As head of the largest civil engineering firm in the area, Rory Causseaux has had a major impact on dozens of local buildings.
You might say Rory Causseaux is a reverse Gator. He grew up in Tallahassee and came to Gainesville in 1979 to pursue his ambition to become an engineer. And once he arrived, Causseaux never left town. In fact, he’s helped reshape his adopted hometown through his civil engineering firm, now known as Causseaux, Hewett & Walpole.
He’s done numerous projects on the University of Florida campus, including the McKnight Brain Institute, portions of the Health Sciences Center and Shands hospital, the Chemical Engineering Building, Hume Hall Honors Student Housing, Pugh Hall at the Graham Center and the Law Library.
The company also did the infrastructure planning for several landmark buildings in the community, including the Alachua County Criminal Justice Center, Santa Fe Health Park and the Continuum apartment complex that is under construction.
Causseaux began his career in 1983 as an intern on the surveying crew for Chance, Eng, Denman & Associates. He joined the firm full-time after graduating, then became partner in a new firm founded by Wayne Chance. After Chance retired, Causseaux partnered with Donnie Ellington and when Ellington retired in 2007, Causseaux brought in Robert Walpole and Kevin Hewett as partners.
Today, with a staff of 34, Causseaux Hewett & Walpole Inc. employs as many people as do the next three largest of its competitors, Causseaux says. Yet despite its success, the firm had to adjust to the slowdown in construction and now employs a staff half the size it was in its peak year of 2007.
In Tallahassee, the Causseaux family numbers several hundred. In Gainesville, the family totals four, including Rory’s wife, Terri, whom he married on his UF graduation day, and their daughters Jordann, 23, and Blair, 21.
Beyond engineering, Causseaux has been active in the community, holding leadership positions with civic and church groups. He now is training for the physical challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro as part of a fund-raiser for the Climb for Cancer Foundation.
How did you decide to become an engineer?
My dad owned a construction company, Causseaux Excavating. I was exposed to the labor side of development, and it was hard work.
I knew, as a teenager, that I wanted to be an engineer. I preferred to be on the “thought” side of development.
What was the major difference between working as an employee at Chance, Eng, Denman and helping found your own firm?
I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. It was challenging for at least the first four years, building a clientele, learning what I was doing.
The first years out of college I worked under the direction of Ralph Eng, a wonderful mentor, somebody who I owe my career to.
When I worked at Chance, Eng, Denman, I could go to Ralph or some of the other engineers in the office, but when I was at the new company, I was the only engineer. Wayne was a surveyor. It’s kind of hard to make decisions on an island. But you grow up, and you learn faster that way.
How large of a geographic area do you serve?
Historically, our primary business has been in Alachua County and the contiguous counties.
If we have a client that is doing work elsewhere, we go with them. We’ve done projects in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. One of our clients did apartment complex in rural areas and college towns around the south. We did more than 100 projects for that client, which allowed us to go to a lot of places.
When Discount Auto Parts went public in the mid-90s, we were tagged as their engineers and we did 50 projects in Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
UF IFAS [The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences], has facilities scattered throughout the state. Our work for IFAS is everything from a new water line extension to a new research facility to a greenhouse.
Today, dollar stores are in a growth mode, and we’ve worked with Dollar General and Family Dollar as far south as Orlando and as far west as Panama City. We’re doing 15 to 25 dollar stores a year.
You don’t include architectural services?
No. The services we provide here are civil engineering. That’s a relatively broad term, but it’s designing and permitting infrastructure—everything but the building.
What’s the benefit of being a relatively large firm with a variety of specialties?
It’s very beneficial. We view ourselves as a civil engineering firm, but our other departments are equally important.
Besides engineering, we do land surveying, land planning and construction engineering inspection. They all feed one another.
Our land planning department deals with land-use changes and permitting—getting the entitlements. Our surveying department administers boundary surveys, topographic surveys, tree surveys and surveys for utilities or road corridors.
As engineers, we take the entitlements that we have accomplished and the characteristics of the land and put together a design for the infrastructure for a McDonald’s, a Walgreens or whatever it is. Our construction engineering inspection department does the bidding and the construction administration, making sure the contracts are carried out.
We do inspections to be sure that infrastructure is being built in conformance with the plan.
Do you find it exciting to help plan the look of the community?
Yes. Engineering is very much a science, but the development aspect requires you to go beyond science and engage the community.
Everything we do is for a public purpose. As a result, there are a lot of rules and regulations and processes set up.
You have to become engaged with the community, whether that be participating in the rule creation or whether it’s knowing how to follow the rules.
As a consultant, a client will come to you and say, “I want to do this.” It’s our job to help them get the end product they want.
I immensely enjoy that type of work. As I’ve matured in my career, I’ve left behind the technical engineering things and I gravitated to being the ombudsman, to being the face of the project and its spokesperson. It requires a lot of strategy, a lot of skills and communication, whether it’s in a public forum or in negotiations in a small group.
How does being in the public eye compare to the role of the engineer?
I was very analytical coming out of school, and I’ve had to become more extroverted. My wife said the other day that I have to be careful because I can keep talking when the other person’s ready to quit.
If I’m engaged in a project that I’ve worked for months, I don’t really have to prepare for a presentation anymore because I know the details of the project inside and out.
Public speaking has gotten a lot easier. I’ve also developed a certain amount of patience. I understand the process, and I realize there are things over which I might have some control, and there are places where I don’t have control.
Do you think you’ve built more of Alachua County than any other firm?
I haven’t done a study to see, but I imagine we have, at least since the mid-’90s. If you looked a lot of different measuring tools, if you pulled the county’s records and the city’s records for the last 10 years, and said “which firm has processed the most development plans,” we will be three times ahead of the second company.
I exclude from our competition CH2M Hill because they’re a multi-national firm, and Jones Edmunds because they specialize in water and wastewater facilities and do not engage in local development projects.
Did you deliberately set out to achieve that top position?
Yes. About 10 years into our firm, we were very established and we asked, “where do we want to go?” We made plans to become the No. 1 engineer in Alachua County. That means if a local client wants to build something, we have the first opportunity to provide services to them. Another component would be that we’re doing community landmark projects, the ones more in the public eye.
Once you had the vision to become No. 1, what did you do?
Initially, we did it through reputation. We really didn’t pursue clients. Today we do. We’ve learned that we need to be more proactive in our marketing efforts in the slowing economy if we are going to maintain market share and maintain stability. Today, we’re more marketing driven.
We’ve focused on developing relationships. We also recognize that we know people in the community, whether it’s me as an individual or others in the company. All these people know somebody else, and that second ring knows somebody else.
We identify a potential client that’s doing something in the community. We identify who we know who knows that entity. We go to the person who we know, and we say, “Could you call and get an interview for me? Could you attend a lunch with me?”
It’s 100 times better than a cold call. Once you get before that person, your goal is to develop a relationship with them. That relationship might result in a project next week, probably next year, sometimes the following year. It takes patience.
How do you recruit employees?
We’re most successful if we can hire someone through word-of-mouth. If somebody here knows somebody, or we have a relationship with them through another project, that’s the best way. That’s the best way, but it’s the slowest way.
Consequently, we’ll advertise through the Gainesville Sun. Today you use Craigslist, LinkedIn and Facebook. If we advertise on those large social networks, people from other places will apply.
UF is a good resource. There are times when hiring someone directly out of college is the best thing. The majority of our success stories have been that way.
Today, our preference is to find someone with a little seasoning—two years, three years, four years because the first couple of years is you investing in the employee.
What do you do for personal and professional development?
I’ve become more conscious of that need in the last three or four years. I do books on tape, and I’ve got a couple of friends who do books on tape. We will share books.
I might read Donald Trump’s What It Takes to Think Like a Billionaire. I don’t have to agree with everything in there, but I can learn things from it.
As a company, we attended an exciting seminar recently. The speaker encouraged us to create a learning and listening culture. He recommended six books that we’ve latched onto. As company directors, we’re reading through those.
What has been a tough learning experience for you?
In the last couple years, I’ve had to give a lot of thought to what I have learned over the years. I probably learned more during the busy years, but I was so busy being busy that I didn’t have time to think about what I had learned.
The last couple years, I’ve recognized the value of our middle-management structure and the importance of our intentional marketing strategy.
Before, most of my practice was in my head. I did things and people kind of followed. Nowadays, you have to be a little bit more intentional to express what’s in your head. Don’t keep it a secret. Share it so people can join into the goals and objectives.
I’ve learned that I can’t do everything by myself. You have to surround yourself with strong people and then share the knowledge. One monkey can’t stop the show, they say, but I certainly could be the clog in the wheel, and I wanted to get out of the way to avoid being the limiting factor.
How do you maintain a good corporate culture?
We have an internal bowling league. We get involved in the Heart Walk and the Climb for Cancer. We have a group called the Cultural Committee Champions. We have employee recognition and a newsletter.
We do company town hall meetings quarterly and that leads to good feedback. The other day our field crew said, “when it rains, we go home, and we don’t get paid. You all can still work when it rains.”
We realized we hadn’t thought about that. It’s just the way we’ve done it for 22 years.
How does it feel to make a mark on the community like you have?
I don’t want my epitaph to say, “he was an engineer.” While it’s good to be recognized that way, I’d rather have people think about some character trait that I exhibited as an engineer.
The relationships I’ve built while doing business are equally important as the things that get built. When I see a project, I think, “Oh, that was Phil Emmer’s,” or “I worked with Chuck Perry on it.”
I remember a situation that occurred, like something that happened during a breakfast. I enjoy the memories of the people associated with a project as much as I do seeing the product.