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August 13, 2014

Hart Crowser: How to stay in business for 40 years, and survive the recession

  • David Winter, the firm's vice president today, says Hart Crowser learned some hard lessons about succession planning and diversification.
    Journal Staff Reporter


    Hart Crowser, the Seattle-based geotechnical and environmental firm, is celebrating 40 years in business, but getting started was no easy task.

    Hart Crowser and many of its competitors in the 1970s were spin-offs from major companies and everybody was competing.

    David Winter, the firm's vice president today, said founders Ron Hart and John Crowser had to start small and work hard. They set their sights on big jobs and eventually got to do high-rises and port projects.

    They landed jobs with influential clients such as Wright Runstad & Co., Kemper Development, and ports in Seattle, Tacoma and Everett — and all are still clients. Projects included the 35-story 1111 Third Avenue and 47-story First Interstate Center (now the Wells Fargo Center) in Seattle.

    In the 1980s, they worked on the first expansion of Bellevue Square and the development of Bellevue Place.

    “We had a McDonald's restaurant on the one hand and a 40-story building with a deep excavation on the other hand,” Winter said.

    The heft of its clients and projects helped the firm build a reputation and recruit talented people.

    Hart Crowser got into environmental work, starting with remediation of contaminated groundwater in the mid-1980s, when that market was just getting established. The firm hired experts in environmental regulations and risk assessment “before anybody knew they needed people like that,” Winter said.

    Established in 1974, Hart Crowser grew in the 1980s and 1990s “in response to the marketplace and the entrepreneurial leadership of Crowser and Hart, and the good people that the company hired that wanted to do things in a lot of different places,” Winter said.

    But the firm was forced to pull back as market conditions changed in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

    Hart Crowser now has 115 employees in Seattle, Edmonds, Vancouver, Portland, Anchorage and Honolulu. Three of the offices — Vancouver, Honolulu and Anchorage — opened since 2011.

    Its recent expansion is due to an improving economy and a desire for geographic diversity, Winter said.

    The firm offers geotechnical engineering, environmental assessment and cleanup, natural resources services, and permitting. It does a variety of work partly to offset down cycles, Winter said.

    “For example if all of our clients are government-funded clients then we could be in real trouble if for whatever reason funds were not available, or if (we did) all private sector or only built high-rises, then we wouldn't have done any work in 2009 to 2012,” he said.

    Hart Crowser has learned some hard lessons about ownership and leadership succession, Winter said.

    “For all the good qualities John Crowser and Ron Hart had, they didn't do succession planning well,” he said. “The result is when they were to retire they hadn't groomed people to take over the business.”

    The second generation is better at this, and has succession plans to ensure the company stays strong and local, he said.

    Hart Crowser is employee-owned.

    “If you own something, you tend to take care of it more than if you're just a tenant,” said Winter.

    The DJC asked David Winter more about the company. Here is what he said:

    Q. Tell us about Hart Crowser's expansion.

    A. The company expanded rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s as the environmental assessment and cleanup marketplace grew. Along with our geotechnical and groundwater core, we had expertise in contaminated sediments and other related waterfront redevelopment issues, and we worked for public clients, such as the Navy and Coast Guard, and private clients, such as ports and industrial companies.

    As that market matured we encountered new competitors in major Midwest and East Coast cities. Some of our new offices in those cities did not prosper and we closed them in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

    But in the last few years we have added three new offices, so the expansion ebbs and flows with economic conditions.

    Q. What did you learn from the Great Recession?

    A. We and other firms learned we will have the best chance at success in a down cycle if we stay close to our core capabilities. We also learned we needed some diversification for consistent success — either geographic, market/client or technical specialty.

    Companies that only do one or two things in one or two places are susceptible to every downturn being a major challenge. With diversification comes the expectation that not everything suffers (or prospers) at once.

    Unfortunately, in the “Great Recession” just about everything did suffer for a while.

    Q. What's your most interesting project today?

    A. We are doing rock fall hazard work for roads for the state of Hawaii. Our team rappels down and maps steep rock slopes, does rockfall computer modeling, and devises ways to protect a transportation corridor on Kauai.

    Also, our work on the SR 520 bridge is nearly complete. We designed a new system of anchors to hold the bridge in place during earthquakes and wind events.

    And we have implemented new bioremediation methods that can clean soil and groundwater at former gas stations, dry cleaners, and other small business, as well as at large industrial properties in a fraction of the time of traditional methods.

    Other recent “signature” projects include the Husky Stadium redevelopment, Governors Island Park and Public Space in New York City, and environmental permitting in Alaska at Prudhoe Bay for dredging to allow deeper draft barges access to the oil and gas field docks.

    Q. How do you manage technology?

    A. We have done a pretty good job of adapting to technological changes, partly because of strong and capable younger staff who push the company forward.

    The challenges are that some of the technical advancements are very expensive to implement and changes occur so rapidly that upgrades to stay current are ongoing.

    Q. Your firm worked on the SR99 project. How do you ensure buildings don't move during tunneling?

    A. It is a multi-step process that involves Hart Crowser and other firms in the design-build team. The first step was to use computer models to predict the performance of the ground above the tunnel. We then identified the properties along the alignment, considering foundation type, depth of basements, and so forth.

    The team documented the condition of the buildings before tunneling began. Then we installed monitoring points on the buildings in question, and drilled holes and installed instruments to detect ground movement.

    We will monitor all of these points and compare the results against expectations.

    Q. Are you working overseas?

    A. Hart Crowser is geotechnical consultant for Costco's new stores in Taiwan, Korea and Japan. We have Chinese and Japanese speaking engineers who work with local firms on acquiring site data, and we travel to the sites for meetings with the local and U.S.-based design teams.

    Also, we recently finished work on behalf of a construction company building a 200-meter-tall concrete and rock-fill dam in the Andes in Peru. We helped the company align access roadways, and address steep and unstable rock slopes.

    We also worked on a palace in Doha, Qatar, not too long ago, and a wind farm in the North Sea.

    But international work is inherently more risky; our main target is domestic clients in the U.S. — but we will not turn down interesting international challenges.


    Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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