Environmental Engineering Firm Seeks to Create a Culture
In 1970, Earth Tech was founded as a geotechnical engineering firm, and beginning in the 1980s, in response to burgeoning environmental movement, the company expanded to include environmental services. As it focused on expansion, it acquired 23 specialized engineering, construction, and environmental firms, including familiar names such as Rust Environmental & Infrastructure in 1998 and TAMS Consultants in 2002. Along the way, Earth Tech was acquired itself by Tyco International in 1996, providing the financial resources to acquire many of these companies.
As a result, Earth Tech has become a major international engineering firm with diverse capabilities. Bill Webb, executive vice president of Earth Tech’s Consulting and Engineering Division, says, “The strategy to begin acquiring companies was to diversify our services and grow our business geographically as well as increase the number of employees in the business.”
Headquartered in Long Beach, California, Earth Tech now has 70 offices around the country and offices in 15 foreign countries. It boasts some 7,000 employees, including 5000 engineers and other technical people. Its wide range of clients includes governments, industrial companies, utilities, institutions, and private developers.
But now that Earth Tech has achieved such lofty status and hasn’t bought any companies in the last few years, it has set out on another mission: create a common culture, what they call an Earth Tech culture. As Webb puts it, “We’ve been focusing on integrating these different companies into one Earth Tech. We’ve worked very hard on developing common tools, processes, and programs in everything we do. We’ve tried to develop the best practices of all these 28 companies.” He adds that it’s not such a laborious chore. “Actually, we think it’s an exciting process. Every time we acquired a company, it was an opportunity for us to learn a different way of doing things and be introduced to new clients and new services.”
While many clients hire Earth Tech just for engineering, more and more come to them for a turnkey package that encompasses everything from preliminary project planning to long-term operations and maintenance. They participate in newfangled project delivery methods such as design-build-finance-operate (DBFO).
Earth Tech offers services in four markets: water/wastewater, environmental, transportation, and facilities. “We like to think they’re all equally important, but our largest service area has always been the environmental business. I think that’s about 40 percent of our business,” Webb says. “A close second is our water and wastewater business. The facilities and transportation business have been in smaller proportion, but in the past three years, the transportation business has undergone the most rapid growth and is very quickly catching up to the water-wastewater and environmental business in size and importance. This is a benefit of our diversification strategy because at any particular time, the various economic forces or conditions might favor one of our business lines or another.”
Environmental engineering services include site investigation; remediation systems design, installation, operation, and maintenance; and site closure and redevelopment. In water, they include water supply, treatment, and distribution, while wastewater projects cover treatment, conveyance, and water reuse systems. Earth Tech has pioneered the design and implementation of recycled water projects, using membrane technology to treat wastewater for reuse in agricultural irrigation and other applications.
As an example of a wastewater treatment project, the MOL Duna Refinery, the largest oil refinery in Hungary, required upgrades to its facilities to meet European Union and Hungarian environmental legislation. The Hungarian Government owns 12 percent of the refinery in one of the country’s first privatization efforts. As part of a 15-year services agreement, Earth Tech has assumed full responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the wastewater collection system, wastewater treatment, and waste incineration and landfill site.
In transportation, Earth Tech’s market sectors include aviation, rail, roadways, bridges, tunnels, ports, and intermodal facilities. In a signature project, the firm is leading the planning, design, and construction of the Miami Intermodal Center, which will serve as a central connecting point for regional travel in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Located next to the Miami International Airport, the facility will link with the Metrorail, Tri-Rail, Amtrak, Airport/Seaport transportation services, MDT, and intercity buses, as well as regional highways and local streets. The Earth Tech has incorporated existing infrastructure into the design while adding an airport connection to taxis, cruise ports, parking facilities, rental car outlets, and other modes of transportation.
Another key transportation project was the LINK Train, an automated people mover that connects Terminals 1 and 3 at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Canada. The 1.6-kilometer dual elevated guideway over road level carries two trains of six cars each, with each train having a capacity of 150 passengers with baggage. It opened in 2006, replacing a shuttle bus service.
Webb reports that when it comes to facilities, Earth Tech is seeing a trend in green building. “That pervades almost all of our work. It started in our facilities design in green building or LEED-certified building designs. But we see it now in remediation and our environmental work. Sustainability is no longer a trend. It’s becoming part of the mainstream of our business, and our engineers have to be knowledgeable, in some cases experts, in sustainability.”
Besides green building, Earth Tech offers sustainable design such as biogas energy recovery, cogeneration systems, micro-hydro and large hydroelectric systems, wind power generation, waste fuel utilization, and wetland and stormwater management. Many company professionals have achieved LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accreditation, and Earth Tech participates in green building councils of several countries.
Another trend Earth Tech is seeing, according to Webb, is building information modeling (BIM). This involves generating a set of information on all facets of a building and maintaining it throughout its lifecycle. “It makes us more efficient, and it allows better collaboration between all the participants on a project, from the engineer to the owner to the architect, the contractor, etc. Our architects and engineers involved in building programs are using BIM more frequently than ever before.”
With Earth Tech involved in alternative types of project delivery and covering many facets of projects, engineers must have broader skills and training, but they also see greater opportunities. Webb reports, “These types of projects require an engineer to take a broader view of their role in the overall project. They have the opportunity to get involved in the construction and operation and some of the decisions involving financing the project.”
Ian MacLeod, vice president of human resources, adds, “One of the positives about working for our company is that it takes many different types of individuals to make those projects happen. So you’ve got people who desire to stay in a technical stream, and you’ve got others who excel on the project management side. You have other people who are more involved in business development, and then you’ve got others interested in running the business itself, so that’s more the management career stream. Within the organization, we have set up those career paths, and we have different training programs and initiatives to provide people the opportunities to expand or strengthen those skills.” They offer in-house training programs on things like finance and project management.
Webb’s career typifies how engineering careers play out at Earth Tech. A civil engineer with a degree from the University of Missouri Rolla, he has a specialty is geotechnical engineering and now works out of the Charlotte, North Carolina office. He started by doing various office engineering assignments and then got into business development and later general management. He recalls that the first project he worked on as a geotechnical engineer came at Disney World when it was nothing but 27,000 acres of swamp land.
“For those interested in moving around the organization and being involved in projects not in their local area, there are plenty of opportunities for that,” MacLeod goes on to say. “But at the same time, a lot of our business is locally based, and for those who wish to remain local and have perhaps long-term relationships with local clients, there’s plenty of room for those individuals in the organization too. In particular, in the last few years since we’ve been integrating all the companies we have acquired, there’s greater interaction among all the businesses across the organization worldwide. And we continue to see more and more interaction and exchange.” To help this process, Earth Tech started the Technical Practices Network, which connects experts worldwide and those who want to become experts in particular technical areas.
Now that Earth Tech has attained a company culture after acquiring many companies, the scene may change again. In a recent development, they are being purchased from Tyco by AECOM, one of the largest engineering companies in the world. It will be interesting to see what happens next. With this new source of capital, Earth Tech could go on a buying spree and acquire more engineering firms. But more than likely, they will stay the course and keep refining their culture, one that works well for them.
Types of engineers they use: Bill Webb, executive vice president of the Consulting and Engineering Division says, “Because of our diversity, the kinds of engineers we employ runs virtually the whole gamut. This means civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical, all of the broad engineering disciplines and virtually all the specialty disciplines within those broad disciplines, including geotechnical, environmental, structural, plumbing, sanitary, and process.”
Outlook for hiring engineers: Ian MacLeod, vice president of human resources, reports, “The demand is strong and has been for quite some time. That covers all the disciplines, probably water-wastewater and transportation in particular at the moment. Part of it has to do with the market itself being quite robust, and most of our competitors, like us, are busy. So there is full employment for the profession at the moment. Trying to find talent is difficult. And that’s not just in the U.S. We see that everywhere we operate at the moment. Places like Canada and Australia, those markets are doing very well; there’s a great demand for natural resources, and their governments are spending significant monies on infrastructure.”
What they look for in engineers: When it comes to experience levels they seek, MacLeod says, “It’s right across the board with the levels of experience and disciplines. Webb adds, “Our greatest demand, or one that is constant, is entry level. We’re searching for entry-level people in virtually every one of our offices.”
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