Stephanie Caldwell/39/Fort Myers
Homebuilders weren't the only ones hurt when the real estate collapse in Florida halted new development.
The civil engineers who helped developers map out new projects had to shrink too, and Stephanie Caldwell was one of those employees caught in the downturn.
Caldwell, 39, was an engineer with Kimley-Horn, a large firm that had been retained by retail giants such as Target to help build new stores in booming areas. She was based in Fort Myers.
But when the downturn hit, Caldwell was laid off in 2009 and she and her husband couldn't move. “We couldn't sell our house,” she says.
So Caldwell started her own engineering company, Greensite Engineering. “It just seemed like the best opportunity,” she says. “I've met a lot of people who are doing the same thing.”
Caldwell was prepared because she knew the real estate market had come to a halt. “I filed the [incorporation] documents the day after I was laid off,” she says.
Caldwell says she decided to focus on projects that are environmentally sensitive, including recently a stormwater plan for the Wild Turkey Strand Preserve in Lee County.
While corporate work disappeared, municipal governments continued to spend through the downturn, and they sought out women-owned firms to comply with diversity requirements. “I did get on the vendors' list and it's starting to pay off,” Caldwell says, citing some recent discussions with the airport as an example. “2012 has really been a turning point for me.”
Now that the economy is starting to recover, Caldwell says she's seen a noticeable increase in requests from developers in residential and commercial real estate. “I have been doing a lot of due diligence on existing buildings that will get torn down,” she says. “I feel like it's going to pick up, but it's not going to be like 2004 and 2005.”
Caldwell never thought she'd work for herself but has found it gratifying to be an entrepreneur. “It doesn't feel like you're doing work,” she says. “It's nice to have the flexibility to work on your own terms. I don't know if I could back to 8-to-5.”
Caldwell says she's reluctant to hire employees if work picks up meaningfully, in part because of her own experience. “I'd hate to lay people off,” she says. Her financial goal is simply to do better this year than the previous year.
The biggest challenge, Caldwell says, is cold calling for business. “The hardest thing for me is the schmoozing and the networking,” she says. “The marketing part of it is a little out of my comfort zone.”
One way Caldwell says she's landed work is through other civil engineering firms. She was surprised to learn that the industry is collegial and firms frequently refer work to one another. That's especially the case now, when smaller firms don't have a full range of specialties and call on individual experts such as Caldwell to handle certain parts of larger projects. “It's opened doors to do unique projects,” she says.