Canadian Consulting Engineer

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CRYSTAL BALL

Canadian Consulting Engineer informally asked principals from eight consulting engineering firms what their outlook was for the new millennium. Most of the respondents launched their firms in the last...





Canadian Consulting Engineer informally asked principals from eight consulting engineering firms what their outlook was for the new millennium. Most of the respondents launched their firms in the last decade, and all except one have less than 20 staff.

We asked the participants to give their views on engineering in their own field, and also on what the future holds for consulting engineers as a business. This kind of crystal-ball gazing is always guesswork, of course. History has shown that life will present us with twists and turns we could never predict. However one or two ideas emerged so strongly that they seem to be reliable forecasts.

Douglas W. Anderson, P.Eng. Anderson Civil Engineering

Firm was begun in December 1998. Operates on Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. Employs three people now and hopes to grow to a maximum of 10. Field: civil engineering for municipal water, sanitary, storm and transportation systems. Specializes in low-impact, environmental solutions.

“There will be a continuing need for experienced designers, especially for [infrastructure] replacement and upgrading. More clients wish to have a study of the problems to find least-cost solutions before rushing to design and construction.

“Environmentally friendly engineering is essential. It is important to make this obvious to the public and the regulators.

“There will be lots of competition from in-house municipal engineering staff — there are more on the payrolls every year.

“Firms either will be very large, with solutions and expertise for all problems in-house, or (the rest of us) will be small, effective and with a wide network of interests. The small firms will work together as “virtual companies” for specific projects only. Constant networking will take place to provide effective solutions.”

Enio P. Sullo, P.Eng. Sullo Associates

Began the firm in 1981 to fulfil “a deep-seated desire to achieve self-autonomy and unrestricted opportunity.” Located in Chatham-Kent, Ontario. Has five employees. Field: municipal roads and bridges, land development, drainage.

“Due to a rapid deterioration of infrastructure, an expanding economy and a growing tendency towards privatization, we forecast a dramatic increase in the number of engineering assignments.

“For the next decade, we predict a continued trend towards mergers, amalgamations and buyouts of smaller to medium-sized firms. This change will lead to fewer companies and the creation of several multi-national consulting engineering conglomerates.

“During this period small firms such as ours will face a myriad of obstacles and challenges as the large firms attempt to increase their market share. Amalgamation of local governments will fuel the process by the formation of often mammoth municipalities who foster what we believe to be a misguided policy of favouring larger firms.

“However, we think that the process will eventually self-destruct as the larger firms grow more impersonal and less accountable. In the end we are confident that small firms that survive the turmoil will reap tremendous rewards.”

Saul Stricker Stricker Associates

Started his firm in 1988 because he was interested in having independence. Has two employees. Office is in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Field: energy efficiency.

“There will be growth in our field due to greenhouse gas concerns and the need for action.

“Small engineering firms and individual consultants are able to team up successfully to tackle large, complex projects by meticulously breaking out the tasks and responsibilities and managing them efficiently.

“Building good working relationships and trust, along with the use of computers and the internet, permits groups of individual firms to perform as efficiently as, or more efficiently than, large organizations. Small firms are also able to assess the market more quickly and respond with more agility than large organizations.

“I predict that engineering firms will become more flexible organizations made up of individuals with a loose working relationship based on matching skills to the work required. They will maintain a low overhead by contracting out.”

Don Lindal, P.Eng. Lindal Consulting

Started his own firm in 1991 because “I liked the idea of being on my own.” Located in Winnipeg, the firm employs up to 12 people. Field: municipal and civil engineering.”

“As infrastructures deteriorate, money will have to be spent in order to renew them. This will create work for consulting engineering firms in that field.

“During the last few years there has been a trend towards partnering with construction companies. I expect this trend to continue.”

Dave Scouten, P.Eng. Scouten & Associates Engineering

Started his own firm in 1995 because “I’d spent the previous 10 years with large consulting engineering firms in central and western Canada, and saw an opportunity for a ‘leaner,’ more aggressive approach.” Firm operates in north-central British Columbia. Employs six people and expects to grow to 12 people by 2001. Field: civil and structural engineering.

“Engineers today are being called upon increasingly to extend the operational life of physical infrastructure that was built a generation or two ago, or more. There simply aren’t the financial resources available to reconstruct aging infrastructure with brand new materials and facilities.

“Civil and structural engineers in the future will need to use appropriate technology to maximize the lifespan of bridges, airports, waste water treatment plants etc. This will involve innovative corrosion protection systems, advanced composite materials, and ‘smart’ systems for identifying and reporting structural deterioration. Tomorrow’s civil and structural engineers will simply have to do more, with less.

“Consulting firms generally will become smaller and less centralized. Information and web-based approaches will allow highly qualified specialists to contribute valuable technical advice to a project without being physically in the consultant’s office or on the consultant’s permanent payroll. Partnerships and “virtual teams” will come together to deliver an exceptional engineering product and dissolve after the assignment is complete. Engineering will become much more of a service sensitive industry — future clients won’t tolerate waiting for drawings, reports or other engineering solutions.

“The industry will become increasingly competitive (as it should), and the marketplace will favour those consultants that offer accuracy, speed and true engineering innovation, over those who have the largest collection of senior staff and the most impressive promotional budgets.”

Matt Gleben Highway Construction Inspection Ontario

Gleben started the company with two partners in 1996 after he was laid off by the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario as part of a move to privatize highway construction administration. Workforce peaked at 14 last summer. Company operates from Barrie, Ontario. Field: contract administration and inspection of highway and road construction.

“The internet allows reports, designs or drawings to be prepared anywhere by the most competent person available. I feel this will allow groups of small firms to compete in areas that were the domain of large multidisciplinary firms in the past.

“There will be a consolidation of large consulting firms. The consolidation will enable them to compete on larger projects throughout the world. I also think that more firms will expand beyond their traditional geographic territory when marketing their expertise.”

Chris Sacr Sacr-Davis Engineering

Firm was formed in November 1999 as a result of a merger of two firms started in 1986 and 1980. Operates from North Vancouver, B.C. Has 16 employees and hopes to grow to about 30. Field: civil, structural/seismic and mechanical engineering for the pulp and paper, industrial, transportation and food and beverage industries.

“Maintenance engineering and capital projects under $5 million will continue to strengthen. With evolving building codes and engineering knowledge, we expect that u
pgrade and new construction work in the transportation and building sectors will continue.

“In the industrial sector, while fewer large projects will exist, clients will rely heavily on their “miscellaneous service” consultants to do efficiency projects that reduce production labour and help them to remain cost effective.

“Networks of firms will continue to develop, with the small firms tackling the mid-size projects through either joint venture or associative relationships. These will dissolve after project completion until the next job comes along. The big firms will enhance their globalization, and I see the smaller firms also participating more in the international market with the move towards a freer global economy.

“The traditional role of the consultant — design-bid-build — will move to a situation where the consultant is involved in the scope and management of the project package or as the detail designer for a design/build contract.

“Ultimately it will be the consulting engineer who diversifies, has strong marketing skills and superior performance that will grow.”

And now a word from a larger firm …

Terry McQuillan, P.Eng. Urban Systems

Firm started in 1975. Operates in Kamloops, Kelowna, Richmond, Fort St. John and Nelson in British Columbia, and in Calgary, Alberta. Has 175 employees, including 36 partners. Field: community infrastructure and transportation

“There will be great opportunities for those who are nimble and skillful. There will also be greater emphasis on:

more cost effective use of capital dollars

extending the service life of existing infrastructure

greater involvement of the private sector in design, delivery and operation of public infrastructure.

“Changing demographics will significantly influence the nature and scope of infrastructure, and projects will have greater public involvement and accountability.

“Big firms will need to continue to get bigger. Some will prosper; others will not.

“Big firms will become multi-divisional, with consulting being only a small part of their overall activities. They will have difficulty competing with smaller, more focused consulting firms in some situations. Opportunities for small and medium-sized firms who are nimble, creative and relationship-driven will abound.” CCE