Published on November 13th, 2015 | by UC&D Magazine0
Celebrating 110 Years
Salt Lake-based civil firm CRS Engineers has had a consistent presence in Utah since 1905, and is thriving in its fifth generation of leaders under President Matt Hirst
Few A/E/C firms in the nation – let alone the Beehive State – can claim to date back more than a century, yet that is exactly where Caldwell Richards Sorensen (CRS Engineers) of Salt Lake City finds itself in 2015, celebrating a remarkable 110th anniversary.
Interestingly, the firm has had only five presidents in its lengthy history, including current leader Matt Hirst, who took over the reigns from the fourth president – his father Paul – in 2013. The elder Hirst started working at CRS in 1973, the same year he graduated from the University of Utah with a Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree.
The elder Hirst said his father, who worked in the survey/instrument repair business, helped arrange for an interview with then CRS President Lamar Smith. Paul, who is 67, started out as a survey crew chief and ultimately became more involved as an engineer after a couple of years. He became President in 1984 and led the firm through three decades, helping it further its reputation as an infrastructure specialist.
Paul vividly recalled his early years in the 70’s with the firm, and heralded Smith as a visionary leader the person primarily responsible for helping shape Hirst’s career.
“He was a very patient man, very knowledgeable about engineering,” said Paul. “He was driven toward providing good service and value to the client. He was very precise in the work he turned out and he demanded precision from me.”
While surveying for the most part, Paul also began tutoring as a drafter and did some design work for Smith. Sometimes the lessons learned were trying.
“Any young engineer has a lot to learn,” said Paul. “Back then everything was pencils and triangles, parallel bars and slide rules…I was on the tail end of the old era. I produced this drawing one time and was so proud of it. I had jammed the details into a corner of a 24” x 36” sheet of vellum, and (Smith) looks at it and said ‘re-do it.’ He taught me that it’s the end product that counts and how to make a good presentation.”
Smith ultimately began having more faith in Hirst and by the mid-80’s Paul was in charge of the firm.
“I worked for clients who wanted Lamar to do their work and he would critique what I did,” said Paul. “Finally, it evolved to where I started doing things more on my own and develop some of my own relationships, all under the watchful eye of Lamar.”
E. Caldwell and A.Z. Richards as a civil engineering and land surveying firm in Salt Lake, with Al H. Sorensen joining the firm later. The moniker ‘CRS’ soon became a well known, respected name in the local engineering community.
It’s hard to comprehend what life was like 110 years ago. For perspective, in 1905 Teddy Roosevelt was the U.S. President, Albert Einstein published E = mc2, and it would be three more years until Henry Ford created the Model-T. It was an exciting time of growth in the Western U.S.
Paul recalled Sorensen as “bigger than life, a tall, imposing personality” and also worked with Albert Z. Richards Jr., so he considers it fortunate to feel closely connected with the past, even though it stretches back so long ago.
Matt said it was rumored that Caldwell was a state engineer at one point and remembers seeing a photo of a water resources project on North Temple from decades ago. Ultimately, Caldwell bought a Model-T and traveled from community to community designing infrastructure projects. The firm still has dozens of old drawings on mylar and vellum sheets, including one that dates back to 1923. Matt also has a brick with the firm’s name on it from Social Hall from 1930.
Ten years ago when the firm turned 100, it ran a contest and contacted various municipalities to see who could produce the oldest CRS drawing. The oldest was a water storage tank in Kaysville from 1940. Matt says CRS has worked with almost every municipality in the state, with the majority of its work happening along the Wasatch Front from Provo to Ogden.
“There isn’t a part of Utah that CRS hasn’t impacted over the course of 110 years,” said Matt.
Understanding Clients’ Needs
Of Paul’s seven children, all worked at CRS in some capacity, but Matt is the one who really embraced civil engineering, said the elder Hirst.
Paul led the firm for three decades through booming growth periods, and also times when work was thin, including the recession from 2008. He served as the City Engineer of Farmington for more than 20 years and watched as the small Davis County community increased in size from 10,000 to 22,000 people.
“I mentored the city through a growth that more than doubled the population,” he said. “I’ve designed water tanks, storm drains, small pedestrian bridges…it’s rewarding to see the progress over time.”
Matt started at the firm full-time in 1994 working on GIS systems. His first job at age 21 was to draw out the Taylosville- Bennion Improvement District from as- builts. CRS has served as the district’s engineer since 1955.
“He did more GIS and GPS work – he has a knack for that,” Paul said of Matt. “I was more the purist engineer, figuring out designs for roads, sewers, and water systems. Matt was more into being on the leading edge of technology. He has his strengths and I have mine.”
The firm currently specializes in a host of civil disciplines, including water resources, wastewater, rail, transportation, pavement management, public/private site development, and infrastructure management.
The younger Hirst says despite the firm’s depth, diversity, and ability to work on myriad different kinds of projects, without question the main thing that matters is being able to understand a client’s needs and collaborating with them on the design process as early as possible.
He remembers a valuable lesson he learned from Leland Myers, long-time District Manager for Central Davis Sewer District and a member of the State Water Quality Board.
As Matt tells it, his firm exceeded the District’s budget, and Myers was none-too- happy without being made aware of the issue.
“I learned that day the responsibility engineers have of delivering projects on time and on budget,” said Matt. “I had to explain how we went over budget. You don’t match wits with Leland. I learned that no matter what we’re doing, we need to be cognizant of the price of our services.”
Other prominent projects over the years include Legacy Parkway, managing pavement processes for Union Pacific at 55 intermodal and automotive facilities the past 20 years, the 2002 Olympic Speed Skating Oval in Kearns, and I-15 CORE. On the latter, Matt spent 2.5 years as the lead utility engineer for both Provo River Constructors and HDR Engineers, a project he relished working on.
Matt is the firm’s majority shareholder while Paul is the other major shareholder. Other minority shareholders are Darren Anderson, a Vice President who works in Vernal (CRS acquired ESI Vernal recently), and Darren Eyre, a rail specialist who has been at CRS since 2003. The other Senior Manager is Mary Hargis, who serves as Corporate Secretary and Human Resources Manager.
Matt, who is also President of the Utah Chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) for 2016, says CRS has thrived in recent years and has a bright immediate future, with 55 employees (including 8 new ones from the past year) and revenues from 2015 expected to reach an all-time high.
He admits that the A/E/C market has changed considerably since the recession hit 7-8 years ago and hopes that public owners and municipalities realize that not all firms are equal, therefore fees should not be universally the same.
“The metamorphosis that I’ve seen the past six years, in terms of proposals and workloads, is that overall market competition has escalated,” Matt
said. “(Owners in) the industry want to commoditize us. In civil engineering, we’re selected by qualifications, approach and cost. Our business is changing and margins are smaller. Some colleagues believe engineering needs to return to the ‘master builder’ era. Local cities and counties want to know what our fees are…but we are not a sack of concrete. Our thoughts, experiences, and approaches are so varied. The local public sector can’t seem to get off of that topic. That’s going to be a challenge going forward.”