Many companies are tempering expectations for this year after the pandemic. For San Antonio-based engineering firm Raba Kistner, however, 2020 is expected to be the firm's best year ever.
"We’re probably the busiest we’ve ever been and will probably have the best year in our company’s 52-year lifespan. Besides a brief shutdown in Austin earlier in the year, nothing has really slowed us down," said Gabriel Ornelas, senior vice president at Raba Kistner.
Ornelas credits a healthy backlog, few work stoppages and a number of large TxDOT projects for the company's success so far this year. He says Raba Kistner's Dallas office is reasonable for about 10 to 15 percent of the company's total business in any given year.
Ornelas has been tasked with helping it grow even more. Due to this year's projected success, plans are to expand the local office from about 40 employees to at least 75 within a year. That count does not include an additional 50 to 100 employees the company will be hiring in anticipation of its Interstate 635 East reconstruction and expansion project, which is set to begin later this year.
Other than its Dallas office, Raba Kistner operates 7 other offices in Texas and two more in Nebraska and Utah. The company also has operations in Mexico.
In addition to the company's growth plans in Dallas, Ornelas recently spoke with the Business Journal about what shrinking city budgets could mean for public projects across Texas and what this could mean for public-private partnerships:
Beyond your growth goals in Dallas, are you introducing any new service lines to this market?
We are. What we’re bringing into the Dallas market are basically our legacy services, which are geotechnical, materials testing, environmental and project management. Those groups are here to stay. We got our foot in the door in Dallas through transportation projects, but our service lines usually include work on schools, hospitals and universities as well as other private and public sector projects. We want to be engaged in the community and be there for a long time. Our biggest thing right now is to identify a leader for our Dallas office.
How are you feeling about things in both the private and public sector?
In the private sector, there's still lots of projects moving ahead. There appears to be an influx of manufacturing and warehouse projects. The housing market seems to be fairly strong too in just about every market that we're in right now, which is a pretty good sign.
We're a little concerned about funding for municipalities, cities and counties. Most of those guys get a lot of their dollars from taxes, like sales taxes, and those numbers are really down right now. We're hearing that a lot of their budgets are going to be cut for (capital improvement projects) and (operation and maintenance) projects.
Operating within the Texas Triangle, as we do, there's been a tremendous amount of people coming into this area. Because of that, there's been a great need for new schools.
So far, we haven't seen any repercussions from the pandemic on these education projects because most of them are funded. It's yet to be seen whether or not some of these new, large school district bonds get passed this coming November.
We're also keeping an eye on P3 (public-private partnership) projects and how the local public sector is going to embrace the concept. We think that could be a mechanism to fund projects where the public dollars aren't there. I could see it in two different places.
You could see it on the municipal, city and county side to get some leverage for courthouses, municipal buildings and other things like that. You could also see it in higher education with things like student housing. We're actually involved in a P3 in Austin for the new University of Texas basketball arena. You could especially see P3 projects with things like sports venues.https://3dcac081e8f0a31c20b6dc7ebe170232.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
What is your company and your industry doing to address diversity and inclusion issues?
We've been trying to do things way before all of this happened, ever since I started working here, and I've been at Raba Kistner for 26 years. I'm Hispanic and a first generation college graduate.
Throughout my career, we've been visiting school districts and have been in the community trying to promote professionalism for minorities and promote more women engineers.
I'm glad to say I've had a female engineer who I've worked with for 15 years who we just promoted to Vice President who will be taking over our Austin office. There has definitely been a push to bring in more engineers that are of a minority background and are female.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.