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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 28, 2018 4 years ago

Dig it: Firm builds on a solid foundation

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A self-described ‘mom and pop’ geo-engineering firm’s explosive growth proves that solid business practices are timeless.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

A groundbreaking ceremony — with its golden shovels, hard-hat-wearing executives, speechifying public officials and other pomp and circumstance — is undoubtedly an important milestone in the timeline of a condo or office tower project.

But sometimes it also belies the hard work that goes into preparing a site for construction.

"If I can take five minutes to help solve someone else’s problem, I’m glad to do it.” Mark Israel, president of Universal Engineering Sciences Inc.

That, in one sense, is the story of Universal Engineering Sciences Inc. During the course of more than 50 years in business, the Orlando-based company, which has a large presence in the Tampa region, has been responsible for ensuring thousands of construction sites all over Florida and beyond are safe for building. The company, founded by Seymour "Sy" Israel and now run by his son, Mark Israel, specializes in soil testing, materials testing, code compliance and other unglamorous yet essential services.

“We do schools, shopping centers, subdivisions, roadways, high-rises," Israel says. "Anything involving real estate construction or real estate transactions, there's an opportunity for us."

Universal has capitalized on that diversity in projects, with revenue that has grown 29% since 2015, from $55 million to $71 million last year. Israel, 54, projects that 2018’s revenue will top $82 million.

In addition to diversity in projects, Universal, despite its growth, maintains a nimble, never-say-no approach that has won it repeat business. The company, says Israel, does "about 15,000 projects per year. Some of them are $100, but some are $18 million.”

The company’s Tampa office, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has also keyed the firm's growth. Tampa regional manager Mark Hardy says he’s hired 30 people so far in 2018 to keep up with the demand and expects the workforce to reach and possibly exceed 100 by year’s end. At that point, Tampa will account for an eighth of the company’s workforce, which is spread out among 18 offices in Florida and Georgia. (On the Gulf Coast region, it also has offices in Fort Myers, Sarasota and St. Petersburg.)

The Tampa Bay region has been nothing but fertile soil for Universal. In January, the company landed what was then the biggest deal in its history — an $11 million subcontracting job for the $554 million Gateway Express project in Pinellas County. The contract involves drilling, foundation monitoring and materials testing for the Florida Department of Transportation project over four years.

Soon after Gateway, FDOT awarded even more lucrative work to Universal — the widening of Interstate 95 and the Interstate 395 signature bridge project, both in Miami.

Israel says Universal, which remains family owned after 53 years, is able to handle such a wide array of jobs in far-flung locations — California, Louisiana, Maryland, the Bahamas, even Taiwan and Ghana — because he and other company leaders have cultivated a flat, hyperresponsive organizational model.

“Most privately held companies in this industry are selling out to the big nationals,” he says. “We’re the biggest in Florida and have more resources than anyone else, yet we’re as nimble and flexible as the corner mom-and-pop store. Anybody in the company can call me directly and ask, ‘What should I do?’ If I can take five minutes to help solve someone else’s problem, I’m glad to do it.”

Hardy adds, “I think that’s the difference between Universal and some others. It comes down to reaction. You react quicker; you get to the client quicker; you get them the answers. Our competition doesn’t have that, which I can say because I’ve worked for some of the competition.”

Like any business in or allied to the construction industry, Universal faces the challenge of finding skilled workers. Instead of going toe-to-toe with competitors, the company has focused its recruiting efforts on younger people with raw talent, like recent graduates and former members of the military, who can be quickly trained.

“We’ve had some luck,” says Hardy. “We just hired a guy who got out of the Marines. We’re trying everything, looking at the local vocational and tech schools.”

Scott Stannard, president and co-owner of Commercial Site Solutions Inc., a Tampa site-planning company, has been a Universal client for 20 to 25 years, he estimates, and praises the responsive, personal touch provided by everyone from on-site workers to executives like Hardy. He’s hired Universal for more than 100 jobs, averaging about $5,000 each, over the years — everything from soil testing to retaining wall design and environmental research.

“Like everybody, I am looking for the path of least resistance," Stannard says. "With Universal, you call and ask for something and you know it’s going to get taken care of.”

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