” he says, citing the 2016 acquisition of Pensacola, Fla-based consulting engineering and surveying firm Preble-Rish Inc. as an example of how Dewberry has retained its local flavor as it expanded its footprint to Florida’s Panhandle and coastal Alabama.
Ben Blitch, director of utilities for Bay County, Fla., Utility Services, says that while the organizational transition was virtually seamless, the availability of in-house “cradle-to-grave” engineering capabilities is valuable for his agency’s special, highly complex municipal infrastructure projects.
Rider on the storms
As the Southeast has shown an increasing vulnerability to the forces of nature and climate change, Maxwell says there’s a heightened focus on resilience among clients “who want to change their approach to the built environment.”
Drawing on its resources in mapping technology and program management, Dewberry is addressing these needs on multiple levels. Already one of the U.S. Geological Survey’s prime contractors for geospatial products and services, including collecting high-quality 3D elevation data of all U.S. states and territories, the firm was selected in December for a 34,000-sq-mile lidar mapping project of Florida. According to the company, the $20-million state- and USGS-funded effort will combine airborne lidar data with ground surveys to create Level 1 data for use in hydrologic and hydraulic modeling to mitigate storm-driven flooding and support state- and federal-funded flood studies.
Dewberry is also providing lidar mapping services in support of the Tallahassee-Leon County Geographic Information Systems (TLCGIS) joint project, which will provide mapping products for use by various agencies and the public.
USGS contract officer Timothy Saultz, who has overseen Dewberry’s work on a variety of mapping services contracts, says the firm’s value goes well beyond its technical expertise.
“They’re very good at bringing issues to me before they become problems, and managing complex assignments on expedited schedules,” Saultz says. Following Hurricane Maria, for example, Dewberry fast-tracked processing of lidar data collected from Puerto Rico in order for USGS to quickly transfer the information to help with reconstruction of the island’s utility systems.
The Florida mapping project is especially challenging from a logistical standpoint, Saultz adds, given that Dewberry must coordinate the operations of multiple aircraft collecting as much data as possible before ground features are lost to spring vegetation.
“Being able to manage so many airborne lidar platforms is an accomplishment, but it’s why they got this project,” Saultz says. “I knew they could do it.”
Dewberry’s ready access to geospatial data also paid off after Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle last fall. Just two years after its acquisition of Preble-Rish, Maxwell says, “We had the unique opportunity to partner with our clients and help expedite their recovery by providing boots on the ground.”
The need to quickly reestablish critical infrastructure services was not lost on Blitch, whose agency provides water to secondary systems such as Tyndall Air Force Base and Mexico Beach, which took the brunt of Michael’s winds and storm surge.
“We have a lot of work to do, not only in repairing damaged equipment and systems, but also making our facilities more resilient,” he says. “We did a lot of work with Dewberry right after Michael, and I expect that will continue as we move forward.”
Continued focus on growth
Despite looming concerns about increased susceptibility to natural disasters, Maxwell sees no immediate letup in the Southeast’s pace of growth or Dewberry’s place in the market. He points to projects such as preparing a strategic business plan for a 2,500-acre state-owned industrial park in Kinston, N.C., and land development and surveying services for the I-4 AutoMall in DeLand, Fla., as examples of how Dewberry can contribute to securing the region’s economic future.
“We’ll continue to look for areas where we can invest and expand through acquisitions and key hires,” he says.
To be sure, Dewberry will likely face no shortage of competition for these opportunities. But the intangibles of client support may give the company an advantage. When Hurricane Florence dumped record amounts of rainfall across North Carolina last September, state transportation officials had to quickly make decisions on sequencing the closure and reopening of more than 2,400 roadways, including key interstate corridors.
Trogdon recalls how Dewberry’s Cameron Long, a project manager for the firm’s hydraulic services contract to NCDOT, spent long hours assisting emergency officials in forecasting closures and establishing detour routes two to five days in advance, enabling the agency to maintain safety and mobility as well as prioritize resources for inspections and repairs.
“That work was extremely important to us, particularly since he gave up personal time in the midst of an emergency,” Trogdon says of Long’s efforts. “That’s what I call a true partner.”