Just glancing at AHBL’s portfolio of projects, it’s hard not to see this Tacoma-based firm’s expertise in civil and structural engineering, landscape architecture, community planning, and land surveying in much of the region’s built environment.
The company, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, has worked on a range of highly visible projects, such as Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place; Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce County; and Point Defiance Park, Center for Urban Waters, University of Puget Sound, University of Washington, and Tacoma Public Schools in Tacoma.
“That’s one of the most rewarding parts of our work,” said AHBL president Doreen Gavin. “We see an impact on our built community, and it’s a very positive impact. On publicly funded projects, we really have the opportunity to see the schools built and the parks improved. We have a real hand in improving the places where we live and recreate.”
Started by Noel Adams as a one-person structural engineering firm in Tacoma, the company’s name evolved over time when Geoff Hodsdon and Al Bessette joined the firm in the 1970s, followed a decade later by a merger with a civil engineering firm led by George Lindsay.
What’s the secret to remaining a company after a half-century in business?
One ingredient is AHBL’s ability to strategically adapt and evolve alongside changing market trends and emerging client needs, acquiring other firms, and expanding its suite of services. For example, in the 1990s, AHBL hired Len Zickler, a landscape architect and community planner. The company also merged with J. Becker & Associates during that period, expanding its surveying line of business.
“It was very strategic,” said Dan Booth, a principal and structural engineer at AHBL, where he has worked since 1988. “The firm went through a downturn in the 1980s. At the time, I think the realization was that markets change — some go up, some go down — and there was a real emphasis on saying, ‘Let’s diversify, in terms of the type of work we do.’ The goal was to try to do 50 percent public work, 50 percent private work. There was a desire to become multidisciplined.”
That desire continues today. Recent data provided by AHBL show 56 percent of its work is comprised of publicly funded projects, while 44 percent are privately funded.
“The last economic downturn (in 2008) we went through, the private sector turned off almost overnight,” added Gavin, who was hired by AHBL as an engineer in 1990, became a shareholder in 1999, and was elected company president in 2013. “But we had long-term contracts with the military, several public school districts, and higher education clients. So, we had projects that continued for another four years while the private sector was
AHBL employs 126 people; operates offices in Seattle, Spokane, and Tri-Cities (in addition to its headquarters in Tacoma, which is its largest office); and posted revenue of $21 million in 2018.
Currently, the firm is working on a range of notable projects: a convention center hotel under construction in downtown Tacoma; streetscape design improvements for future Link light rail service in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood; and a variety of projects for school districts in Centralia, Federal Way, Fife, and Tacoma.
A particular point of pride for Gavin and Booth is the firm’s ability to attract and retain talented South Sound engineers who would otherwise typically look for jobs outside the area.
“We think that’s a part of our legacy that we are proud of,” Gavin said. “We offer high-paying, professional positions to South Sound employees. We have been here for 50 years, and we will continue for another 50 years. I think that is attractive to some of our future employees. They know that we will be around, and they can live and work in the South Sound.”
As for formally marking the company’s half-century in business, Gavin said AHBL’s employees (and maybe even Adams, Hodsdon, Bessette, and Lindsay) and many of its clients will gather at Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma this fall to celebrate.
“It is a big deal,” Gavin added.