Engineering company flourishes by going lean

By John Larrabee
PBN Staff Writer

The economic downturn of 2008 was hard on Rhode Island’s civil engineers: construction slowed to a near standstill, jobs disappeared, and firms everywhere were cutting staff. More

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Engineering company flourishes by going lean

PBN PHOTOS/DAVID LEVESQUE
REBUILT FOR SUCCESS: With a commitment to its customers reflected in new products and the adoption of lean principles, DiPrete Engineering has thrived since the Great Recession. Above, Eric Prive, left, works with company CEO Dennis DiPrete.

By John Larrabee
PBN Staff Writer

Posted 11/25/13

The economic downturn of 2008 was hard on Rhode Island’s civil engineers: construction slowed to a near standstill, jobs disappeared, and firms everywhere were cutting staff.

But at DiPrete Engineering in Cranston, you won’t hear anyone talking about what was lost. “You could say the recession is the best thing that ever happened to this firm,” said CEO Dennis DiPrete, “because it forced us to look for improvements that are necessary for doing business in the 21st century.”

The numbers back that assertion. The firm has increased revenue by 70 percent since its low point in 2009, and the number of employees has climbed from 32 to 48 since then.

As the recession sank to its nadir, DiPrete and his colleagues took a hard look at how they were running their business, threw out some of their old ideas, and hatched a new strategy to carry them into the future. They decided to incur no debt while they nonetheless invested in some major initiatives.

Chief among them was adopting lean management principles, which call for eliminating business costs that do not add value for customers. First developed by Japanese manufacturers, lean principles were widely adopted by their American counterparts in the 1990s. At professional firms, however, the philosophy has been ignored for the most part.

“At that time it was not really on the radar in engineering, but we recognized it was a proven methodology in other businesses,” said Christopher Ready, the firm’s chief financial officer. “We decided it was a way we could make ourselves more competitive.”

“We’re now on a path to perpetual improvement, day after day, week after week,” DiPrete added. “In our industry, billable hours are usually considered the lifeblood. Firms like ours typically bill out 65 percent of their time. They brag about how high that number is; it’s their measure of success. Here, we bill out about 50 percent of our time, because we encourage our employees to work on things that mean permanent improvements to our firm, improvements that benefit our clients. Long term, we see that as a much better business model.”

DiPrete and a partner launched the firm back in 1984, shortly after DiPrete earned a degree in civil and environmental engineering from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. They began with an office in the Boston suburbs, then opened another in Rhode Island. When the two partners later split, DiPrete took the Rhode Island operation.

As a lifelong Rhode Islander and the son of a former governor, Dennis DiPrete is well-known thoughout the state. He’s involved with a number of professional and nonprofit organizations, serving on the boards of Grow Smart Rhode Island, Ocean Tides School, and the state’s chapter of the Urban Land Institute. That kind of background – and a series of New England building booms – made success seem easy before the recession.

“Work was coming in so fast we couldn’t keep up with it,” said Greg Guglielmo, vice president and a certified planner. “And then it just stopped. New projects weren’t coming in, and the projects we had were being put on hold.”

When the recession prompted the firm to adopt lean principles, it looked for changes to make in other areas, too, chiefly in business development and customer service.

Although there were layoffs when the downturn began, the firm made a decision to hold onto its most experienced personnel. That meant it was able to offer services beyond how a site will be engineered or permitted.

One local house builder needed a marketing campaign that would attract high-end buyers. “Our staff spent a lot of time with him, honing in on what sort of customers he was looking for, and then helped him put together the right brochure for the project,” DiPrete said. “No other local civil engineering firm is working with clients to market their product.”

When it was hired to work on the Reynolds Farm project, a large commercial and residential development in North Kingstown, the DiPrete team used its experience in the public arena to garner support. “We served as a spokesperson at public meetings,” DiPrete said. “We developed the graphics for presentation materials.”

Another company hired the firm to help with permitting for a large-scale apartment project. The builder had no experience with tax increment financing, a government program that allows a portion of future property tax proceeds to be used to pay for necessary improvements to public infrastructure. Some DiPrete engineers have worked on TIF projects, and they were able to help the builder get approval, which meant enormous savings.

“The architect and engineering industry is known to be weak in client services,” Ready said. “You hear people talk about how frustrating it is to deal with architects. We see this as an area where we can make improvements.”

There’s also a new focus on training. The firm encourages staff members to take college courses and offers tuition reimbursement, but the push doesn’t end there. “The core of our effort is really the large training room we have right in our office,” said Ready.

DiPrete also hired a chief operating officer – a rarity in civil engineering – to help with the lean effort.

Take a look at some of their ongoing projects, and you’ll see no slowdown in sight. DiPrete Engineering is working to revitalize Garden City Center in Cranston. It is providing all on-land engineering and permitting services for Deepwater Wind, the state’s planned offshore wind farm. New England Institute of Technology has retained the firm to complete regulatory permitting for its new campus in East Greenwich.

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