Despite a global pandemic that paralyzed entire industries and shuttered businesses, Albuquerque-based engineering firm Bohannan Huston Inc. (BHI) saw its revenue across the three-state region of Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico grow by $5.8 million in 2020—a 17.6% increase from 2019—to close out the year at $38.6 million.
The firm specializes in civil and structural design of traffic, transportation and water and wastewater resources from its offices in Albuquerque, Las Cruces, N.M., and Denver. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, BHI’s nearly 200 office staff quickly pivoted to work from home, and most are still working remotely more than a year later. While this shift might have hampered many firms’ abilities to remain competitive, BHI zeroed in on the needs of both its employees and its clients, ultimately growing the firm’s project portfolio and expanding its offerings as a result.
Part of what helped the company remain successful over the past year was that BHI had a strong backlog before COVID-19 hit, and virtually all forms of construction were deemed essential in New Mexico during the pandemic, says company CEO Bruce Stidworthy.
“We were concerned about what restrictions would be imposed and how that would impact our projects, and we were concerned with funding for both our private- and public-sector work,” Stidworthy says. “But while there was a slight pullback as project owners assessed the risk, most came back on line and moved forward. This was much different than what we saw during the recession of 2008-2009, when projects were just pulled, never to reappear. This time, all the projects on hold came back to life.”
“It has been a challenge in a remote environment, but we’ve made it work.”
—Leslie Small, COO, BHI Inc.
While work in the field progressed, the company’s office staff made a rapid transition to working remotely from home and quickly adjusted to the new patterns and rhythms of transforming a company with three large offices to one with more than 200 satellite offices. It was quite a dramatic transition, and luckily, BHI had a solid IT structure in place to handle remote work, Stidworthy says. Today, less than 50% of the office staff are back in the office, and the firm has not made a big push to get them there, he adds.
Despite the uncertainties and restrictions that accompanied most of 2020, BHI continued to grow its staff and add new roles. One of those is a new learning coordinator role, added to facilitate and grow BHI’s in-house training and learning initiative, BHInstitute. This companywide personal development program is aimed at fostering a corporate culture where everyone’s voice is heard and valued, and BHI has continued its investment in employee wellness with various workshops for physical, mental and financial health. The company also continued its popular summer intern program virtually, offering seven interns the ability to work and train from home.
“We moved to Civil 3D 2021 in the midst of all this and had to get all of our customized tools up and running on that version—it was a big deal,” says Leslie Small, BHI chief operations officer. BHI also switched everything over to national CAD standards. “We renamed all of our layering systems and changed all our symbology to make sure it meets the national standard guidelines. It has been a challenge in a remote environment, but we’ve made it work,” she says.
While remote design teams had their own set of challenges, BHI staff in the field were thrown some construction-phase curves. “Our inspection teams and engineers [have had to be cautious] and learned on the fly how to manage their work,” says Matthew Thompson, BHI senior vice president and the firm’s Las Cruces branch manager. “We’ve made sure we have an overlap of people so that when they have to get tested or quarantine, we have redundant staff and the ability to adapt when someone has to step away.”
BHI’s leadership team also maintained close communication with its clients to keep a pulse on their upcoming work and prepare to help them with those projects. Thompson says the firm has worked hard to understand how best to continue to support its clients during the pandemic and created a custom interface for them.
“From a design standpoint, we’ve had to become far more transparent with our schedules and make that information available to clients with our monthly project reporting feedback,” Thompson says.
“We’ve also internally developed a website hub that we call BHITracker, which is essentially an expansion of our construction documentation process, where all of our design and construction phase information is handled both internal and external to the company and all parties see the communication exchanges in real time,” he says.
BHI and Albuquerque Underground Inc. (AUI), a heavy civil contractor that frequently builds the projects BHI designs, worked together on the Lower Bear Tributary Arroyo project for the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority during the pandemic. The project implemented new flood control measures and progressive stormwater quality treatment measures to an existing channel located just north of the city’s Arroyo del Oso Park. “We still had contractual obligations to meet, all while [keeping up with] ever-changing CDC and OSHA guidelines,” says Sam Baca, co-owner of AUI. “BHI is our go-to for design-build projects, and they made a seamless transition to remote meetings. Many of us had never heard of Zoom pre-pandemic, and being able to have ‘face-to-face’ meetings and share screens to evaluate plans and come up with solutions to possible problems on the fly has been prudent.”
Many Ways to Grow
New BHI services added in the past five years began to stabilize and, in some cases, to grow during the pandemic. New Mexico has invested a lot of money in vehicle and rail infrastructure, says Thompson, and drought management is a significant focus in the southern part of the state—all key pieces of the firm’s portfolio.
Work for one of the largest regional water systems in New Mexico, the $227-million Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System project, will add the infrastructure to collect, treat and convey water to four pueblos in New Mexico—San Ildefonso, Pojoaque, Nambe and Tesuque—and will also extend into upper portions of Santa Fe County. BHI led the design on the conveyance system to provide a safe, reliable water supply.
BHI’s aviation group won new contracts and renewed others to significantly bolster the group’s project backlog. This ultimately allowed expansion of aviation staff with the hiring of an additional full-time engineer.
“BHI is our go-to for design-build projects, and they made a seamless transition to remote meetings.”
—Sam Baca, Co-owner, AUI
BHI has increased the number of GIS (geographic information system) staff, adding two analysts to the team. BHI has steadily been increasing its use of GIS, and the new staff has been supporting the company’s planning and surface water groups on more projects.
BHI expanded its service offerings in its surface-water department by adding geomorphology, the study of landforms and the processes that shape them. The team added a senior hydraulic engineer and geomorphologist to grow services and capabilities, making room for new client relationships and projects.
A new materials lab certified to meet both state and federal requirements offers a greater depth of service for BHI’s clients.
“Although we are diverse in our market sectors and client portfolio, the New Mexico Dept. of Transportation [NMDOT] has continued to be our biggest client for more than 25 years,” says Bert Thomas, BHI senior vice president, traffic and transportation.
BHI is currently working on several corridor projects in southeast New Mexico, including the $47-million NM 136 Roadway, Santa Teresa Port of Entry to New Mexico/Texas State Line. NMDOT and BHI partnered to investigate innovative pavement options and recommended a continuously reinforced concrete pavement (CRCP) overlay instead of full reconstruction for nine miles of roadway.
BHI’s innovative, cost-saving redesign used a CRCP overlay system to construct a concrete surface over the existing asphalt surface. This new technology—never used by NMDOT in New Mexico—eliminated removal and disposal of the existing surfacing material and therefore only required a thinner concrete overlay. That saved NMDOT more than $20 million in full reconstruction costs and provided a long-term, zero-maintenance service life for the heavily used roadway.
“Overall, we end up putting out about $40 million to $50 million in construction projects per year for NMDOT, and we’re on pace to do that again or increase it this year,” Thomas says.
Michael Sandoval, NMDOT cabinet secretary, notes that “BHI listens to where we want to go and helps us figure out how to get there. It’s nice that they spend more time listening and less time trying to direct us. The size of the project doesn’t matter; their approach and customer service is the same, and that’s what I appreciate,” he says.
Small says she has been “really impressed” with how agile BHI has become. “To pick up, get everyone working from home and continue doing great work for our clients is impressive. Never did we think we’d be doing this for a year,” she says. “I’m hoping we figure out from an operational side how to do a hybrid environment moving forward. If that’s what the employees want, we need to figure that out.”