Survival of the fittest

May 7, 2010
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Steve Williams helps
preserve Williams & Works’
historic legacy of engineering innovation and growth.

The current recession has been especially difficult for Michigan firms that make their livings building and designing real estate and infrastructure projects, and that group clearly includes the state’s engineering companies.

But one noted and longtime player in the field didn’t feel the ongoing economic turmoil began here in December 2008, just months after the financial market tumbled. Instead, Williams & Works Inc. principal Steve Williams said the industry’s downturn really got started in Michigan seven years earlier.

“From our perspective, Michigan never fully recovered from the 2001 recession. Because our business is tied to infrastructure and development, it’s been a struggle. But we’ve maintained roughly the same number of staff over that period of time. But it’s required being creative and aggressive, and trying to provide a better value for our clients,” he said. “Having a long-term practice here has helped a great deal, also.”

As Williams suggested, Williams & Works is a name that has a long history and tradition here. The company actually got started in 1892 when T.O. Williams began doing surveying work for infrastructure projects like hydroelectric power plants and properties. The firm became incorporated in 1924, a year after W.B. Williams and Fred Williams joined the company.

In the early 1980s, the firm became W.W. Engineering & Science and was purchased a few years later by the Summit Environmental Group. Earth Tech bought Summit in the early 1990s, and that transaction ended the company’s run and erased its name from the local scene until Williams and four others came along in 1995 to revive it.

Today, Williams & Works, located at 549 Ottawa Ave. NW, has a dozen partners, including Williams, and 50 employees. The firm offers services in engineering, planning and surveying. Even though the firm has managed to survive the current recession largely intact, Williams said it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s been tough. And if you believe the economists, Michigan may not begin to recover until 2016. So for what that’s worth, we’ve got a few more years of tough sledding ahead of us, I think, unless the state is able to change its policies and tax structures to make our state more competitive with other states,” he said.

Williams feels very strongly that the state’s administration and lawmakers have to make Michigan more business friendly, if it ever wants to return to being one of the nation’s top economic leaders and job providers as it once was. And he offered a few things he felt Lansing can do now to get Michigan started on that journey.

“I think the things that would help most would be a reduction or elimination of the personal income tax, corporate income tax, and becoming a right-to-work state — just eliminating the disincentives for people locating businesses here,” he said.

William pointed to a fairly recent study that economist Arthur Laffer and others conducted for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a public-private nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that promotes free-market principles and limited government. The study examined how state governments have responded to economic calamities and concluded that those which have lowered their taxes were more likely to attract businesses and create jobs.

“This was over a 10-year period. They found that states that didn’t have an income tax had 89 percent more job growth than the 10 states with the highest income tax, and they had 32 percent greater personal income growth. So the income tax, whether it’s corporate or personal, is a disincentive that inhibits our ability to be competitive,” he said.

The current recession isn’t the only one that Williams has had to work through. He can vividly remember the one in 1982, which led to that now-infamous cry, “Would the last one out of Michigan please turn off the lights?” That recession’s high interest rates plagued the state then and brought the construction industry to a standstill.

“It was more difficult for our firm,” he said of the 1982 recession.

“But I think that one was shorter and we came out of it rapidly. So if this continues, it will be longer, but not as deep of a trough, for us personally,” he added. “I think as a state, you can look back and see that the unemployment levels then were higher than they are today in terms of the reported unemployment levels.”

With the heralded reconstruction of I-196, which is mostly being paid for by funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, some might think that stimulus dollars have flooded into engineering firms across the state. But Williams said that hasn’t been the case.

“We’ve gotten some work from that, but most of the work we’ve done has been either infrastructure improvement and modifications that have been necessitated by aging infrastructure or a need to improve efficiency or size. Those sorts of issues have driven our business to this point,” he said.

“The ARRA has provided some funds and has helped create some work in our industry, but it hasn’t been the majority of what we do.”

Williams said about 70 percent of his company’s work is in the public sector. Prior to the recession, the firm did more private sector projects. The number of those jobs has fallen, though, because the housing market crash has brought a halt to the residential development work Williams & Works had captured in the recent past.

As for Williams personally, his primary focus is in civil engineering and mostly in water and wastewater treatment work. It’s a field that is getting more attention, largely from the green movement, and he enjoys it.

“It’s fun. It’s creative and particularly interesting now with the interest in the environment; green services, energy efficiency and all of those things that we’ve been doing as part of our practice now have a higher visibility,” he said.

Williams earned his engineering degree from Michigan Tech University in Houghton, and he wasn’t alone in doing that. In fact, it turned out to be a family affair as all four of the Williams are alumni. His wife, Linda, daughter, Perry, and son, Alex, also graduated from Tech.

Perry teaches biology at East Grand Rapids High School, while Alex is a geotechnical engineer for a consulting firm in Los Angeles that designs subways, tunnels and light rail systems. Linda has a couple of irons in the fire. She does marketing and advertising, and also educational consulting via her Web-based business, the Michigan Epic Foundation.

Steve and Linda have been married for 37 years. They met before they arrived in Houghton but didn’t begin dating until they found each other on campus. They dated for four years before they tied the knot.

Something else Williams would like to tie together is the medical developments on Michigan Street hill with downtown’s core. He said the hill is too steep to run either a trolley or a light rail between the destinations, but he felt that an aerial tram or a cable car might do the trick. “I see it more as sort of a novelty; sort of an attraction,” he said.

Williams also would like to see a plan that is on the drawing board for the Grand River be tied to another project there that would offer a completely different benefit for the city. “The folks promoting the use of the river have talked about a kayak course. So I’m wondering why not put in hydropower in the Fourth Street dam with a kayak course as part of that development,” he said.

As for the immediate future, Williams sees his company serving up more of the same that has already established Williams & Works and its reputation with his firm’s clients. But his goal is to match that longstanding customer service standard to an even greater extent with a more recent nuance that is now playing a larger role in the industry.

“If we’re looking forward, our business is providing greater value by looking at creative ways to solve problems for our clients. Our logo is a tradition of service, and we intend to continue that tradition of service but with an emphasis on the built environment and making it more efficient, with less impact on the natural environment,” he said.

“We’ve been able to hold our own and we’re hopeful that if things start turning around, we’ll be able to grow some. But right now we’re happy and challenged to keep everyone that we have employed.”

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