WithersRavenel, a Cary-based engineering firm, celebrates its 40th anniversary this week. Unless you are a land developer or someone who works in local government in North Carolina, the name may not resonate. But it is possible, especially if you live in the Triangle, that 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 engineers, land planners, environmental specialists and surveyors work all over the state. It survived the Great Recession that was a depression for land development 15 years ago. Now it has more than 400 employees in offices throughout North Carolina. Particularly in the past few years, its growth has been substantial.
Sam Ravenel and Hamilton “Tony” Withers both got their engineering training at N.C. State. Ravenel graduated in 1974 and Withers in 1975. But they got to know each other because they both ended up working in dam safety for the state.
Dam safety became a big deal in the ‘70s, with high-profile collapses resulting in loss of life and billions of dollars in property damage. The federal government and states ramped up inspection programs.
Ravenel was working in Raleigh as assistant dam safety engineer. Withers had been in graduate school studying landscape architecture, but decided the job prospects were better in engineering.
So he took a job with the state’s dam safety program. “That’s where Sam and I met,” he says.
Eventually, they both left the state and went to work for separate engineering firms. By 1982, Withers went out on his own. He got busy and needed help, and he 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.” And so, on Oct. 6, 1983, Withers & Ravenel was incorporated, located in the old Capital Club building on West Martin Street in Raleigh.
I was talking recently with Withers in a conference room at the firm’s MacKenan Drive campus in the MacGregor business park off U.S. 64, on Cary’s western edge. The original Raleigh office “was half the size of this room, our first year.”
Cary on the move
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Cary was beginning its transformation from a small western Wake County town to a booming suburb, with large planned communities. Research Triangle Park was taking off, and Interstate 40 had been built right by Cary between Raleigh and RTP. The fast-growing startup SAS Institute had arrived from Raleigh. Companies were scouting locations in MacGregor. WithersRavenel was getting work from the 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.
“Since I was a landscape architect, I called all the landscape architects in town. They couldn’t do engineering but they could do land planning. And I said I kind of related to them, and said let me do your engineering. So that was kind of the way I got my foot in the door.
“I’d do water and sewer and storm drainage – there wasn’t much storm drainage back then, but a little bit – for the landscape architects who were doing the land plans for apartment projects and that sort of thing.”
In 1990, the partners recruited Jim Canfield, who would rise eventually to become CEO and president of the company. He was their first engineering hire. Like many folks at engineering firms, he started out working in local government, reviewing the plans of local developers and their engineers. After graduating from N.C. State in 1986, he went to work for Cary in the engineering department. Two of the leading developers in Cary were Tim Smith and Bubba Rawl, and Smith was working with mega-car dealer Rick Hendrick on Cary Auto Mall, a large cluster of dealerships off U.S. 64. Withers was working for Smith on the project, and Canfield was working on the infrastructure, like the roads coming into MacGregor. And in particular, a stretch of MacKenan Drive between U.S. 64 and Old Raleigh Road where the Auto Mall was going, that was being built as a public-private partnership with the town. “Anyway, Tony was representing the developer and I was representing Cary,” says Canfield, “and that’s where we got to know each other pretty good.”
Growth and the crash
From 1990 to 2005, WithersRavenel would grow to 100 employees. One reason was the work it was doing for Preston Development, one of the leading land developers in the Triangle, a company founded by Smith and Rawl and backed financially by SAS co-founder Jim Goodnight. WithersRavenel was also expanding beyond the Triangle. And it added services, like surveying – what evolved into geomatics, the collection and processing of geographic information with an array of high-tech tools. But in the beginning, the move was to fix a problem.
“When I joined them,” says Canfield, “we were just doing land development engineering work. One of the first things we added was geomatics, and the reason we added geomatics was that Tony saw it as a need. We weren’t getting our survey stuff in time to get our work done in time, to meet our clients needs. And Tony said, ‘Let’s go figure out how to serve our clients’ needs.’”
By 2007, the firm had 280 employees. It had expanded to Greensboro and Wilmington.
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. Engineering firms and architectural firms, land planners 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 that WithersRavenel had government work was engineer Cameron Patterson, says Canfield. “He’s been with us a long time. He started in ‘91 on the environmental side of things. 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.”
It is a different kind of practice that involves working with many municipalities, often small towns, 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, park planning and the like. It can mean helping small towns put together complex grant applications to get state and federal funds to pay for improvements.
The government work has balanced out the ups and downs of private development and helped the company recover from the crash. 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 special challenge in this hiring is to ensure that new employees understand and share the company’s core values. The engineering business is a technical and scientific one, but it is also a relationship business because WithersRavenel personnel are interacting with clients daily. “If our employee experience here is great, they’re going to give our client a great experience,” says Canfield.
WithersRavenel has offices in Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro, Pittsboro, Raleigh, Southern Pines and Wilmington. In the Engineering News-Record top 500 list ranking of gross revenues, it is at 332, the first time it has cracked the top 400. And it was 47th in the Southeast, which is notable since most of its business comes from just one state, North Carolina.
But that will probably change, says Canfield.
“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.”
Meanwhile, close to home, WithersRavenel continues to work with Preston on the 7,000-acre Chatham Park project that will be evolving over the next quarter century between Pittsboro and Jordan Lake, with some 60,000 residents at buildout. “We’re doing a lot of their land development work – residential-type stuff, some commercial,” says Canfield. And starting next month, Canfield will start moving some of his folks into leased space in one of the new buildings going up as part of downtown Cary’s revitalization. WithersRavenel has been involved in several of the buildings and the soon-to-open downtown Cary Park.
The founders are still active in the business, which is now 100% employee-owned through an ESOP. Withers works part time 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.”