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Business Observer Thursday, Jul. 30, 2009 12 years ago

Setting Foundations

Ambient Technologies has looked for ways to capitalize on the latest demands in geology services.

Ambient Technologies has looked for ways to capitalize on the latest demands in geology services.

During a car trip with his dad to Miami for medical treatment, Carlos Lemos floated the name for a new geology services company he wanted to create: Ambiente Technologies. Ambiente is Spanish for the environment.

His ailing father liked the name, but suggested he call it Ambient Technologies, since this was the United States, not their native Brazil.

So in 1993, Lemos founded Ambient Technologies in St. Petersburg, a company that “lives from the ground down,” as Lemos likes to say.

Since the beginning of the company in 1993, Lemos traces its roots to his father, who encouraged him to move to the United States, learn English, get an education — similar to the path his father followed.

In 1954, Lemos' father won a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to North Carolina State University to study engineering. He eventually earned a doctorate in engineering and took a job working for the United Nations in Rome in 1960.

He told his son to learn English and put Lemos in an American prep school in Rome. When it came time for college, Lemos went to North Carolina State and earned a degree in engineering geology.

He went to work for Law Engineering in 1970 and stayed there 22 years, eventually managing its Tampa office. Law went from 300 employees to about 4,000 when Lemos retired in 1992.

His father was very sick when Lemos retired. He brought his dad to the United States. His father died later that year.

Relentless for a new challenge, Lemos, now 62, and his wife, Anne, 57, own Ambient Technologies, a 26-person geotechnical services company in St. Petersburg that has had to adjust to changing market demands.

“Adversity brings strength,” Lemos says. “That's just the way it is. We keep everybody together. We are a stable, progressive company.”

In essence, Lemos has had to follow the money, to search for the demand in ground preparation work, which changes. Recently, that meant getting large contracts from the Veteran's Administration to help build a huge new hospital in Orlando and a cemetery in Sarasota.

Last year was one of the company's most challenging so far. It started the year projecting $4.5 million in revenue. But the cash stopped flowing. It went from doing $120,000 in revenue a month in Louisiana to about $10,000. So it closed its Louisiana operation and layed off some staff.

This year, the company began a new surveying division. Although it needs capital, it is bringing in revenue for Ambient. And the company is back to hiring.

To take advantage of international contracts, it has opened an office in Panama to capture projects in Columbia, El Salvador, South America and Panama.

Lemos attended several trade missions supported by the U.S. Department of Commerce and learned about the Panama Canal expansion job. Panama was getting about $250 per ship that goes through the canal.

Now, under the current Washington administration, geophysical work is more oriented toward health care, education, alternative energy and infrastructure. For Ambient, that means drilling and soil testing. The company has 11 drill rigs. The majority of its people are in the field.

In the future, Lemos sees the company growing through its same services, but it always needs to adjust how it applies those services.

“I always believed you needed to be a chameleon,” Lemos says.

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