Success Story: C&S Companies, SyracuseEmployee-owned company makes indelible mark on the Central New York landscape
By Lou Sorendo
Soup to nuts. While this phrase certainly applies to the culinary world, it also describes the tasteful work of C&S Companies in Syracuse.
For nearly 50 years, C&S has evolved from a fledgling municipal engineering firm to a full-service national design, planning and construction services firm.
John Trimble, president and CEO, oversees the employee-owned company that has made an indelible mark on the Central New York landscape.
C&S services both the public and private sector.
The company has seen an increase in the desire for integrated project delivery, Trimble said. “Instead of just doing the design or just doing the construction, we take a design-build approach, or integrated product delivery approach, where we are combining all the services we offer into one package.”
This way, the owner can completely turn the project over to C&S.
Traditionally, particularly on public multi-prime projects, an owner would hire a design firm to design the project and develop plans and specs. Contractors would then bid on the project and manage the work.
“All told, you had six to seven different entities and an owner had six to seven different contracts to get one job done,” he said. “There is a desire now to simplify that and go with, ‘I just want one contract, one company responsible and I’ll turn it over to you.’ That’s really what we are geared to do.”
C&S is a privately held company. At the end of 2016, there were approximately 85 owners out of its workforce of 400.
Individuals who run significant parts of the business are the owners.
“It was an easy decision because in our business, the people who make it happen and are providing services are the ones who should have stake in the game. That’s how we operate,” Trimble said.
C&S has also resisted becoming a public company. “We feel individuals who live in the community and have an ownership bring a higher level of commitment and passion for what they do,” he noted.
“We’ve all grown up in the business together and through that individuals have identified opportunities to relocate and start C&S businesses in other parts of the country,” Trimble said. “That’s been our model. In every case, people have started here in Syracuse, worked here for a number of years, and decided to relocate and start a new operation in another location in the country. So that’s what’s really driven it.”
Trimble said the company’s performance has been consistent over the last three years.
“However, nothing’s easy. There’s no layups and we’re working hard for everything we get,” he said.
“When you look at our total business, and I tend to share this because people may think the margins are much better than they are in our business, we might run 5-to-7 percent return on our business, and that’s in a good year,” he said.
Trimble said the company has hired several individuals who were clients in the past.
“We’re very open with numbers, and when they saw that, I remember one individual saying, ‘I had no idea. I thought you guys were making 15-to-20 percent’,” he said.
C&S has increased revenues year after year, but has not increased its staff count because the company is doing more with the same amount of people.
“That’s the trend whether it’s industry, government or professional services,” he added. “It’s all getting automated.”
Trimble said the company makes decisions that are more employee and community focused versus what the percent of return and profitability are.
“As far as priorities, when you talk about how much we give back to the community, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Trimble said.
“I think it builds good will in the community. It’s the right thing to do and part of our culture,” said Renee Lane, marketing director, in regards to what motivates C&S to give back.
“I think we are recognized as a player and good stewards in the community. Is it measurable? Not really. I don’t think it matters. It makes us happy and feels good that we’re able to give back,” she said.
Trimble said because C&S is concentrated heavily in the public sector, it has an obligation to give back because funding for projects is through taxpayer dollars.
“So many companies like ours are being bought out by larger national and international firms that don’t have headquarters in the area,” Trimble said. “We’re the opposite. We’re staying privately held by people who live in the area and we’re doing work outside the area that is bringing money back. That’s not the case with many of the organizations around here.”
“We got a team leading the company that is pretty much in synch. We’re not always in agreement, but we usually are in general alignment with where we are headed and we all agree we want to control our own destiny.”
Trimble said the company takes a practical approach to sustainability and does it in a three-pronged manner.
“You need to balance people, profit and the planet,” he said.
“If the project is not serving the community or people in an organization, there is less need to do a project. Without an economic reason to do a project, such as financial or profit, the project won’t move ahead. The third part is you have to do it in a way that’s environmentally conscious and is something that isn’t short term at the expense of the environment.
“We look at almost every project in these terms. Those drivers all need to be in balance.”
Trimble said the one niche that C&S fills that differentiates itself from others is industrial and process engineering.
“It’s an area where there are fewer companies that do it, and we’re one of the few,” he said.
That expertise is applied in Oswego County at facilities such as Novelis, Sunoco, Huhtamaki, Exelon, Entergy and Dynegy.
“Not everybody does that type of work, whereas there are many firms that do public work, such as highways and bridges,” he said. “Fewer firms do high-technology industrial process and manufacturing.”
Matt Geitner, who heads up business development/government affairs at C&S, said it hasn’t always been that way.
“With the downturn in manufacturing, there are some other firms like us who were in that space who are not anymore. We’ve fallen into that space a little bit more,” said Geitner, a native and resident of Fulton.
Trimble said it’s the company’s relationships and people that give it a competitive edge.
“Ninety percent of our work is repeat business, so once we get in somewhere and we prove our worth, we usually establish relationships and trust that turn into repeat work,” he said.
Another key is the company’s diversity, he said.
“Within C&S, there is literally very little that we can’t do, whether it’s construction related, operations, maintenance or design involving a wastewater treatment plant, an industrial process improvement, a clean room, a highway or bridge, or whether it’s a building or airport. We really do just about everything,” he said.
“I don’t think a lot of people really realize that either. It’s hard to market and talk about that until you worked with us, then you realize the diversity is there,” Lane said.
Overall, 35 percent of clients C&S serves are in the private sector with the balance being public sector work. Within that 35 percent, the vast majority is concentrated in the industrial-manufacturing sectors within New York state.
C&S uses many skilled trades people from Oswego County, and commends a workforce that has evolved from the days of constructing nuclear power facilities.
“We pull guys from Oswego County who can compete globally with their skills,” Geitner said.
Trimble noted C&S uses 50 to 100 union tradesmen on any given day for its construction operations.
They include millwrights, pipefitters, iron workers and electricians.
This means C&S’ design process has to be quicker, more adept and more creative, he added.
C&S leaders are excited about progress on the Bridge NY program, which promises funds for culverts and bridges, as well as Cuomo’s initiatives regarding Upstate airports.
C&S has been involved in several projects backed by the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council.
“Governor Andrew Cuomo has done a decent job in creating regional economic development councils and trying to prioritize region by region the highest needs,” Geitner said. “The government has had to get tighter and prioritize more.” President Trump’s pledge to direct $1 trillion toward infrastructure is also promising to companies such as C&S.
“There is a long way to go on that to get through Congress and how that is going to be prioritized in terms of roads, bridges, wastewater treatment facilities and airports,” Geitner added.
From a private sector perspective, manufacturers “want us to get in quickly and get out quickly and do it cheaply. Often our manufacturers are trying to turn on a dime given the global economy. You saw it with Novelis with aluminum and the corporate average fuel economy standards. You have to quickly respond to the market, be it consumer trends or environmental regulations,” he added.
In terms of the private sector on the manufacturing side, Trimble said everybody gauges economic improvement by jobs. “The reality is, especially in the industrial sector, technology is where the improvement is taking place. In many cases, they are not going to lead to more jobs, but lead to that business being sustainable,” he said.
He said even some of the economic incentive programs from the state are strictly focused on jobs.
“That’s important, but sometimes they overlook the idea that we just need to make these existing places sustainable, or we’re going to lose them altogether,” he added. “It’s not just about new jobs, it’s about retaining existing jobs.”
In his 26 years in the business, Trimble said he has noticed there isn’t the job creation that’s coming from projects like they used to be because technology is offsetting that.
Also, municipalities don’t have the funds to do projects like they used to.
When Trimble broke into the business, the city of Syracuse — one of C&S’ major clients — would regularly have a capital program that was funded by local dollars and didn’t depend on state or federal money.
“Now, I can’t count on one hand the number of projects that they take on themselves in a year. And their emergency projects are very small in scale and not anything significant, and that’s a huge difference,” he said.
For example, in Phoenix, until the village expands its wastewater treatment plant, the county’s hands are tied in terms of more development in that area because the municipality is not accepting any new wastewater flow.
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