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Borton-Lawson grows from 2-person firm to statewide business with 160 workers.

Last updated: June 09. 2013 11:36PM - 6694 Views
By Jon O'Connell



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PLAINS TWP. — The engineers at Borton-Lawson can tell you how long it takes for an engineering firm to grow organically from a two-man upstart to a bulging operation with hands in every discipline in the industry.
It takes about 25 years, but that's only part of the story.
The firm celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and co-founding civil engineer Tom Lawson said that when he and his partner, Chris Borton, started the company, they had no idea they would be so successful. Now, with 160 employees at four regional offices around the state, they recently took some time to reflect on where they started, where they are and where they're headed.
“Our plan was not to grow to the size we are now,” Lawson said. “We just wanted to make a living and hire a few people and have fun doing it.”
Lawson said neither he or Borton wanted to take the administrative reins of their blossoming efforts, but the growing work called for a leader.
“We argued over who would become president,” Lawson said with a chuckle. “He lost, so he (Borton) became president.”
Now the firm's chief executive, Borton said the game has changed for him. He said he spends most of his time in an executive suite, but running a company is a lot like engineering.
“Whether it be designing a bridge or designing a business and building a business, it's part of the excitement,” he said.
Borton-Lawson began officially in February 1988 with only a few clients and fewer employees.
Lawson said the firm's first clients knew his crew was learning the ropes, but the clients appreciated the firm's vigor and urged it to hurry along the invoices to so the firm could make payroll and cover expenses.
“We never missed a paycheck. That was our concern,” Lawson said.
“We had a line of credit to help us get by, but I think we only used it once.”
One of Borton-Lawson's first contracts was to turn a big field of coal mine waste into what is now the MotorWorld complex along state Route 315.
Its list of clients includes big names such as the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Geisinger and Certainteed, but it still has the capacity to serve as engineer of record for about a dozen or so small municipalities and to coordinate projects for local businesses.
Rolling with the punches
Lawson and Borton would probably also tell you the best way to keep your head above water is to stay flexible.
In Northeastern Pennsylvania, the engineering market may call for an abundance of flood-control experts in one season and a full team of bridge designers in the next.
As they slowly began to bring clients into their portfolio, now thick with about 150 active jobs, the partners wouldn't hesitate to add a few more positions for experts who could finish the job right, Lawson said.
“As we started taking on more and more work, clients would tell us, 'We're gonna throw something your way, but you're going to need more people,' ” Lawson said, and they would add a few more diversified positions.
Their regional offices are located in the Lehigh Valley, Pittsburgh and State College.
When the floor dropped from under the national housing market in 2008, Borton and Lawson thought it might be bad news for the company that still handled many residential projects.
But while realty investors scrambled to get the most out of their properties, something else was bubbling up a mile or so beneath the surface.
Natural gas drillers swooped into the Marcellus Shale region of the state that same year with their hydraulic fracturing operations to take advantage of a new energy-production boom when the commodity was at the peak of its value.
The drilling companies were used to working in such states as Texas and Oklahoma, where the travel is easy and regulations are light. Natural gas was new territory for the firm, but Vice President Chris McCue said it used its knowledge of Pennsylvania regulations as leverage.
“We knew the local regulations in terms of getting permits and getting equipment on the ground, and that's where they were struggling,” McCue said, referring to the drillers.
When the price of natural gas started sliding downward, again, the firm had to bend to where the market moves. Borton said diversifying is part of the strategic plan to keep everyone busy.
“Now we have over 150 (employees), and in order to feed those mouths and to expand into more exciting kinds of work, we're gonna need to grow the business,” Borton said.

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