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May 2009
Survival of the Fittest
By Sam Boykin

     There aren’t too many corporations around today that can claim they did business with the men who invented and built the world’s first flying machine. But just a few years after Woolpert was founded in 1911, and following the historical event at Kitty Hawk, the engineering and architecture firm supported Orville and Wilbur Wright on several projects in Dayton, Ohio, the brothers’ hometown. This was also during uncertain times as the entire downtown area of Dayton was destroyed by the Great Flood of 1913. Woolpert seized the opportunity to help rebuild the community by designing and surveying new residential developments, which were now located on higher ground.

     Nearly 100 years later Woolpert continues to seek opportunities that will support the company’s surrounding communities and keep the company thriving. It’s an ability that Gary L. Stewart, chairman of the board, credits to the company’s diversity, flexibility and understanding of how to read market conditions during any period of time. And it’s a strength that Stewart says will help the firm continue to be successful even through this latest economic downturn.

 

Diversity and Modernization

     While most people change jobs multiple times, Stewart, at 53, is a bit of an anomaly. Since he graduated from The Ohio State University (OSU) in 1979, he’s spent his entire career at Woolpert. “When I first started, the economy was almost as bad as it today,” he says.

     But the Dayton, Ohio-based company had already proven itself quite resilient long before the economic downturn of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The company first took shape in the early 1900s when Charlton Putnam, a prominent surveyor and landscape engineer from Rhode Island, partnered with several other businessmen to develop the housing markets in Dayton. In 1916, Ralph L. Woolpert, a civil engineer from Cedarville, Ohio, joined the company which at the time consisted of a draftsman and a three-man survey crew.

     During the Great Depression, when new real estate projects ground to a halt, the company expanded its focus, developing the expertise to work with the federal government as it extended electric lines to rural parts of the Midwest.

     Woolpert eventually took over leadership responsibilities, and in 1942, the company changed names to the Ralph L. Woolpert Company. It was during this time that the firm became involved in World War II engineering and surveying work at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) outside Dayton. It was a project that paved the way for many other jobs with the aviation industry.

     When Stewart joined the company in 1979—a time when most companies were just hoping to survive the lagging economy—Woolpert made significant strides toward the future. The company invested in aircraft, leading the way in photogrammetry and geographic information system (GIS) technology, which allows for computer-based aerial mapping. The company also expanded its work globally, including airport planning and design, as well as environmental engineering. These new advances enabled Woolpert to land clients like the Department of Defense, for which it helped in facility master planning and condition assessment of their structures at multiple military installations.

     Following 9/11, Woolpert stepped up its defense and security practices, and currently assists the Department of Homeland Security with high-tech maps of the U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Canadian borders. And after Hurricane Katrina, Woolpert mapped the shoreline of the Gulf Coast to document damage, and is in the process of completing a detailed survey of key levees for the Corps of Engineers.

     Today, Woolpert has about 750 employees in 23 offices nationwide (65 work out of the Charlotte office), and works with federal and local/state governments as well as the private sector. Some of the local projects the company currently has underway include the Matthews Town Center Master Plan, the Reedy Creek Wastewater interceptor and a public-private partnership for the U.S. Navy Southeast.

     “We are providing design and surveying services for a prominent private developer/contractor and are modernizing 5,500 housing units for sailors and their families at 11 different naval installations along the southeast,” says Stewart. “It’s a three-quarters of a billion dollar construction program.”

     Woolpert is able to work with such a wide range of clients because it offers so many diverse services in addition to engineering and architecture. The firm also does surveying, enterprise information management, water management and photogrammetry/remote sensing, in which aerial photographs are used to create detailed maps and models. Some other cutting-edge services the company employs include LiDAR, in which laser pulses are beamed down from an aircraft to plot a 3-D model of the earth, enabling the company to generate contours, create water models, and map land use.

     Because Woolpert is able to integrate all these different services, the company can oversee every aspect of even the most complicated project.

     “Back in the ’80s and ’90s it was common for clients to have multiple consultants—architects, engineers, surveyors,” says Stewart. “It was an administrative burden for them to manage each separately. Today, we have the capability to cover all services and provide the client with just one point of contact.”

 

Collaboration and Expansion

     While attending OSU, Stewart had changed majors multiple times as he juggled his interests in architecture, engineering, and environmental conservation. “I liked aspects of all of those fields, but none of them enough to make a commitment, and that’s where landscape architecture came into play. It combined all the technical areas I enjoyed.”

Upon graduating in 1979, Stewart landed a job as an entry-level landscape architect at Woolpert at the age of 23.

     During Stewart’s early years at the company he earned an M.B.A. on the weekends from Central Michigan University, which offered an extension program out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton.

     “I was eager to get into management and a leadership position with the company, but I needed the additional business training” he says.

     Stewart indicates that during this time one of his big influences was Chuck Abramovitz, Woolpert’s managing partner when Stewart first joined the firm.

     “I was always impressed at how he could bring people together no matter what the issue,” remembers Stewart. “He would let people speak to the issue, facilitate the discussion, and at the end, bring everyone to a common solution.”

     As Woolpert continued to grow, Stewart was tapped to help with expansion plans in the southeast, and relocated to Charlotte in 1984; two years after the company opened an office in the Queen City.

     “There wasn’t much of a skyline when I first came to Charlotte,” Stewart remembers. “The airport was much smaller, and we didn’t have our large civic and sports facilities. But Charlotte has always had such a can-do attitude. Area leaders had a vision to make Charlotte a unique and standout community. The transformation has been amazing.”

     And Woolpert played a part in the transformation. Stewart explains that one of the main reasons the company opened an office in Charlotte was that it had landed a major project to design Renaissance Park. The company also capitalized on opportunities to update Mecklenburg County’s topographic maps. This led to other projects with the City of Charlotte, as well as regional municipalities and developers like Crosland and Trammell Crow.

     “That’s typical Woolpert,” says Stewart. “We capture opportunities in our backyard, but we’re always looking for opportunities to expand throughout the region.”

     Stewart became partner when he was 32, and helped steer the company as it continued to grow throughout the 1990s. In 1997, the firm adopted the name Woolpert LLP and emerged as one of the country’s top 100 design firms.

     The firm also implemented a new strategic plan that restructured its operations according to services as opposed to geography. At the time, Stewart was in charge of operations in both Charlotte and Columbia, S.C. After the restructuring, Stewart oversaw facilities planning and design, which involved architects, landscape architects and planners.

     “Individuals who were in common disciplines were placed in the same division,” Stewart says. “This enabled the company better flexibility in providing the right resources and talent to each given project.”

     Stewart credits his collaborative leadership style to the influence of so many strong leaders from within the firm.

     “Like my predecessors, I’m a big believer in bringing people together to discuss issues and facilitating discussions and hopefully coming out at the end of the day with a united front in terms of a solution,” he says. “I’ve found that’s a pretty effective style in today’s world. The days of the autocratic leader are over.”

 

Weathering the Storm

     Throughout the 2000s Woolpert continued to expand nationwide, and to support the growing design-build market the company created a subsidiary, Woolpert Construction Services, LLC. In 2005, Woolpert became incorporated and changed its name to Woolpert, Inc.

     In 2006, at 50, Stewart was named chairman of the board. He explains that in his new role, he leads the company’s shareholders with ownership issues and the board with long-range visioning: “We do a lot of trend analysis and scenario planning to make sure we seize upon the right opportunities for the future,” he says.

     Many of these opportunities are laid out in the company’s recently completed 2025 Plan. “It’s a vision of the firm in terms of future markets, the work force and technology. It maps out the changes Woolpert will need to make along the way to achieve our vision.”

     Stewart points to a couple of key areas, including globalization. As the world’s economy is expected to continue to grow, Stewart expects Woolpert to increase its role in the global market, including Europe, India, China, South America and the Middle East.

     Another pressing issue is the need for sustainable natural resources and energy. To that end, Stewart says the company is making investments in water supply conservation and reuse services, as well as supporting alternative energy sources including biosolids, nuclear, wind and solar. The company is also applying some of its existing technology to support the demand for emerging energy conservation initiatives.

     “We can fly over sites and assess how energy-efficient buildings are with our existing technology,” he explains. “Using thermal imaging for example, we can support energy audit efforts by helping identify areas with energy loss.”

     Of course all these long-term plans and strategies are being crafted in light of the recession. Stewart says while the company has had some downsizing due to downturns in some markets, they are expanding and growing in others.

     “There’s a real confidence being with a company like Woolpert that has been through everything from the Great Depression to world wars and natural disasters,” says Stewart. “A lot of the young work force has never been through a recession. But with a 98-year track record, we can honestly look them in the eye and say we’re doing all the right things to make adjustments and seize opportunities during these uncertain times. Woolpert has weathered storms like this in the past, and we continue to implement strategies and develop leadership to weather them now and well into the future.”

Sam Boykin is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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