Anniversary Profiles

Published on December 15th, 2017 | by UC&D Magazine


Transitioning at 30

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As Keith Russell looks ahead to his impending retirement from Sandy based Ensign Engineering and Land Surveying next summer, he admits he didn’t think the nearly 90-person firm he founded in 1987 would be anything like it is today.
“It very much has exceeded expectations,” said Russell. “My expectation when I started was to have a surveying firm with an engineering component, but I didn’t see it being more than a dozen guys. I didn’t go into it looking to be recognized as owning a big engineering firm. It was more like an attitude of ‘lets do a good job for our client and make enough money to have a good lifestyle’. There wasn’t a goal to…stand on the float, wave in the parade and say ‘look at me’. That was not on the radar, and still isn’t.”
Ensign is presently the No. 10 ranked overall engineering firm (No. 8 civil) in Utah, according to UC&D’s 2017 Top Engineering Firms list from August, with $11.5 million in revenues from 2016, up from $10.5 million in 2015 and $9.7 million in 2014. Its primary services include civil engineering, land surveying, structural design, water design, and aerial technologies. Beyond its Sandy headquarters, Ensign has satellite offices in Layton, Tooele, Richfield and Cedar City, giving them a strong local presence in strategic areas of the state.
The firm has been in the midst of a leadership transition the past two years. In March 2016, it named Robert (Bob) Elder as its President. Beyond Russell’s impending retirement, current Chairman of the Board and Past President (’95-’16) David Jenkins and Vice President David Alter said they are eyeing the end of their respective careers in the next five years. Each is supremely confident that Ensign will continue to flourish long after their time is done.
“We have a good transition plan in for shareholders to exit and put that plan in place seven years ago,” said Alter, who specializes in structural engineering. “The hardest thing to do is get the original founders out and new young blood in. Our goal is to not sell to an outside entity and to facilitate a culture where the owners are the workers. We’re here rubbing shoulders with every employee – we call it the ‘Ensign family’. The differentiator is the opportunity to help people progress professionally and feel fulfilled.”
“The best asset we have is our employees,” said Jenkins. “We could have gone the external route, but we didn’t like that. It’s the reason ‘Ensign’ is not a person’s name. I want to see it the same 100 years from now.”

Different Paths Lead to Same Place

Jenkins and Russell initially met at Bonneville Engineering in Salt Lake City (now defunct) in the late 1970s, Jenkins having started in ’78 as a civil engineer and Russell joining the firm as a surveyor in ‘79. Alter joined the firm in ’85 and Jenkins bolted for Sear Brown Group in ’86 (Alter followed in ’89), while Russell made the decision to start Ensign in ’87 after running Bonneville’s survey department for four years. He had the foresight of naming the firm Ensign Engineering & Land Surveying, even though he was just a surveyor.
“I wanted the company name to include engineering and surveying because in my mind a surveying company was not as profitable and doesn’t have as many opportunities,” he explained. Russell did a lot of surveying for Jenkins and Alter from ’87-’94, and their friendship developed to the point where they started discussing the idea of joining forces.
“I met with Keith and decided it was time to leave where I was at and join forces with him,” said Jenkins. “Three months later I brought Dave Alter over and a couple other guys and that’s how it went from a survey firm to an engineering company. We all became close friends and business partners – I’m thankful for Keith
to allow that to happen. We saw the same vision together, that it would be better for us to work together. We’re thankful for the experience we had working for other people; I gained a lot of knowledge at Sear Brown as Salt Lake City manager and it allowed us to create the culture we have at Ensign.”
The collective skill set of Russell (surveying), Jenkins (civil, structural) and Alter (structural) gave the firm the ability to provide multiple services to clients and proved to be a significant factor in landing future work.
“It opened up a lot of things for us,” said Russell. “There are only a handful of firms that have civil and structural in-house.”
“In ’94 I threw it out there for them and both of them liked the idea, but Jenkins is a little more conservative so it took a little more time and persuasion to make the jump,” said Russell. “It opened up a lot of things for us.”
“We support our civil side on a lot of projects…so there is a lot of crossmarketing that goes on,” said Alter. “Having robust structural and civil (services) inhouse really differentiates us.”
Alter illustrated his point by describing a recent meeting he had with a client who is looking to build a series of office
buildings in Draper.
“He has an issue with re-routing existing detention facilities and stormwater systems (that) will affect the structure, because we may end up doing a parking structure in some areas, so it’s a structural/civil project. It’s fun to work with a client on a project like that where we can provide that service in-house.”

Bright Future Ahead
Elder, who joined the firm in July 2007 and specializes in land development projects, said it’s been a good experience serving as Ensign’s President the past 18- plus months, and that he expects growth to continue on a positive trend next year and beyond.
“I wear two hats – I didn’t divest myself from the development side of work and the client base I’ve developed over 35 years,” said Elder. “We’re merging cultures of ownership; we have senior ownership and younger partners and the perspectives of different partnerships are different. It requires a kind of a ‘melting pot’ of ideas and coming up with some consensus.”
The firm’s strongest markets in recent years include civic/institutional, commercial office and retail, industrial, land development/single-family residential, and multi-family. Elder expects a solid finish to ’17 and to maintain consistent growth throughout ’18.
“Our service lines help us build strong synergy; we’re successful cross-marketing our services,” said Elder. “We want to grow strategically, not just for the sake of growing but to better service our client base. It may mean we broaden our service lines and look at strategic niche markets. We’re still on an upward trajectory and expect to be in the range of 10-12% growth, depending on the market. We like to be proactive rather than reactive and drive the direction of the company, rather than let the marketplace dictate the kind of work we do.”
“I would say the growth of the company has been more because of my partners than me,” Russell summarized. “It’s not only been Dave and Dave, but the other partners we’ve brought on who have their connections and their skill sets. They’ve just done amazing things to make our name noticeable, to make our name respected, to make our clients feel like they’re going to get what they want – quality product for a reasonable price. It’s been a real benefit to know that everybody has the same vision. It doesn’t mean we don’t have our differences of opinion. Everybody can have the same values, buthave a different way of getting to them.”

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