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May 2011
Planning for the BIG Picture
By Heather Head

     On the wall of a small conference room in southwest Charlotte hangs a color photograph of The Palisades community entrance. Beside it, another framed photograph of Sun City Carolina Lakes community. On the floor, decorative stone facing is arranged in a pattern on the carpet, and tacked to the bulletin board are landscape plans, concept drawings and survey maps.

     The setting could be any landscape architecture or civil engineering firm office, but the range of interests and projects on display hint at something larger. The company is Cardno TBE, and their customers rely on them for big picture land development solutions from conceptual planning to the finished product.

     Cardno TBE is a member of the Cardno international group of companies, providing services including civil engineering, landscape architecture, master planning, environmental services, brownfield redevelopment, subsurface utility engineering and coordination, transportation, project management and construction management services.

     Combined with their commitment to customer partnership and understanding of strategic and tactical land development issues, the services represent turnkey solutions for land owners, developers and municipal and state agencies.

 

Early Development

     The Charlotte branch of Cardno began life as a division of WRG Design, a civil, landscape architecture and land planning firm headquartered out of Portland, Oregon. WRG had made a reputation for itself based on extraordinary customer service. Their commitment to the success of their customers meant that large national clients wanted their services in other cities as well.

     In the late 1990s, WRG opened its first expansion office in Las Vegas, Nevada. Shortly afterward, in 2000, Target offered them a one-million-square-foot distribution center project and asked them to move into Phoenix as well, and the next year they were wanted in Sacramento by another significant client. The next year it was Boise, Idaho, and then, in 2006, an office in Charlotte. They sent Vice President Andrew Hill to open the new office, and he’s never looked back.

     Charlotte is an exceptional place for us to be,” says Hill. “For us it was a hidden gem. It’s got the base for great infrastructure, great opportunity, and it’s a great business climate. It’s also an international city, with many types of European firms opening branches here. It was, at the time, an untapped territory.”

     In fact, for WRG, the Charlotte office was pivotal in catching the eye of the international community.

     Hill recounts how the company could have quickly expanded into a dozen or more cities early on, but they were committed to growing sustainably. The leadership developed an expansion plan that called for three primary criteria before opening a new office: (i) a client who wanted them there, (ii) someone internally who already understood the company’s “genetic code” and was willing to move there, and (iii) a region that would support ongoing growth.

     While other firms were buying up companies in other cities and rapidly filling out the map, WRG followed their own plan and only built offices that could continue to provide the high level of quality and service their company had come to be known for.

     That reputation caught the attention of a Brisbane, Australia, physical and social engineering giant called Cardno. When WRG opened their Charlotte office, they demonstrated that they could take their reputation sustainably from coast to coast, and shortly thereafter Cardno came for a visit.

     “Cardno shared the same culture,” says Hill. We achieved our vision through understanding and meeting our client’s expectations and through continually improving our processes and service delivery. One of our primary reasons for the merger with Cardno was to provide our clients with a wider range of services.

     So in 2008, WRG became Cardno WRG. The engineering, architecture and other key staff remained the same and Cardno encouraged the staff to continue delivering services the way they had been doing successfully.

     Shortly thereafter, Cardno also acquired a national 450-person firm headquartered in Clearwater, Fla., called TBE Group, that delivers a multitude of land development services for public and private clients. TBE was recognized as an international powerhouse in the subsurface utility field along with a strong reputation in the Southeast for traditional consulting services such as civil engineering, environmental and brownfield redevelopment and construction management.

     The merger complemented Cardno’s existing services, allowing them to provide partnership for private as well as governmental clients, and to add in-depth environmental and utility services to their lineup, meaning even bigger savings and solutions for customers.

 

Company Landscape

     Cardno’s business model is relationship driven. Their core business strategy and structure allows the business units the autonomy to build and run their operations while still having the benefit of the support of a large organization. While they are able to take on large and complex projects, they are always ready to serve clients on their smaller projects. Increasingly, the divisions are also working on projects together and cross-selling services to provide a holistic and integrated approach to clients.

     To understand how significant the combination of services can be, consider the task of developing brownfield sites in urban areas. Bringing a contaminated site back into use can be a challenge, even when it’s located in an otherwise highly desirable area. Often the cost of development may apparently outweigh any perceived benefit.

     Cardno begins such a project with a big picture vision to create an innovative, sustainable solution for the site. They’ll develop several end-user options, such as a commercial center or healthcare facility. Then they actively bring potential buyers to the table to discuss the options and begin working toward a deal with the owner of the property. By beginning at the sale, Cardno assists their clients in providing the incentive to pursue development and therefore creating a project that may not have otherwise moved forward.

     Then they look for ways to develop the site that take advantage of the efficiencies of their many services. For instance, another environmental firm might suggest extensive excavation for many acres of dirt before beginning development. Cardno, because they understand the specific development needs of the site and include all services in-house, may recommend instead that the site’s parking lot be placed over the contamination as a cap, effectively encapsulating it and saving the developer the extensive cost of excavation.

     “A lot of companies offer either environmental services or civil engineering and landscape architecture,” explains Hill. “We can provide all the services from inception to completion, from a dirty junkyard to a completed fire station.”

     In addition to multiple development services, Cardno also brings a strong marketing and sales emphasis to every deal. Besides bringing potential purchasers to a deal, they also focus on the “marketing trail” for many of their high-end residential projects. From brochures to implemented landscapes, to the way the road rises and falls, every piece of development is focused on making a sale for the customer.

      For instance, when Del Webb asked Cardno (WRG at that time) to help develop Sun City Carolina Lakes, they looked at the site and created a vision designed to sell homes and provide a memorable experience. They started with the entrance and, instead of just letting the entryway drop down into the community from the highway as the site currently did, they envisioned an infill of dirt that would raise the entry and bring visitors up to a plateau as they entered, revealing suddenly and grandly the entire community laid out below.

     “You may have just sold the home right there,” explains Hill. Attention to detail is key, he adds, and mentions that other touches such as custom manhole covers, choice of street lamps, and community themes enliven every project and lead to stronger sales.

     In addition, Cardno offers many support services that can be hard to find elsewhere, but are invaluable during the development stage. For instance, thanks to the addition of TBE, they provide subsurface utility engineering and utility coordination. These services can use surface techniques such as ground-penetrating radar or subsurface techniques such as vacuum excavation to nondestructively locate and map the exact location of all underground utility lines, so that designers can avoid costly conflicts during construction. Only a very few companies offer the level of utility engineering design, coordination and field locating services that Cardno’s subsurface utility engineering services can. It can often keep a project’s schedule on track and avoid unnecessary costs and conflicts.

     Utility coordination refers to the process of identifying which lines belong to which utility companies, and maintaining proactive communication. Utility coordination brings all utility owners involved in the project together to work out the complex issues involved with re-routing any utilities before or during construction. If everyone has a plan upfront, the project should avoid roadblocks.

 

Facing the Future

     Cardno’s biggest challenge has been the one that the entire industry shares—the ravages of the recent economic nose dive. Hill says Charlotte’s success during boom times actually contributed to the challenge of the down times for companies like his.

     Charlotte was a hot spot for folks in the Northeast and Southeast and was doing a great job of getting ahead of the game and building enough supply to meet the demand,” Hill explains. “So when the demand dropped off, it created a challenge. At one point, there were 40,000 permitted residential lots in Charlotte—lots with the design done, drawings approved, just sitting there waiting to have houses put on them.”

     Hill shakes his head. “In a good year,” he says, “Charlotte permits about 12,000 lots. That means, from a developer’s standpoint, that Charlotte had a backlog of about three years’ worth of permitted sites ready for houses. From a consultant’s standpoint, that represents three years’ worth of work already done with little need for their services in the interim.”

     “That’s a significant challenge,” he admits.

     Like many companies, the office had to downsize during the worst of the downturn, but Hill says they’re coming out of it strong, and glad to be in Charlotte. He believes not only that Charlotte and the Carolinas are a great place for his company to be, but that Charlotte will pull out of the economic downturn soon. While it may never reach the heady heights of furious development of 2007-8, it has the potential to be something great, and he expects his company to be in the middle of that growth.

     “I see this office being a 60 to 80 person office in five to 10 years,” he says. “As the economy improves, our clients are looking to begin some projects they’ve had on hold, and right now we can offer them a wider range of services at this office.”

     Hill says he sees Cardno blending its services even more than it already does by continuing to focus on optimum customer service and the ability to pull from an international palette of expertise.

     As for Charlotte, he’d like to see the banks start lending again and for builders to start opening up and spending again. He says there are plenty of builders with cash, but they’ve been afraid to spend it. He also believes that other areas of the country have to strengthen themselves before Charlotte can boom.

     He explains that people who want to move to Charlotte can only do so if they can sell their current homes, and that can only happen when places like New York and Florida revitalize themselves.

     He believes it will happen, and soon. “I’m already starting to see some signs of this in the past six months. Also, the Chamber has a good vision for the area and some good companies are relocating headquarters here. Charlotte has a lot to offer.”

     If Hill is right, Cardno is going to play a significant role in developing Charlotte’s potential. And that’s a big picture everyone can enjoy.

 

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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