It’s been four years since I sat down with Will Schnier, the CEO of Big Red Dog Engineering and Consulting. This time he took me on a tour of the company’s expanded East Austin offices — about 15,500 square feet at 2021 E. Fifth St.
A lot has happened since 2013. Today Big Red Dog is the largest locally owned engineering and design firm in Austin by number of employees — 105 in all four Texas offices, 62 in Austin.
Since opening in 2009 with partners Bob Brown and Brad Lingvai, Big Red Dog has grown dramatically, offering new lines of services and generating a projected revenue this year of $18.3 million — that’s an enviable 111 percent more than last year.
For the past several decades, the “big dog” in local engineering was Bury Inc., founded by Paul Bury. One of the most visionary leaders of Austin's business community, Bury built a formidable consulting business with his engaging personality and passion for Austin’s economic well-being.
In early 2016, Bury sold the company to international behemoth Stantec Inc. The ownership change — and Bury's concurrent retirement — impacted the engineering landscape dramatically and a cultural change appears to have surfaced. Several of Bury’s closest advisors and team leaders have moved on to other companies in the past year.
This week I confirmed that Stantec will depart Bury's prominent downtown offices at the end of the year. Andy Smith of Lincoln Property Co., the owner and broker of Chase Tower, where Stantec is currently located, said Stantec is scheduled to vacate 65,000 square feet at 221 W. Sixth St. by the end of the year.
"I don't know where they're going," Smith said. "We are working with a couple possible suitors."
Big Red Dog wouldn't be interested in that space. Its executives are happy with the bohemian vibe of East Austin and fairly new digs that were developed by Austin's Endeavor Real Estate Group.
Transferring the local engineering scepter from Bury to Big Red Dog seems an apt metaphor. Schnier and Lingvai began their civil engineering careers at Bury.
When they took the leap into the entrepreneurial unknown, the trio didn’t know what to expect. The first couple of years were tough, but everything accelerated with a couple of key assignments.
“Two projects really, really changed the trajectory of the firm,” Schnier said. “The first was Lamar Union on South Lamar. Several developers and their consultants had looked at the parcel before our client, Greystar. Everybody passed because the base zoning didn’t allow apartments.”
None of them realized a new concept could be at play — vertical mixed use, or VMU. The brainstorming and partnership between Greystar and Big Red Dog solved the riddle and ushered in one of the city's most unique residential and retail projects.
“This (designation) allowed Greystar to develop what is the largest VMU project in the city,” Schnier said.
The collaboration between Big Red Dog and Greystar has led to many more collaborations — over a dozen completed and current projects, Schnier said.
The other pivotal project was the Halliburton Eagle Ford Shale Campus near San Antonio.
“That project was nearly 200 acres and launched our San Antonio office in 2011,” Schnier said. “The project was the best overall real estate deal in San Antonio in 2012.”
Big Red Dog doesn’t just handle civil engineering. New lines of business include traffic and transportation engineering, structural engineering and mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering.
So, why does it matter whether Big Red Dog is the largest locally owned engineering company anyway?
“That was never our goal, as we wanted to be the best firm in town, but being the largest certainly has its advantages,” Schnier said.
First and foremost, developers from outside of Austin who want to succeed locally seek out Big Red Dog because of its local knowledge and networks, Schnier said.
“Austin is no place where an out-of-town engineer comes in and has success,” Schnier said. “There used to be two firms in Austin that could steer a large project through the city process. Now there is one.”
There may be some differences of opinion about that claim.
KBGE Engineering — also consisting of some Bury alumni — might vigorously protest. It also has cultivated some high-profile clients.
Still, Schnier knows Big Red Dog is doing something right. Even in a market where unemployment is low and competition for top talent is intense, Schnier said he receives calls daily from people who dearly want to work for Big Red Dog. It’s tough turning people away, he said.
So what does Schnier look for when hiring?
“Three items come to mind,” he said. “Our team members must know how to have fun. They must be able to get a lot of stuff done well in a short period of time, and they must be maniacal about the client’s success.”
New college graduates and military veterans particularly appeal to him.
“We love to hire recent graduates that have experience in the food or hospitality industry. (Since) we run a service business, that hospitality experience is a great learning ground,” Schnier said. “We also tend to look very hard at former military members. We’ve had great success hiring veterans. They have a learned ability to deal with stressful situations that are constantly changing and many have been able to transition very successfully into key roles at our firm.”
I asked Schnier if Big Red Dog is making a difference in Austin beyond helping developers navigate city processes. His response was immediate.
“What do the people of Austin complain about the most? Traffic,” Schnier said. “Dan Hennessey is our public infrastructure market director and he’s the best traffic engineer that I’ve seen in my career. Our plan is that Dan and his team will be able to transform Austin’s transportation network into a model for the rest of the country. I’ve no doubt that we’ll be successful at that objective under Dan’s leadership.”
That’s a pretty high bar to set. Schnier said the rest of the leadership team is up to the task, as well.
“They are fearless and demanding. I tell them regularly that they’re the best in the business, and that’s not lip service. The roster and depth of bench around the office would make the Golden State Warriors jealous," Schnier said.