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Global engineering Featured

5:07am EDT August 31, 2004
Today, business is all about speed of delivery, says Charles Rodenfels, senior vice president of URS Corp.'s Columbus office.

"Our clients' expectations are to do it quicker," says Rodenfels. "It" refers to the company's bundle of design, engineering and project management services. Rodenfels says clients' expectations have changed because of the Internet and the ability to serve clients electronically. But the design and engineering process still takes time, so meeting clients' expectations can be a challenge.

"There is a lot of information to process," says Rodenfels.

The Internet has also enabled the Columbus office of URS to take advantage of opportunities outside the region. The San Francisco-based firm has offices worldwide, giving Rodenfels international resources to draw from. For example, when COTA invited the firm to bid on its new terminal, Rodenfels brought in associates from Minneapolis who were the best in the company in that market.

The company's worldwide network offers an additional advantage.

"We are able to keep up with changes in our clients' industries because we have very definitive markets we pursue," Rodenfels says. "We have offices in 100 cities, like Tampa, Seattle and Philadelphia, and we continually discuss what's going on. Usually that keeps us not just aware of the changes but ahead of them."

Smart Business spoke with Rodenfels about the global aspect of his industry.

What impact has the Internet and other technologies had on URS, and has that caused you to re-evaluate the way you do business?

There is no doubt our business today is about speed of delivery, and that has been brought about predominantly -- if not exclusively -- by the Internet. Our day-to-day communications, drawing and production are driven more and more by our clients' expectations.

Those expectations are fostered by the entire global Internet environment, but that is no different than any other business. A lot of people very quickly get the impression of our resources and abilities by looking at our Web page. It is our brochure.

The Internet has caused us to understand our clients' expectations have changed, requiring us to be responsive to met them. We also need to educate our clients because there is still an inherent process that has to take place. We are working to make it more efficient and faster, but we will not compromise the success of the project by letting inappropriate client expectations drive the process.

Much of the Columbus office's business is located outside the state, even outside the country. How do you attract these clients?

We are blessed to be one of the nation's largest architecture, engineering and planning firms. We didn't just appear, it took years of experience and successful project execution.

It is that experience that brings clients to us. They see similar projects and want to work with the best or leaders in that industry, such as health care, education and air transportation. We are recognized by our peers as being the largest provider of services in these areas. That brings us business more than anything.

When we were invited to bid on the new COTA terminal project, we reached into the network to Minneapolis, where the staff there can do it better. We supplement our team when we need to by importing others in the company.

What challenges do you face when working with global accounts, and how do the engineering standards in other countries differ from those in the United States?

There are obvious cultural differences that are an element of any engagement, but after you get through those preliminary differences, the nature of our profession is not terribly different. There are some different business parameters that can shape our doing business in other countries.

For example, we in the Columbus office worked on a large air terminal in China. The Chinese approach to compensation is different than in the United States. We normally invoice the client each month based on a percentage of the work completed, and we expect to be paid. In China, we can ask, but clients pay when given a deliverable, such as schematics, which can be eight to 10 months down the road.

But after those differences are addressed, the nature of the business is fundamentally the same. We have done a lot of government work, which has to be designed in metric measurements, but the advantages of computer-aided design are that those conversions are much quicker. We have offices in international locations, so we are also supported by the local office.

In Columbus, what are URS' most profitable services, and do they differ from your most popular services?

We're rich in the diversity of services we offer. Other firms tend to be either architecture or planning or engineering firms or subsets of those, like civil engineering. In that aspect, we have a greater value because we have it all, and we have it all in Columbus.

We can bring in all disciplines when calling on companies in the market. ODOT (Ohio Department of Transportation) thinks we're the best transportation firm in the state of Ohio, but we can say that we are also strong in the health care industry and air transportation.

Our profitability rests in our own execution of the project. When we can lead the project successfully, the client is happy, and URS has made money at the end of the day.

What strategies do you use to grow business in Columbus?

Within Columbus, most of our growth is organic. We're not reaching out to acquire other companies.

We have a clear definition of who we are and how we present that to our clients. We clearly communicate the fundamentals to companies in the markets where we are successful, and we identify and target markets that are growing. We can pull in all of the URS resources to strategically pursue a project or market.

We are known around the world for our work on airport terminals. We can pursue projects outside our geographic region. In light of Sept. 11, we have done a lot of work in the area of threat assessment.

Our markets change; for example, eight years ago, we were the leaders in juvenile detention centers.

Who are your largest local competitors and what differentiates you from them?

That's a tough question. We are so diversified that it depends on the project. If you're talking about air transportation design, there are three or four firms that we bump against routinely.

When you're talking about health care, there's a different three or four firms. In West Virginia, there are no Central Ohio firms competing against us. There are a lot of firms that have defined their niche, and we'll never compete with them -- for example, one firm does fast food site selection, and they've developed that market for 45 years; we don't pursue that business and don't compete.

What are your biggest personal challenges in managing the office?

I find the leadership and management component exciting. I get a tremendous amount of reward in participating in others' professional growth. It is challenging because our profession has a long, drawn-out incubator.

You don't come out of school at 21, and at 25, hit your prime. It's a 20- to 30-year cycle. It's a journey, and one that I enjoy.

I love to see people develop, but I've wanted them to move along sooner than they do. You don't just get it one day, it takes time. HOW TO REACH: URS Corp., (614) 464-4500 or www.urscorp.com