Growth by Design
To say Tighe & Bond is a growing company would be an understatement.
From 2006 to 2016, the Westfield-based engineering firm increased its workforce from 170 to 270, but since then, the tally has expanded to 450, due to a combination of geographic expansion across the Northeast, enhancements to specialized services, and organic growth.
“We like to say it’s still manageable growth — robust, but manageable for us,” said Robert Belitz, who was hired by Tighe & Bond as chief financial officer in 2014 and took the reins as president and CEO three years later. “Our strategic planning process, which we go through every year, says it would be nice to grow between 5% and 10%. So you can see we’re on the higher end of that range.”
Among the recent footprint-expanding additions include an office in Portland, Maine, and two strategic acquisitions. One is a landscape-architecture and urban-planning firm in Boston called Halvorson Design (now Halvorson | Tighe & Bond Studio), which is part of the firm’s continuing strategy in Eastern Mass. and its first office presence in the Hub.
“The work they do is a terrific complement to our existing sites and brings more capabilities to our clients; they also did a lot of coastal-resiliency work as well, and that will continue to be in high demand for us.”
“We like to say it’s still manageable growth — robust, but manageable for us.”
The other recent acquisition was joining forces with RT Group, which expanded the firm’s waterfront and coastal-engineering capabilities in Rhode Island.
“Given where our offices are, there is a tremendous amount of coastline where we have opportunities to support our clients,” Belitz said. “There’s an awful lot of funding that’s being directed toward seawall construction, which is part of our coastal practice. The RT Group does a lot of work around port areas.”
With offices in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, it’s a natural fit for Tighe & Bond to tackle more coastline work, he added. “There have been a number of natural-disaster events that have raised the awareness of the need for coastal resilience.”
Clippership Wharf in East Boston is a good example. The waterfront residential complex was developed by Lendlease with landscape design by Tighe & Bond and Halvorson, and building design by the Architectural Team. The tiered site includes a harbor walk at the lower level, public access and open spaces at mid-level, and residences and a courtyard above. A ‘living shoreline,’ the first in Boston’s urban harbor, recreates the coastal habitat through the introduction of native plantings and wave-dissipating features to accommodate future sea-level rise, creating a natural flood barrier protecting tenants and other inland properties.
“Our challenge is prioritizing how we can capitalize on all these opportunities in the market.”
Tighe & Bond has also significantly expanded its capabilities in the MEP — mechanical, electrical, and plumbing — area, Belitz said. “We’ve added a significant number of resources there. That’s to serve our existing client base, but it’s also in response to the pandemic, when we were asked to do a fair amount of air-quality work.”
Other growth areas have included traffic and roadway projects as well as asset management, he added. Meanwhile, the firm’s traditional niches in water, wastewater, and other types of projects remain strong.
“We’re still really well-diversified in terms of the services that we can provide to our clients,” he went on. “We’ve trademarked a terminology we call the whole-asset approach, which says we can support a client’s needs on whatever their assets are, from the outset of a project all the way to completion, and that’s because we provide such a broad array of services to our clients.”
At the same time, “I think the stimulus money that’s coming from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aligns really well with the services that we provide as an organization, including our core water and wastewater services and our environmental work related to brownfield remediation. Our challenge is prioritizing how we can capitalize on all these opportunities in the market.”
Founded in 1911 to consult on broad-based civil-engineering projects, Tighe & Bond eventually came to specialize in environmental engineering, focusing on water, wastewater, solid-waste, and hazardous-waste issues, and its growing diversity of expertise has been a buffer against economic downturns in any one area.
Currently, 60% to 65% of its projects are public contracts with municipalities and state government agencies throughout New England and New York, and 35% to 40% are private work for a diverse group of industries.
“It’s a great thing to be diversified during an economic slowdown,” Belitz said. “The diversity of the services we provide has always been beneficial for us.”
That’s particularly important during times of unusual economic disruption, like the current environment.
“We’re always trying to keep an eye on the economic conditions,” he told BusinessWest. “We are partnering very closely with our clients on any supply-chain issues that might cause delays in their projects or extensions of their projects. We’ve been trying to keep a very close eye on that and work closely internally to make sure our people understand how best to communicate with a client. That’s what it comes down to; it’s primarily communication around schedule and timing and making sure that all of that is coordinated.”
The firm has expanded its presence in renewable-energy projects over the past 15 years or so. For example, River Valley Co-op in Easthampton is one of the first net-zero-energy grocery stores in Massachusetts. Tighe’s engineers provided energy-modeling services to evaluate various design alternatives, including HVAC systems, building envelope, and lighting systems. In addition, it designed an array of electric-vehicle charging stations in the co-op parking lot.
Tighe & Bond, like all such firms, has faced an increasingly complex regulatory and permitting landscape, one where environmental concerns once considered minor are now paramount. But Belitz considers these issues not hurdles, but opportunities.
For example, “nitrogen and phosphorous removal for wastewater treatment plants has been a pretty big driver of some of our growth over the last few years,” he explained.
In that vein, the firm recently worked with the town of Southington, Conn. to upgrade its water-pollution control facility. Tighe & Bond developed a phased plan for addressing the town’s wastewater infrastructure needs over the next 20 years. Recent improvements included phosphorus removal, odor control, and UV disinfection.
The upgrades helped the town meet new phosphorus discharge limits that protect the Quinnipiac River, and odor-control measures have helped residents in nearby neighborhoods and those using abutting sports fields. The American Council of Engineering Companies of Connecticut honored the project team’s designs with the 2022 Grand Award for Engineering Excellence.
“We are partnering very closely with our clients on any supply-chain issues that might cause delays in their projects or extensions of their projects.”
Meanwhile, Belitz said, “one of the emerging regulatory drivers is what’s called lead service line replacements, which are requirements for communities to do inventories and replacement plans for the lead service lines. We also do a lot of brownfields cleanup, and that’s been a very significant piece of our growth over the past two to three years, and another example of our well-rounded services.”
Working on the Pipeline
Asked how Tighe & Bond continues to grow its workforce at a time when companies of all kinds are struggling with finding and retaining talent, Belitz said it’s a multi-layered strategy.
“I’m not sure a day goes by when we don’t talk about our hiring and attraction of talent. We’ve beefed up our talent-acquisition function here at the firm to continue to identify and attract candidates to the firm. And once we get candidates to join us, we’ve always done a really good job of investing in their development, in order to retain our latest employees.”
He said the firm’s “very robust” onboarding and training program consists of not only leadership training, but anything people need to do their jobs: project management, quality management, safety and health principles, and more. “We’ve made a very big investment in that area just because we’ve had to, given our growth. We’ve kind of branded it internally as Tighe & Bond University, where new folks come in and meet with their supervisor and figure out what sorts of training they need to be effective in their jobs, and we think that’s key to a successful onboarding.”
Tighe & Bond has purposefully cultivated a culture of mentorship and teamwork as well, particularly between the older and younger generations of engineers.
“One of the nice things that we hear all the time from people in our organization is they get to work on all different kinds of projects,” Belitz said. “The other thing we’ve always done, but have made further investments in, is the ability to work seamlessly across all of our offices. All our offices are fitted with collaboration tools and the technology that people need to work together, and to complement that, we assign new hires to current employees when they join the firm so they can get that initial mentoring and that on-the-job training that is so important to their success.”
The firm adopted a hybrid work model during the pandemic that has continued to be effective, he added. “We think that allows our people not only to have some of the work-life balance and work-life integration objectives they’ve always had, but it still affords us ample opportunities to collaborate on projects and have that on-the-job mentoring and training. That’s how we’ve approached the pandemic, with a pretty big investment in technology to make sure that happens.
“From the outset of the pandemic, we were very intentional about saying our main goals are to look after the safety and health of our people, to protect the jobs of our people, and also to maintain our employee benefits,” he went on. “There was a lot of uncertainty at the time. We had some sectors that slowed down for a short period of time, but we had others that ramped up, and now I think some of those sectors that have slowed down have come out of the pandemic ready to work with Tighe & Bond on even more projects.”
Building a Culture
Belitz said Tighe & Bond’s leadership is proud of the firm’s culture, which includes elements like the Make a Difference program, which affords employees time to give back to their communities through service projects with local nonprofits.
“Even during the pandemic, though we couldn’t do some of those things because of the restrictions, we had a number of our people volunteer in places like food banks and hospitals and places that had the most need during that period of time,” he explained.
Meanwhile, the company’s employee-benefit program has seen additions like a paid-time-off donation program, by which employees can donate hours of unused vacation to co-workers for certain personal needs; and a student-loan repayment benefit through which the company makes a principal payment to an employee’s student loan. “It shows our commitment to importance of education and our commitment to employees,” Belitz said.
Meanwhile, he added, the firm has made further investments in technology, both internally and with tools like drone technology, 3D laser scanning, and enhanced use of GIS. “We think those are things that enhance the client and employee experience.”
The firm has also increased its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through efforts like the Supporting Women at Tighe & Bond Employee Resource Group and a partnership with the National Society for Black Engineers, which includes two scholarships for students in the engineering field; both efforts aim to increase the diversity of the firm’s talent pipeline.
All these efforts create an environment where people want to work, Belitz said.
“One area that’s super important for us is our employee ownership and the fact that, even in a climate today where there’s a lot of consolidation and a lot of influence of equity investment in engineering and architecture firms, we’re remaining committed to our employee ownership model,” he added.
“That, combined with the fact that we have all our offices within the Northeast, is a very good model for us to keep growing, but to grow in a manageable way. Growth creates opportunity for our people, and I think we’ve got a nice growth model in place.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]