Big Red Dog helps reshape Austin’s development scene
By Shonda Novak
Big Red Dog, an Austin-based engineering and consulting firm, got its start in 2009, when the U.S. was in the throes of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Not only did the company weather the recession, but it has been on an upward trajectory since 2011, thanks to a strong economy propelled by the continued job and population growth in the Austin area.
Now with offices in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio as well as Austin, and having completed nearly 450 projects in 36 cities, Big Red Dog is among the fastest-growing companies in Central Texas. It recently was ranked by Zweig Group as one of the fastest-growing engineering and architecture firms in North America.
The ranking adds to the firm’s numerous accolades, which include being named one of the top design firms in Texas and Louisiana by Engineering News-Record for the past three years.
Big Red Dog provides civil, mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering and related consulting services for commercial, residential, retail and industrial projects across Texas. The firm also is involved in land planning, helping developers select sites for their proposed projects and obtain the permits and approvals required to build them.
In six years, the firm has grown from its three founders — Bob Brown, Brad Lingvai and Will Schnier — to 105 employees, with projected annual revenue of about $15 million this year.
The company expects to have as many as 600 employees and annual revenue of $100 million by 2024.
Big Red Dog has a long list of high-profile projects to its credit. In Austin, those include Greystar’s Lamar Union mixed-use project on South Lamar Boulevard; the newly opened South Congress Hotel; Hotel Van Zandt; Live Oak Brewery; and the Waller Creek redevelopment project.
Elsewhere, projects include the Halliburton Eagle Ford Shale complex in San Antonio; Lake Highlands Town Center in Dallas and The District at Memorial in Houston.
Derek Brown with Greystar said that, after working with Big Red Dog on numerous projects over the years, including several current projects, “I can comfortably say that they have set the standard in terms of an engineering consultant.”
“Greystar was the first major mixed use developer that starting working with Big Red Dog, and now they’re doing the vast majority of the mixed use and infill projects in Austin due in part to the successes that we’ve had together,” Brown said.
Matt Ryan, a partner with the construction law firm of Allensworth & Porter whose clients include Big Red Dog, said that, “while the leadership figures in the firm may be relatively young, what I’ve seen demonstrates a business savvy and client service ethic that are top shelf in all regards.”
Recently, Lingvai and other members of Big Red Dog’s local leadership team sat down with the American-Statesman to talk about the company’s growth, its projects and other topics in their East Fifth Street headquarters.
In addition, Lingvai; Schnier, the firm’s CEO; Ricky DeCamps, vice president of the Austin office; and David Johnson, vice president of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing division in Austin, responded collectively in writing to the following questions:
American-Statesman: What is fueling the company’s growth?
Big Red Dog: The main drivers are the excellent demographics in Texas. Anecdotally speaking, we understand that there are over 1,000 people a day migrating to the state of Texas. And this is a trend that has been going on since 2005. And those 1,000 people are primarily locating in places where Big Red Dog has offices.
Austin tops many lists for ‘best of,’ but Dallas Houston and San Antonio top plenty of lists of their own. Houston is poised to pass Chicago to become the third- largest city in the country. Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are all in the top 11 of the largest cities it the country. Statewide employment is beating the national average and the unemployment rate in Austin is under 4 percent.
On top of that, city regulations are not getting any easier, and the demand for housing stock, both multifamily housing and single-family subdivisions, continues to increase. Right behind the housing comes the services — car dealerships, fast food restaurants, shopping centers, grocery stores, banks — all of these things are required when the population increases dramatically. As an engineering firm who caters to those markets, we are well-positioned in each city.
What are a couple of the firm’s most challenging projects, and how did the company surmount the challenges involved?
Lamar Union was a very challenging project. It was a 10-acre redevelopment site in the heart of South Lamar. We worked diligently with the adjacent neighborhood, and with city staff, to create a really amazing project. The site went from an underutilized strip center with a surface parking lot to become the one real shining example of what a vertical mixed-use project can be in the Austin urban core.
What are some challenges of working in Austin?
In Austin specifically, it’s never a good idea to be an out-of-town developer’s first engineer. A client working here for the first time will have unreasonable expectations on what is possible, what the schedule should look like, and what the cost should be. The city review process represents a very high barrier to entry for non-local developers and engineers, especially those working on their first project. We like to say, in Austin, it’s always best to be somebody’s second engineer. Because the first engineer could have been perfect and for factors outside of his control the client may think him incompetent if he’s being evaluated based on similar experiences in different cities.
What is your strategy for surviving during an economic downturn, or lean times?
Our strategy for dealing with that inevitable downturn is, No. 1, to be honest about it with our staff. No. 2, we are diversifying our geographic locations, our service lines, and our client base. Number three, we strive to include all of our team members in our operational processes, and our marketing, branding, and client relationships. The stronger all three of those are, the better off the firm will be during a recession.
What are some of the principles that guide decision-making at the firm and inform its day-to-day operations?
We run a very open-book company. Everybody in the office can read our business plan. As owners and managers we have an obligation to answer any question about our business that we can to our staff. We try to let decisions be made at the lowest level they can. We really try to empower our team members to make the right decision for our clients using their best judgment. Approximately 10 percent of our staff are owners in the company, which is a ratio that we want to continue.
What is your take on all the growth the Central Texas region is seeing?
Austin’s lack of density, and its history of failing to invest in the necessary transportation systems, will ultimately come back to haunt us.
For a long time, Austin had an attitude of ‘if you don’t build it, they won’t come.’ Well, that didn’t work out. Today we’re in an environment of ‘if you build it, build only 25 percent of what you really need so that we can protect our environment and single-family neighborhoods.’
BIG RED DOG
What they do: Engineering and consulting
Headquarters : Austin
Office locations: Houston, San Antonio and Dallas
Annual revenue: $15 million (2015 projected)
Awards/ranking: 26th fastest growing in Zweig survey
Top Design Firms in Texas and Louisiana by Engineering News-Record 2013, 2014, 2015