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R.A. Smith & Associates:

Fundamental Values Allow It to Survive and Prosper

Richard Smith, president of R.A. Smith & Associates, a civil engineering firm in Brookfield, Wisconsin, reports that over the past 25 years, his firm has continually added to its client base, expanded its range of services, experienced significant growth in revenue, and built a reputation for quality and service. This ranks as quite an accomplishment when you consider the firm's humble beginnings. How did Smith engineer such a turnaround? You might expect to hear about some magical or ingenious business strategies, but it boils down to something more old fashioned and less sexy than that. "A lot of people give lip service to values and the importance of people," Smith says, "but I learned early on that these are crucial to survival."

In telling the company's history, Smith reports, "When I started this firm back in 1978, I had to focus on survival because soon after purchasing what appeared to be a 'going' firm I discovered that it was going downhill." A few years out of school, he joined an engineering firm. "After three years with the firm, it was obvious this was not a good career opportunity, and I went to the owner and told him so. Being forthright paid off. A short time later, following some limited negotiations, I owned the firm." At the time, Smith was 28 with little experience. When he announced his purchase, six of the firm's 15 employees quit.

His first task, however, was not just shoring up the staff but also the client roster. As he met with clients soon after his purchase, he learned the firm had a poor reputation, and prospects wouldn't do business with them. Smith faced a number of tough decisions. He changed the name of the firm, despite the fact he paid a significant amount of money for it, and he also made a number of difficult financial decisions.

Today, the firm employs almost 200 people with annual revenues approaching $17 million. "If values like honesty, quality, service, and recognizing the importance of all employees are ingrained into the culture of the firm, profitability and growth result, " he says in explaining the success.

R.A. Smith & Associates is unique in the civil engineering industry, as the main company, R.A. Smith, serves the public sector, while a division, National Survey & Engineering, serves private clients. In the public arena, the firm provides ongoing municipal engineering for many communities and agencies, including highway design for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and county highway departments, water and wastewater design, storm water management, business/industrial park design, construction services, GIS, visualization services, and IT consulting.

On the private side, the firm provides land use and site planning, feasibility studies, site engineering, storm water management, and surveying for commercial/retail, industrial, business, residential, and health care sectors as well as schools, churches, and libraries. One of the largest in the Midwest, the surveying group has performed surveys for many landmark organizations in the state such as the Midwest Express Center and Milwaukee Art Museum. The clients of National Survey & Engineering comprise household names with projects across the country, including regional and neighborhood malls, big-box retail outlets, and multi- and single-family residential sites.

So how do Smith's values manifest themselves in the company? He says one way is through employee development. The firm encourages educational opportunities and pays for them. "We insist on working with individuals to help them establish and achieve career goals."

Innovation and technology have also became high priorities within the firm's culture, Smith says. "Clients recognize that technology in engineering can reduce project time, increase detail, and provide a greater assurance of project success." And he adds, "As a further benefit of a strong technology strategy, the firm can attract and retain top employees." In its surveying practice, global positioning system (GPS) technology has been integrated into its work processes, and robotic stations for surveying are used to reduce labor and time in the field. And the firm pursues other technology innovations such as the field use of GIS and 3D visualization and animation.

As proof of the success of this formula, R.A. Smith has established an enviable record in retaining its professional employees. The firm has never laid off an employee and has enjoyed growth every single year. "When I hire someone, I intend to have them retire here," states Smith.

Hiring Scenario

According to Director of Human Resources Darline Hoffins, R.A. Smith and Associates hires civil engineers with an emphasis on transportation design, public works, site development, and construction services. To a lesser extent, the company also hires engineers with educational backgrounds in environmental, structural, and materials areas.

While Hoffins reports that R.A. Smith has had an aggressive hiring campaign for many years, the firm has filled all openings for 2003, adding 31 people to the ranks. "While no openings remain, the company is always looking for excellent candidates to add to the fold," meaning they accept resumes on a continuing basis. Due to today's low interest rates, the company has seen a high degree of new business with private developers requiring design work and surveying, and the municipal and transportation design areas continue to experience a steady flow of work.

As for higher-level engineers, candidates for transportation work usually require experience with the state Department of Transportation, and those in private development will have had experience with subdivisions, commercial projects, the state Department of Natural Resources, permitting, grading, and water retention. Candidates for the firm's Public Works and Construction Services areas should have experience with municipal clients.

"Recruiting occurs through a variety of mediums, which include posting openings on the Internet, intranet, and company website and internal postings, advertisements in selected newspapers, ads in trade periodicals, and through networking and referrals," Hoffins reports. "The company has been fortunate to attract high caliber people without much need for placement agencies."

Candidates for entry-level positions are generally found through an aggressive campus recruiting program, though some submit resumes on their own. Those with experience from co-op programs or internships are most desirable.


Company: R.A. Smith & Associates, Inc.

Type: Civil engineering consulting firm

Location: Brookfield, Wisconsin

Human Resource Contact: Darline Hoffins, Director of Human Resources

Contact information:
Mailing address - 16745 W. Bluemound Road, Brookfield, WI 53005-5938
E-mail -
Fax - 262-786-0826


Progressive Engineer
Editor: Tom Gibson
2049 Crossroads Drive, Lewisburg, PA 17837
570-568-8444 *
©2004 Progressive Engineer