For almost 10 years, LJA Engineering has experienced one “best year ever” after another, driven by a grow or die strategy and a commitment to its employees and its clients. LJA’s growth shows no signs of stopping, with 2019 on track to be another best year ever.
In 2018, the Houston-based, full-service design firm experienced 30% growth in regional revenue, which hit $182.5 million for the year.
“2018 was really built on 2015, 2016 and somewhat 2017, and the acquisitions and hiring that we did,” says Calvin Ladner, LJA’s president. “We’ve always done acquisitions, but we’ve actually done more organic hiring—organic growth is what we call it—than acquisitions. Every year, the organic has beat the M&A.”
To address its backlog, the firm hired about 250 more employees in the last 12 months—increasing its workforce 28% to more than 900 across its 28 Texas offices and one office in Jacksonville, Fla. LJA opened a new office in Round Rock in September, a Midland office in October and expanded its Corpus Christi office in November.
Each of LJA’s acquisitions has either expanded the firm geographically or by sector, Ladner adds. The firm’s latest acquisitions were Berg-Oliver and Horizon Environmental Services in 2017, which formed LJA’s Environmental Services Group with 45 staff.
“We started out as a land development firm [in 1972], and since then we’ve expanded into another eight sectors of work,” Ladner explains. “We’ve grown in land development too, but land development went from 100% of the company to 50% of the company. So even though it’s grown rapidly, the other sectors, energy, rail, survey, environmental—those have had a huge part of that growth.”
LJA’s services also include GIS, construction management and public infrastructure.
The constant expansion has been fueled by one of the company’s principles, “grow or die.”
“We believe in growth of the business, but we also believe in growth of the employee, and those two, in our opinion, definitely go hand in hand,” explains James D. Ross, senior vice president for land development. “We hire a lot of young engineers, planners and environmental scientists, and if LJA is not growing, the opportunity for that employee is limited.”
The strategy works. A number of LJA’s employees join the firm right out of school, and years down the road, they’ve become senior vice presidents, adds Ross, who experienced this firsthand. He joined the firm in 1998 after graduating in 1997, and was promoted to senior vice president in October.
LJA’s employee stock ownership plan supports the company’s growth. From Day 1, every single employee is an owner of the company.
“That is really our culture. The fact that everybody understands if we win, we win together, if we fail, we fail together,” Ladner says.
Despite the rapid growth over the last several years, the company remains dedicated to ensuring a continued small company feel. “We put a lot of effort into that and making sure that we don’t become that big corporate company,” Ross says.
For example, in Houston alone, LJA has 10 offices—not necessarily for its clients, but to help its employees maintain a better work-life balance.
LJA’s constant growth is also driven by its clients’ growth.
“We want to be the one company for our clients. So, when they start to expand, they take us with them,” explains Kristin Kautz, LJA’s director of marketing.
Johnson Development Corp., which is a large-scale master-planned community development company, has worked with LJA for 20 years, since it was a much smaller firm, notes Michael Smith, president at Johnson. The firm has worked with LJA on master-planned communities across the Houston area including Sienna Plantation, WoodForest, Grand Central Park, Tuscan Lakes and Imperial.
“We have primarily utilized LJA’s land development division, but they are truly a multidiscipline firm and we have relied on many of their other divisions—specifically, planning, surveying, GIS, environmental, water resources and wastewater resources,” Smith says. “They are a full-service firm, and it is comforting to have them on our team when we are developing complex projects.”
Despite LJA’s growth in technical resources, engineering disciplines and other areas, it never lost “that small firm customer service culture,” Smith says. “They have done an excellent job of scaling up their operation while never losing touch with the client’s needs.”
LJA also provided design and construction engineering for Perry Homes’ master-planned communities Shadow Creek Ranch and Southlake.
The LJA team was chosen because of “their reputation and then specifically their experience in the Pearland area, which is where those two projects were,” says Rick Hale, executive vice president at Perry Homes. “They understand schedules are important and make sure those are a priority in the same way we would. I probably could not say enough good things about the level of service that we get out of them. That, more than anything, brings us back to them on other projects.”
For the last 30 years, LJA has also been involved with the development of The Woodlands, a 25,000-acre planned community located 27 miles north of downtown Houston. The firm has provided design services on countless projects for the community, including parks, sports fields, roadways, bridges, dams and reservoirs.
LJA’s Infrastructure Group was the design/builder of the Iron Horse Amelia Loop Track and Storage-In-Transit Yard Railyard in Beaumont, Texas—one of the group’s most significant and largest projects to date, completed earlier this year.
The 1,000 railroad car storage-in-transit yard—with four departure/receiving tracks, a 14,000-ft loop track and car repair tracks also includes a 90-ft railroad bridge, a drainage system with more than 400 inlets and 12-acre retention pond—were all built on a fast-track schedule.
In Austin, LJA recently provided civil engineering and site development permitting on the planned 6 X Guadalupe residential and office tower. The 848-ft, 66-story tower planned at the northwest corner of Sixth and Guadalupe Streets in downtown Austin will be the city’s tallest building upon completion.
In Houston, LJA is working on various projects for Harris County Toll Road Authority, including the interchange at SH 225 and Beltway 8 on the east side of Houston.
“We try to spread the work out, but as much as possible, we try to use [LJA] because they do good work,” says Gary Trietsch, executive director at the authority. “They listen to us and try to give us what we want. Our project managers work really well with them and it’s a collaborative design effort.”
LJA is also providing construction, engineering and inspection services on the 514-ft north tower of the Ship Channel Bridge project for the toll authority. The towers will be among the tallest structures in the region—slightly shorter than the 523-ft Penzoil Place twin skyscrapers. The main span of the bridge will be 1,320 ft, and the overall project will cost $962 million.
While 2018 currently stands as LJA’s greatest year, that record may be broken in another six months, considering the way 2019 is tracking, Ladner says.
The North Texas market continues to look promising for the firm’s land development, public works and construction engineering and inspection groups, Ross says.
“We’re definitely not plateauing—we still see a lot of growth in everything that we’re involved in right now. It’s hard to even split one of them out,” he says.
The company plans to continue to expand.
“We’ll continue to look for quality people,” Ladner says. “I don’t know if we’ll get into any other sectors—we really haven’t seen anything on that—but we’ll definitely expand the sectors we’re in and expand the geography.”