The recession-generated metamorphosis in the engineering industry has squeezed firms like Karins Engineering Group.
That's because the industry, especially on the boom-and-bust Gulf Coast, has mostly split in two: On one side there are big firms, like Edmonton, Canada-based Stantec, which acquired Naples-based Wilson Miller in 2010 and now has hundreds of employees statewide. On the opposite side is the small army of engineering firms with one to three employees that dot the Gulf Coast.
That leaves Sarasota-based Karins in a relatively lonely spot, with 30 employees. The firm specializes in civil, structural and mechanical work. “There aren't many like us in the middle anymore,” says David Karins, founder and president. “There used to be a lot.”
But lonely doesn't mean the firm lacks potential. In fact, annual revenues increased 12.7% at Karins Engineering Group in 2011, from $2.36 million in 2010 to $2.66 million last year. The firm had $2.3 million in 2009 revenues.
“I feel good that we are a local company doing well in the recession,” Karins says. “For a while, just surviving was winning.”
Moreover, the company is nearly back up to pre-recession employee numbers. It had been down to the low 20s in payroll. Karins, a past Business Review 40 under 40 winner who founded the firm in 1999, partially attributes the growth to a nascent local building industry recovery. “We're excited to see the new construction market comeback somewhat,” Karins says.
Karins adds that the firm puts a premium on customer service, in defiance of industry stereotypes. “Many engineers aren't that personable,” Karins says, “but emphasizing our customer service gives us a leg over the competition.”
Karins Engineering has offices in St. Petersburg, Bonita Springs and Fort Lauderdale, in addition to its Sarasota headquarters. Most of its projects are in Florida, but it has worked in other states, including Louisiana, North Carolina and Ohio. Current and past projects include the Sarasota Yacht Club, the Ca d' Zan Mansion in Sarasota and more than a dozen condominium buildings on Longboat and Siesta Key. The company is also doing work at Dolphin Towers in downtown Sarasota, a condo building with major structural damage.
Karins co-founded the company in 1999 with his father, Carter Karins. David Karins actually grew up working for his father's Pinellas County construction firm. He started there as an apprentice when he was 14. But that business began to falter in the 1991 recession, and by the later part of the decade, the elder Karins sought a change.
The elder Karins didn't have a Florida engineering license, however, so he studied under his son for four years. Says David Karins: “I went from being the young punk apprenticing on construction sites for him to him apprenticing for me.”
Carter Karins remains with the firm today, though he recently began to scale back his hours. David Karins, meanwhile, faces several challenges in growing the operation into the future. Some, such as a growing list of unpaid accounts receivables, are the headaches companies in most other industries face, too.
Karins also says the economy, while better, is nonetheless worrisome. “There's still a lot of recovery that has to happen in commercial real estate,” he says. “You can still buy many buildings for cheaper than you can build.”
This story has been updated to correct Carter Karins' educational background.