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Planning for the recovery

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  • | 7:27 a.m. June 21, 2013
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Even during the frothiest real estate boom times, Johnson Engineering didn't give up on public-sector work.

Unlike some competitors who tied their futures to private residential and commercial development, the Fort Myers-based civil engineering firm continued to bid for work for municipalities, utilities, universities and public hospitals.

“We maintained those relationships, and that proved so valuable during the downturn,” says Lonnie Howard, 42, the president of Johnson Engineering.

Indeed, a common thread among the survivors of the real estate bust was diversification. Some competitors learned the hard way, closing down or selling out to larger, well-diversified firms.

Now, Johnson Engineering is poised for the economic rebound even though its leaders say they haven't fully felt the effects of it yet. The company has offices in the Tampa Bay area and on the east coast. It has opened three new offices in the last year, including Pembroke Pines on the east coast, and Sebring and Clewiston in the center of the state. “We've hired back some folks,” Howard says.

Howard, a resident of LaBelle who likes to hunt alligators in his spare time, became the fifth president of Johnson Engineering a year ago. Hendry County surveyor Carl Johnson started the company in 1946 and passed the ownership to a handful of trusted employees when he died in 1968. Today, the company has 19 shareholders.

Still, Johnson Engineering wasn't immune from the ravaging effects of the downturn. Most engineering firms shrank to about a third of their size during the boom, says Kevin Winter, 52, the chairman of Johnson Engineering.

At the peak of the real estate boom, Johnson Engineering had about 300 employees and $37 million in revenues in 2007. Today, the company has 92 employees and reported $12.1 million in revenues in 2012.

But with real estate development in sight, Johnson Engineering is broadening its geographic scope. “We've got a big diversity of expertise,” says Howard. Johnson Engineering has experts in land development, planning, water resources, transportation, utilities and surveying.

Howard asked his colleagues when he became president: “How can we grow a little?”

Most recently, Johnson Engineering opened the office in Pembroke Pines near Miami where it landed work with the Seminole and Miccosukee Indian tribes. The company hired an ecologist who used to be on the Seminole staff.

In December, Johnson Engineering opened an office in Clewiston, where it has agriculture clients ranging from U.S. Sugar to Lykes Bros. In addition, developers are exploring the possibility of building an inland port in nearby Moore Haven that would handle transit cargo from Miami.

And a year ago, Johnson Engineering opened an office in Sebring to be close to Lykes' Florida citrus operations. That also puts the firm close to other large landowners in the center of the state.

Having a presence in small towns where competitors don't have any office is an advantage. “They like to give business to local people,” says Howard, who hails from a cattle ranching family in Ortona, near LaBelle.

Johnson Engineering is scouting other locations, but Howard declines to say where for competitive reasons. “What limits us is resources,” he says. The company has always operated conservatively, eschewing debt and being careful about not expanding too fast.

For one thing, the recovery isn't fully under way yet. Winter says business conditions have stabilized, but engineering firms like Johnson won't see work pick up significantly until next year when more residential and commercial projects get under way. “We're still not seeing an incline, but there's more optimism out there,” he says.


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