ENGINEERING by Jean Gruss | Editor/Lee-Collier
Naples-based engineering firm WilsonMiller rode the wave of master-planned communities in Florida and now has more than 600 employees around the state. CEO Alan Reynolds uses careful planning to grow.
Sometimes, one great client makes a company.
Alan Reynolds remembers when David Shakarian came to Naples in 1980 to talk about his grand plan for a new community in Bonita Springs, which then was nothing more than a sleepy fishing village.
Shakarian was the founder of General Nutrition Corp. (GNC), the nation's largest retailer of specialty vitamins and herbal supplements. He created Bonita Bay Group to build a residential community that would embody the ideals of health and wellness by emphasizing environmental protection.
To do that, he turned to Naples-based engineers and planners at WilsonMiller. Reynolds, who today is the engineering firm's chief executive officer, says one great client like Bonita Bay Group can be a spark in the success of an enterprise that affiliates with it.
Bonita Bay eventually encompassed 2,400 acres and became a model for residential developments in environmentally sensitive areas. Its success boosted WilsonMiller's credibility as a firm that could handle large-scale residential projects. In 1985, with 100 employees in two offices, WilsonMiller won the prestigious "Project of the Year Award" from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
In all, the company has helped create more than 100 residential communities in Florida, Nevada, the Caribbean and Latin America. Reynolds himself has served as principal planner for more than 80 master-planned communities, encompassing 100,000 homes on 200,000 acres.
Today, WilsonMiller has 10 offices stretching from Naples to Destin. It has more than 600 employees in nine divisions that serve as a one-stop shop for developers by handling a project from its conceptual stage through permitting and construction oversight. Staff includes planners, civil engineers, landscape architects, ecological experts, surveyors and map and transportation specialists. Engineering News-Record, the leading trade journal, ranks WilsonMiller 145th out of the top 500 design firms in the U.S. The firm estimates revenues of $70 million this year.
The company's growth can be tied to the rise of large-scale master-planned communities in Florida. The firm's executives say their firm's success has been due to a laser focus on good clients, careful succession planning, a devotion to planning ahead and an ownership culture among its employees.
It's counting on those principles to help it grow in other parts of Florida by acquiring other firms. As the residential real estate market slows, it also is seeking to diversify into other areas such as public works.
Bringing together the disciplines
The company's principals foresaw the rise of the large, master-planned community. These massive communities spanning hundreds of acres would require careful planning and specialties such as environmental science and transportation.
Reynolds, who joined WilsonMiller as a draftsman in 1978, formed the firm's planning department at age 25. It was the company's first expansion outside engineering and surveying. Subsequently, WilsonMiller added new disciplines such as ecological services and landscape architecture.
"That created the whole full-service firm," Reynolds recalls. As residential developments grew more complex and government regulations became more labyrinthine, developers of large-scale projects increasingly turned to firms such as WilsonMiller.
The firm's work with Bonita Bay Group established WilsonMiller firmly in Lee County and it opened its first office outside of Naples in Fort Myers in 1983. By 1989, the firm had grown to 200 employees.
Realizing how hard it was to open a new office in Fort Myers, WilsonMiller acquired Smally, Wellford & Nalven, a 30-person engineering firm in Sarasota. It was the first of several acquisitions that would take WilsonMiller up the coast to Tampa, Tallahassee, Panama City and Destin.
Reynolds and colleagues learned some valuable lessons about acquisitions. Above all, it's important to know the culture of the target company. "They could be in the same business but have a totally different way of doing business," Reynolds says.
What's more, it's important to make the employees of the acquired company feel like they're part of WilsonMiller right away. That means immediately vesting them with the same benefits and giving them an ownership stake in the company.
Besides, it's easier to acquire a firm than to build a new office. "The reason we start with acquisitions is to have a core group of clients," Reynolds says. "The ones that are most valuable are strategic," he adds.
For example, WilsonMiller acquired a three-person firm in Tampa in 1998. Although small, the firm was headed by Georgianne Ratliff, a well-regarded land-planning expert in the Tampa Bay area. "It's a big thing for us to get talent," Reynolds says. Ratliff is now senior vice president and a director on the firm's board.
Reynolds says WilsonMiller has been conservative when it comes to growth. "We've never done any debt financing for acquisitions," he says. So far, the company has funded all its acquisitions using its own cash flow.
Following the Sarasota acquisition, WilsonMiller executives realized that the distances between offices would soon force them to build a support staff that could welcome employees in more distant locations. They added human-resource and marketing employees and centralized those functions in a new headquarters facility in Naples.
To plan for the future, the company hired a facilitator to help organize what has now become the firm's annual strategic planning meeting. Together, they plan as far out as 10 years. "It's been one of the keys to our success," Reynolds says. "We know where we're going."
Having a clear vision of where the firm is heading also helps attract new employees. "That has been a powerful recruiting tool," Reynolds says.
Just as growth in Southwest Florida was beginning to pick up, the top Wilson Miller executives decided to retire. These executives had joined the firm between 1961 and 1973 and were ready to hand over the management to younger executives, such as Reynolds.
Because the company is privately held, executives had to figure out how to buy out the principals. So, with an independent appraisal as a guidepost, the company devised a transition plan that culminated with the buyout of four principals by 1997. They did it in part by building and then selling their headquarters building in Naples, using the equity to buy them out.
By then, Reynolds had become chief executive officer and Fermin Diaz was president, both with increased ownership stakes in the company. What's more, the company broadened its ownership by creating an employee stock-ownership program (ESOP). While the ESOP was a good employee retention and recruiting tool, it also helped smooth the ownership transition.
Still, the transition process put a lid on growth and the firm's revenues flattened out at about $15 million annually through the mid-1990s. It did not add staff or make any acquisitions.
With the leadership transition complete in 1997, the firm resumed its expansion plans and opened offices in Tampa, Tallahassee, Panama City and Destin. By 2004, the firm had doubled the number of employees to 475 and it was riding the residential-development boom.
To handle the growth, WilsonMiller became one of the most aggressive firms in terms of employee recruitment and retention. Besides the stock ownership plan, the firm offers a bonus plan, a profit-sharing plan and a 401(k) plan.
"We are constantly recruiting talent," Reynolds says. In addition to the company's six full-time recruiters, each office manager's evaluation is based in part on the ability to recruit new employees. WilsonMiller rewards employees with as much as $3,000 for recruiting new co-workers.
The company is just as eager to retain its employees. For example, the firm discovered that training was the most important criteria for younger employees. So it created WilsonMiller University, a curriculum designed to teach employees early in their careers about subjects ranging from contract management to making presentations and learning business skills.
Future is Florida
Looking ahead, Reynolds says he'd like to open more offices in Florida, though he declines to say where. Ultimately, Reynolds hopes to double the value of the company by 2010.
He says there's no pressing need to look for work out of state because the development regulations are so complex in Florida that firms with WilsonMiller's expertise are always in demand here.
Still, Reynolds says the company will consider projects outside the state. For example, it is currently planning Coyote Springs, a 42,000-acre residential development north of Las Vegas.
In addition, Reynolds says he wants to triple the firm's public-works business by 2010. It's one way to diversify and it will help absorb the slowdown in residential development. Currently, WilsonMiller's public-sector work accounts for 35% of the revenues, with the remaining 65% from the private sector.
In addition, adding public-sector expertise helps the private-sector work because more developers are taking on the job of building roads and utilities.
Managers in every office are charged with bringing new business. "Our model relies on making sure everyone knows what we're doing," Reynolds says. "We have 50 people who are at the front lines to make sure work comes in."
HOW WILSONMILLER COMPARES
Earlier this year, the Economic Development Council of Collier County named WilsonMiller the best place to work for firms with more than 175 employees. The council hired an outside consultant to survey companies throughout the county to determine the winner.
Here are some of the results for WilsonMiller compared with the survey average:
•12.5% turnover (survey average: 25.4%)
•$2,236 spent annually per employee on training and development (survey average: $454 per employee)
•41 hours of training per employee (survey average: 20 hours)
•77% enrolled in stock-ownership program (survey average: 37.2%)
•73.4% participate in 401(k) plan (survey average: 63.6%)
•96% participate in bonus plan (survey average: 66%)
•86% participate in profit-sharing plan (survey average: 71.4%)
•Mentor assigned to every new employee (survey: 20% of companies offer a mentor to new employees)
•Rewards up to $3,000 for recruiting qualified co-workers (no survey average)
•Accrual of 15 days of personal time off during the first year of employment (no survey average)
ADVICE FOR YOUNG ENGINEERS
Young engineers with the entrepreneurial bug should consider Alan Reynolds' advice. As the chief executive officer of Naples-based WilsonMiller, he's overseen the expansion of the engineering firm to 10 offices with 600 employees. Here's his advice on how to grow a successful engineering company:
• Identify what you love to do and really focus on that. Don't be all things to all people, so target the work you want to do and stick to it.
• Don't take every job that comes your way. Be selective about the projects you want to work on so that you can show off your best talents.
• Don't oversell your capabilities, but outperform your objectives.
• Remember that one great client can make the difference in the future success of your company. Learn all you can from them; success builds on that.