Atwell-Hicks Comes To Grand Rapids

May 28, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Atwell-Hicks Inc. opened an office on the city’s northeast side in late January and already expects to more than double its local staff by year’s end.

The development consulting firm — which offers civil engineering, surveying, land planning and environmental services — serves large regional and national private land developers.

Atwell Hicks already had three offices in Southeast Michigan and one in Naperville, Ill., and was doing work across those offices for similar clients, said Terry Simpson, director of corporate development.

“We had been doing work across the geographic area and kind of bypassing Grand Rapids,” he said.

“Several clients that were doing work in and around Grand Rapids asked us to take a look at this market, analyze the land development here and see if we might come in and set up an office.”

The Grand Rapids office currently has a staff of five, three of whom are local hires. Simpson said the plan is to have a dozen staffers by the end of the year and grow steadily from there.

Project Manager John Ackerman started the local office and is probably the firm’s most visible face in town. Ackerman transferred from the company’s Brighton office.

“There are intensive efforts right now to hire a few more local professionals, and then we’ll backfill that with some of our Atwell experience also as the workload increases,” Ackerman said. 

Simpson describes the move to Grand Rapids as a “coming home” of sorts. Simpson was raised in Kentwood. Ackerman’s wife, who also works for the company, grew up in Grand Rapids.

Ackerman said he knows the area well because he spends the majority of his vacation time and nearly every weekend with family and friends in Grand Rapids. He also had been involved in a couple of Atwell projects on this side of the state.

“Basically, from the minute I said ‘I do,’ there’s been a strong pull to get me back here,” Ackerman explained.

“It just really worked out that Atwell had been looking to get into this market for awhile, so it was kind of a no-brainer that I come over and set up the office.”

Ackerman, a registered landscape architect, has worked for Atwell-Hicks for three years. He joined the company as a planner, was promoted to project coordinator and then project manager.

Ackerman said he was attracted to Atwell-Hicks because of the way they take care of their employees.

“Plus, every time I saw a large project, the Atwell-Hicks name was on it and I wanted to be involved in that.

“They’re a great company to work for. I liked that they were very attentive to client goals and employee goals and that’s what they base their growth on.”

Prior to Atwell-Hicks, Ackerman worked as a land planner for a smaller development-consulting firm. Earlier in his career he worked for a small company that specialized in high-end residential landscape architectural planning and for the Department of Natural Resources. 

Simpson said the firm’s philosophy is a little different from the typical engineering and surveying firm in that Atwell-Hicks only does private sector land development work.

“We really take the approach of being the developer’s advocate,” Simpson said. “That approach has been received extremely well in the marketplace. Our typical competitor is going to do about half the revenue or more working for a municipality.”

He said there’s a difference in the way private sector and public sector jobs are handled.

“There’s a difference in deadlines, in the cost benefit to the bottom line and in the type of employee you hire. There is a role for both, but we’ve just chosen to draw a very thick, hard line between the two so there is no conflict of interest.”

Company-wide, Simpson said Atwell-Hicks now has a staff of 270 across the five offices.

Of the firm’s four key service areas, he said, about 40 percent of the revenue is generated by engineering services, about 40 percent by surveying services and about 20 percent by a mixture of environmental consulting and land planning.

For about 80 of the company’s 99 years, its growth curve was fairly steady. Three of its current five offices were established in the last 10 years, however.

“In the early 1990s, we really put some strategies into place and went after a bigger, more nationally focused client base and looked to bring in employees that wanted to grow with the firm and have the opportunity to be office managers and owners of the company,” Simpson explained.

“That growth curve that started in the early 1990s has really taken off, and we’ve been growing at about 25 percent a year annualized for the last 15 years.”

Simpson said every office has started out with three or four people and has grown to 60 or 70.

“One of the big reasons we open new offices, in addition to expanding our services to benefit our clients in other geographic areas, is the ability to attract new talent.”

Simpson said by year’s end Atwell-Hicks also will have established an office in Cleveland.

The company also is considering additional offices in the Chicago area and expansion into Indianapolis.

“Our business is very locally driven,” he said.

“Employees will only drive so far to go to work. In Chicago, you could have a two-hour commute from the north side to the south side, so it certainly facilitates more than one office.”    

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