Recessions have a way of clearing a path for entrepreneurs.
Consider Ron Waldrop, a civil engineer who started out as a solo practitioner in Bonita Springs in 2000. Today, Waldrop Engineering has 40 employees stretching from Pasco County north of Tampa to Collier County in the south.
Although he started the civil-engineering business at the start of the real estate boom, Waldrop was careful never to overextend himself. “We stayed smaller and true to who we were,” Waldrop says.
By the time the bust occurred, he had 15 employees, a number that held steady during the downturn while his much-larger competitors trimmed their payrolls or shut their doors. “We were the only group I know of that kept intact,” says Waldrop, 43.
That's quite a feat considering many of his clients were residential builders. These included Pulte, Taylor Morrison and Stock Development, among others.
Waldrop's family was active in homebuilding in Southwest Florida and he had followed them here from Austin, Texas, in 1993. He started as an engineer with WilsonMiller in Naples, a well-established firm that was acquired by Canadian giant Stantec during the real estate bust.
In 2000, Waldrop decided to start his own firm. “I was one guy with a computer,” he chuckles at the memory of starting out.
His first client was big: Lely Resort, before the Stock family of Wisconsin took over the Naples development. “We knew competition was going to be the big engineering firms,” Waldrop says. “Our big thing is client service.”
When the real estate downturn started taking hold, many of Waldrop's homebuilding clients consolidated their Florida operations and covered more territory with fewer people. That's how Waldrop ended up doing civil engineering work for them in places such as Tampa and Sarasota. “As they consolidated, they added geography to their groups,” Waldrop explains. “We saw it as a great opportunity.”
Even as the downturn was taking hold in 2008, homebuilders still needed civil engineering work on structures such as entryways, nature trails, playgrounds and clubhouses. Waldrop would help builders design them to appeal to wary homebuyers. “We do more than just engineering,” says Waldrop.
In 2009, Ryan Binkowski joined the firm to provide landscape architecture and Alexis Crespo to provide large-scale planning services. In 2010, Waldrop opened an office in Tampa led by Trent Stephenson, a Heidt & Associates alumnus. The Sarasota office opened one year ago.
With a team in place, Waldrop says he can offer builders a one-stop shop to take a piece of land through the development process. “Right now it's full steam ahead,” Waldrop says, noting that builders are eagerly planning single-family communities throughout the region. “Our clients are still looking for land,” he says. “The southern area is the most active.”
Waldrop says commercial development is becoming more active now, too. “Multifamily is starting to get rolling,” he says.
The geography isn't a challenge, Waldrop says. “There's not time to micro manage,” he says. “We spend time to make sure we have the right people.”