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A Conversation With ... Kevin Lowe

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Tell us about Olsson Associates.
Olsson Associates is a full-service consulting engineering firm. We’re employee-owned. I’m a civil engineer by training, but we have mechanical and electrical here, too. We do everything, basically, but architectural work. … Olsson has 18 offices scattered from Phoenix to Arizona. We’re in the Kansas City region here (with) 33 employees in Springfield. (The company) is based in Lincoln, Neb. I started the office and was the first employee in Springfield in December 2005.

How did Olsson’s June acquisition of Scott Consulting Engineers change the local Olsson office?
Civil engineering has a lot of different components. There’s a structural side, an environmental side – treatment plants and water systems. We felt like our strength at the time in town was land development, stormwater and transportation – streets and traffic systems. (Scott Consulting) had been in business for 30 years, and the Scott folks were the city engineers for 10 or 12 little communities around here and did wells, water systems. So we felt like it was the perfect marriage at the time.

Before joining Olsson, you worked for the Missouri Department of Transportation and Greene County. What are some key differences between working in the public and private sectors?
Public and private both have their pros and cons. … Relationships are everything in this business, but in this economy, it’s just who’s cheaper, quite honestly. (On the private side), you’re next to (economic reality) a little quicker. (On the public) side, there are maybe a little more politics you’re dealing with. But on this side of the fence, employees are expenses. When your revenue goes down, you’ve got to cut your expenses. We’ve gone through three rounds of layoffs here. In 2008, Olsson was approaching 900 employees companywide, and now, I think we’re just shy of 600. By the middle of 2008, we had 32 (local employees), and we had to cut a third of our staff and went back down to 20. The Scott folks had 18 at the time of the acquisition, and to date, we’ve kept 12 of those, and we have an office in Joplin under this office, and there are three employees in Joplin.

Do you anticipate more layoffs?
In 2010, we had revenues of about $2.6 million. We’re staffed right now to be a $4 million a year office, and I feel we’re too heavy. Springfield’s built with a lot of small businesses, but there’s got to be more work coming than just from the public side. Our biggest project right now is the new St. John’s orthopedic hospital on the private side. When (the recession started), we were probably doing $3 million a year, with more than $2 million out of private development. Last year, out of $2.6 million, we didn’t have $400,000 come out of private development. There was a time when we would have had 10 subdivisions going at once, but that switch just shut off (and) we had a lot of bad debt that we couldn’t collect. Some of those folks just went out … and we’re left sitting there holding the bag. … The last thing I want to do is get smaller, but you have to size your ship for the water you’re in. I look at workload weekly.

How do you keep your staff busy in these slower times?
Right now, you fight like hell. You turn over every rock. I tell the staff all the time that hard work brings good luck. We’re cross-selling our services, and we got in as a subconsultant to a firm that does a lot of military planning on bases, and that really helped us. It’s nontraditional engineering work, but that’s what we’ve had to do. It doesn’t have to just be engineering work. We’re looking at any way to keep folks busy. … We bill for our time, and a set of plans is the product we produce, but if we’re not charging our time to a project that we can bill for our services, we’re not in business very long.  ... We’re constantly looking at showing people what our value is. … a lot of clients don’t see … that engineers can save money on the construction side. What are good set of plans worth?
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