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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

NC trend: WithersRavenel makes a difference behind the scenes

Sam Ravenel and Tony Withers

Unless you are a land developer or someone who works in local government, the name WithersRavenel may not resonate. But it is possible you live in a subdivision that was designed by WithersRavenel. Or you live in
a town whose master plan was drafted with its help.

The company’s more than 400 engineers, land planners, environmental specialists and surveyors work all over
North Carolina.

Sam Ravenel and Tony Withers earned engineering degrees at N.C. State University in the mid-1970s. They met working in dam safety for the state. 

Eventually, they both went to work for private engineering firms. By 1982, Withers went out on his own. He needed help, and reached out to his former colleague, Ravenel.

“I said I can’t do this by myself, and we had a good relationship, so I said let’s just form a partnership.” In 1983, the firm began in Raleigh.

At that time, Cary was transforming from a small western Wake County town to a booming suburb. Research Triangle Park was taking off, and Interstate 40 had been built right by Cary between Raleigh and RTP. Fast-growing startup SAS Institute had arrived from Raleigh. WithersRavenel was getting work from developments that were springing up.

“We knew Cary was on the move,” says Withers, “so we said let’s move our office out here.” They had a draftsman and a secretary and there were four of them in a three-room sublease from a dentist.

In 1990, the partners recruited Jim Canfield, who eventually became CEO and president
of the company. Two of the leading developers in the Triangle were Tim Smith and
Bubba Rawl.

From 1990 to 2005, WithersRavenel would grow to 100 employees. One reason was the work it was doing for Preston Development, a company founded by Smith and Rawl and backed financially by SAS co-founder Jim Goodnight.

By 2007, the firm had 280 employees. And then the housing market collapsed in 2008, triggering a financial crisis that ripped through the development industry.

WithersRavenel reduced its staffing to below 100 employees. “It was awful,” says Withers. “Banks were calling notes on everybody. Many, many builders went bankrupt.”

Fortunately, the firm had what he called “a little bit of government work to sustain us. And we had a couple of good developer clients that were not affected as badly. They could afford to pay their bills.”

One reason WithersRavenel had government work was engineer Cameron Patterson, says Canfield. “He was our early champion for public sector work. A lot of what he did in the mid-90s, especially early 2000s, allowed us to have the public sector work we did that got us through the recession.”

WithersRavenel worked with municipalities throughout North Carolina. Engineering firms like WithersRavenel become the go-to resource for a myriad of local projects: land use plans, street construction and repair, water and sewer installations and the like.

Government work has balanced the ups and downs of private development. Today, the firm’s $60 million annual revenues are split 55% private, 45% public. 

“We’ve added 200 people in the last three years, during Covid,” says Canfield. A challenge in this hiring is ensuring new employees share the company’s core values. The engineering business is a technical one, but it is also a relationship business because WithersRavenel personnel interact with clients daily. “If our employee experience here is great, they’re going to give our client a great experience,” says Canfield.

WithersRavenel now has offices in Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro, Pittsboro, Raleigh, Southern Pines and Wilmington.

“At some point in the very near future, we will be outside of North Carolina. We need to in order to continue to grow and scale, but importantly, to give our teammates opportunities to grow with us. We’ve been thinking in 10 years, we’d be a Southeast regional firm.”

The founders are still active in the business, which is now 100% employee-owned
through a stock plan. Withers works on client relationships, and Ravenel works in the stormwater group.

They are different people, says Canfield. “Sam’s very much head down, wanna do the engineering work. Tony’s much more about developing business, developing client relationships, big picture, putting things together. And so the two of them made an awesome team of Tony, he’d bring the work in, and Sam would make sure it got done and got done well.”

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