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Federal work allows engineering firm to rehire staff

Rob Sabo

Tom Gallagher, president of Summit Engineering of Reno, talks tougher than the massive Cape Buffalo that hangs on a wall of his African-themed office, a beast that was brought down only after five rounds from a high-powered rifle while Gallagher was on a safari in Tanzania.

Gallagher founded Summit Engineering in Reno in 1978, but after laying off more than 70 percent of its workforce in the wake of the construction downturn, the outlook was bleak for the civil engineering firm. However, Gallagher says, at no time did he consider turning off the lights and locking the doors.

“Failure was not an option I am a fifth generation Nevadan on both sides of my family. If I was going to fail, I would go someplace else to do it,” he says. “Stopping, or selling out to some national firm never entered my mind.”

Though Summit Engineering made its mark in private-sector work throughout the course of its long history, the company recently has added to its revenue stream by landing work with the federal government.

Experts with the state’s Procurement Outreach Program office, which connects private businesses with government contractors and federal contracts, help Summit break into an avenue of business it had long pursued without success.

“They have been a real hands-on resource for us,” says Project Manager Ben Veatch, a 25-year Summit Engineering employee. “They showed us where to go and what mistakes not to make.

“At a time when resources were at a minimum, trying to hire somebody to help us do those types of things was not an option. They spent quite a bit of time with us, and that enabled us to be listed as a contractor with the federal government, which showed us avenues to pursue to seek new contracts and expand into different types of work. It took the technical edge off starting work with the federal government.”

Summit Engineering has landed two good-sized contracts to provide professional engineering services to federal agencies, Veatch says. The company also rehired some of its longtime staff as a result of the new work.

Veatch says many employees who were laid off had worked for Summit through high school and college, as well as through all of the required registration processes for engineers.

“To get them to the point where they are profitable and then have to lay them off, it is a terrible thing to have to go through,” Veatch says.

At its peak Summit employed more than 175, and before the recession began the company still had more than 150 employees on its payroll. Currently there are 54 employees between the Reno and Elko offices. Summit this year closed its offices in Ely and Las Vegas.

Gallagher says chief financial officer Shelly Averill, who has been with Summit for almost two years, helped turn the company around by adjusting its head count and other business practices in response to the reduced volume of work.

Summit’s remaining employees each took 10 to 20 percent pay cuts but none of the remaining employees has left the company, Gallagher says.

“They are behind us 100 percent.”

“It’s been tough keeping the lights on,” he adds. “If you walk down the hall you’ll find that most of them are off. But there is a reason I am keeping this building; because I will be back. But it will be pretty lean and pretty mean.”

Summit occupies about 20,000 square feet spread out among three buildings off Mae Anne Avenue. The company currently is engaged in minor subdivision work and engineering services with Indian casinos in California and Montana.

Summit pursues work in all Western States. Much of its work the past few years has been in Colorado, Southern California, Montana, North Dakota, and Arizona. Summit can get a licensed for any state in which it lands federal work, Gallagher says.

“The place we don’t have a lot of work going on is right here,” Gallagher says. “Federal work is something we have been going after for years and years and years without success. A lot of the federal stuff is very hard to break into, and we are very happy to have procured some federal work; it has kept some of our people busy.”