If it’s possible that any industry firm was prepared for 2020’s pandemic-induced disruption, engineering firm WGI could make a strong case.
For starters, there are the numbers. The West Palm Beach, Fla.-based multidisciplined engineering company experienced one of the largest percentage gains in revenue of any participant in this year’s Top Design Firms ranking. The firm’s $71 million total for 2020 Southeast revenue represented a roughly 55% bump over the prior year’s $45.7 million.
While the vast majority of its revenue came from Florida, WGI stayed in growth mode as it moved to expand its geographic footprint, an effort recently boosted via a 2019 acquisition of Big Red Dog Engineering, a 120-person multidisciplinary engineering firm based in Austin, Texas. And WGI pushed forward in 2020 by furthering early steps at organic expansion along the Florida Panhandle and along the Gulf Coast.
Critically, for 2020, the firm’s robustly cultivated website, wginc.com, populated as it is with dozens of podcasts and blogs, appears to have been built for the pandemic. Though initially ramped up in 2019, the site’s people-centric focus nevertheless reflects the Zoom culture of 2020, as just a few clicks seem to inevitably lead to an image of a “real professional,” as WGI says, or a white paper focused on a variety of topics that website visitors can use to quickly connect to the firm.
The investment in this digital interface paid off well in 2020, with numerous interactions first initiated via the website leading to contracts with multiple national clients. Additionally, the website—which garnered 38,000 unique visitors and 135,000 page views in March 2021—regularly initiates leads that convert into about 12-20 projects per month, says Will Schnier, vice president and chief marketing officer.
But WGI was ready in other ways, too.
Another internal effort initiated years before the pandemic aided WGI in 2020. The firm’s crisis-management team, created several years ago and comprised of human resources, legal and other staff, jumped to the forefront to help steady staff during the first weeks and months of 2020’s mayhem. It proved important.
“We were all hit with so much uncertainty,” recalls CEO David Wantman. “All of a sudden there was a huge deadly crisis going on.”
Employee safety was the first priority as crisis managers frequently updated staff on changing COVID-19 protocols. From there, the staff’s guidance was straightforward.
“Follow the rules and take care of clients,” Wantman says, adding: “Stay focused on marketing, stay focused on client deliverables, stay focused on client satisfaction. That paid off.”
As a sudden recession seemingly loomed over the industry, WGI engineers and staff had plenty of customers to distract them from the surrounding calamity and entered the year from a position of strength. Says Wantman, “Like most good firms, we entered 2020 with a record backlog.”
Moreover, the firm was, and remains, well positioned in three key markets. First, the state of Florida, by all accounts now about to boom, provides the lion’s share of WGI’s Southeast revenue.
Secondly and thirdly, strength in two key project sectors—the state’s robust transportation market and the now booming planned single-family residential development segment—is helping to quickly transform the previously foretold recession into an apparition.
Case in point, WGI’s 2020 win of an approximately $4-million contract to provide professional surveying and utility engineering services for the Brightline Trains “higher-speed” railway’s roughly 130-mile-long segment running from West Palm Beach to near Cocoa in Brevard County.
Highway and bridge work marks another area of expertise for WGI. For example, the Florida Transportation Builders Association recently recognized the engineering firm with a Best in Construction Design-Build Award for the I-95 Diverging Diamond Interchange at St. John’s Heritage Parkway.
Working on the increasingly common diverging-diamond concept, with its alternative traffic movements, represented an important stretch of WGI’s experience and a “very exciting project,” says Nancy Clements, senior vice president and transportation sector leader.
“It’s good to have done work on something that’s a little unusual,” she says. “Clients are looking for people who have experience with unusual projects.”
WGI’s recent collaboration as design-build partner to Superior Construction Co. on the $234-million Wekiva Parkway 6 contract further illustrates the firm’s strengths in this project-delivery approach, according to Pete Kelley, the construction firm’s president.
“They bring a lot of creativity to the [design-build] process and commit the resources that are necessary, both during the pursuit of the project and then during construction,” Kelley says.
Key, he says, is WGI’s ability to respond to unexpected situations.
“What we probably appreciate the most about working with them on design-build projects is they totally understand that things are going to change and they have to react to those changes quickly,” he says.
Such a situation—sinkholes—popped up on the Wekiva project. Fortunately, because WGI was also performing the geotechnical and subsurface-related engineering work—in addition to the bridge design—the team could respond quickly, and did so. Because the design-builders were able to optimize the design and reduce costs during the project’s early stages, “that helped bring the project in as under budget as it could be,” despite the sinkhole remediation work, Kelley says.
The do-it-all mindset is a hallmark of WGI, says Wantman, as the firm’s well-connected cadre of diverse discipline teams enables it to retain approximately 90% of revenue from its contracts, on average.
Bright Days Ahead
Looking to the future, another Florida construction boom appears to be on the horizon, with numerous firms reporting a switch from pause to fast forward.
On the transportation front, “I don’t think we missed a beat,” Clements says.
The pandemic’s negative impact on public-sector budgets was a “little bit of a scary moment,” she adds, but the Biden administration’s proposal to greatly increase federal infrastructure funding instead portends promise of a ramping up of new contracts.
Single-family housing’s surprising “explosion,” as Wantman calls it, also bodes well for WGI, which counts several national homebuilders as clients. The firm performs services related to zoning and planning processes through water, sewer, paving, grading, landscape architecture and geospatial services.
Federal work related to coastal engineering and other environmental work, a recent emphasis, should provide an increasing amount of opportunities for the firm, adds Robert Hanson, vice president leading WGI’s geospatial division. Despite the competition in this field, “Given the federal government’s interest in everything from flood mitigation, risk mitigation, climate change, coastal zone influences and just the general migration of people into these areas,” Hanson is confident there will be opportunities.
For these reasons and more, ENR Southeast recognizes WGI as its Design Firm of the Year.