Managing the uncertainties
Founded in 1986, R.W. Gillespie & Associates, Inc. has been committed to assisting owners, developers, designers and contractors manage their project uncertainties. Now, the company has new leadership.
By Kathryn Buxton
R.W. Gillespie & Associates’ (RWG&A) mission is to provide high quality services in the fields of geotechnical engineering, environmental consulting, and special inspections and testing for construction projects. Rob Gillespie learned early in his career that a project can look very different in the field than it does on paper. The ability to be resourceful and examine data with a clear-eye – even in the field where conditions can be challenging – is a talent that Gillespie used to his clients’ advantage throughout his career in California, Florida, Montana and, for the past 26 years, in Maine and northern New England. Recently, Rob and Phyllis Gillespie turned their firm over to a new generation of owners.
RWG&A was founded in an unheated Sanford warehouse. Gillespie had grown up in the northeast and attended undergraduate and graduate school in Boston (the Franklin Institute, Northeastern University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology). He chose Sanford when he returned to New England with his family. “It was just an open warehouse bay, and when Phyllis joined me, we added two little offices with heat,” said Gillespie. The firm grew quickly after that. “We added our first employee in the spring of 1987 and by Christmas 1989, the company had 15 on the payroll.”
Over the past two and a half decades, RWG&A has expanded its reach and hired strategically to add services and build a niche in the New England market. You can see the RWG&A stamp on high profile projects throughout the region. RWG&A performed material testing for the Maine Turnpike Widening project (among other consulting they did on the project, RWG&A had an engineer on site in Canada to test the concrete bridge beams that were precast at a plant there), the construction of Hadlock Field in Portland, Gulf of Maine Research Institute as well as commercial developments including Augusta and Biddeford Crossing, the Target retail site in South Portland and numerous schools and residential complexes. RWG&A did the environmental consulting and materials testing on three redevelopment projects at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, as well.
“When we started, we were primarily a construction materials testing company,” recounted Gillespie. “We just did soil and concrete. But in 1989, we added bituminous paving, fireproofing, groundwater work and steel inspection,” he said (the firm is one of a few in the region to have construction material technologists on staff certified to test welds on steel construction). Currently, the company offers a broad range of geotechnical engineering, environmental consulting and special inspection and testing services for transportation, energy, government, commercial and municipal projects throughout northern New England.
In 1995, Gillespie hired Charlie Nickerson as the company’s chief geotechnical engineer (he later became president of the firm). It is easy to see how the two men’s rather different styles have complemented each other. Together, they led the company through a period of major expansion during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
By 1998, the firm had outgrown its original Sanford offices. That is when the firm moved to its current headquarters in Saco that today includes geotechnical and materials testing laboratories, offices and a file room that is filled to overflowing.
The firm added a second location in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1994. Currently the company employs 18 at its Saco location and three more at its Portsmouth office.
RWG&A also has made other strategic hires over the years. In particular, Erik Wiberg came on board as chief geotechnical engineer, Matthew Grady, materials testing services manager, and Marc Grenier, project geotechnical engineer.
Wiberg noted there have been recent changes at RWG&A. Rob and Phyllis Gillespie have retired to South Carolina, leaving Wiberg, Grady, Grenier and Nickerson with ownership of the firm. Wiberg is the president of RWG&A and will lead in the management of the new regime. Grady is overseeing the special inspection and testing group; and Grenier has taken charge of RWG&A’s Portsmouth office. Nickerson, with 36 years of experience, 16 with RWG&A, will continue as a principal engineer and assist in managing the company’s geotechnical group. New hire Jean Graunke, with an MBA and past experience at architectural and other professional service companies, has taken over human resource and accounting duties from Phyllis Gillespie.
The change in ownership has not affected the business operations since Wiberg, Grady and Grenier individually have 14 to 20 years of professional experience including 8 to 10 years at RWG&A. During a visit on a recent April afternoon, there was a great deal of activity at the company’s Saco headquarters. Technologists were testing a range of materials and processes in the firm’s laboratories and the company’s team of geologists and geotechnical engineers were gearing up for the hectic summer construction season. The firm has remained busy throughout the recent economic downturn following the steady course its founder set during its early days, providing timely results and providing clients with good value.
“We are out straight,” said Erik Wiberg. “Our personnel experience runs the gamut from heavy earthwork construction to dams, highways, and bridges to offshore marine structures. Clients come to us because we have a familiarity with the nature of their projects and expectations. We have the technical capability and we are efficient, so we can do the work at a fair price.”
It has helped that the firm has placed an emphasis on staff education and certification. “Our staff is well qualified in multiple areas and that is a great advantage on large and complex projects,” said Grady, who heads the firm’s testing services group.
RWG&A has several notable jobs underway. Its engineers have been performing geotechnical work for the $38.5 million rehabilitation of Building 178 at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.
They also are providing materials testing services to a 20-plus turbine wind farm, a biopower plant, and a new tissue paper machine in New Hampshire. The firm has consulted on airfield improvement projects in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut, and has others in the pipeline. RWGA maintains qualifications and contracts with both the Maine Turnpike Authority and Maine Department of Transportation. The company also has significant geotechnical engineering capability with power transmission and substation projects.
Wiberg said that RWGA has recently hired additional construction technologists and summer interns, and is looking for geotechnical engineers. The seasonal positions typically are filled by engineering students looking to gain on-the-job experience for their resumes. Over the summer, they will collect samples in the field and help out in the firm’s soil testing laboratory.
Wiberg said that it’s an excellent way to learn the business from the ground up.
RWG&A also has remained active in advocating for the industries it serves. The firm, an MBTA member, has supported MBTA’s recent advocacy efforts to raise awareness of the need for public investment in infrastructure. Wiberg and Nickerson are former presidents of the Maine Section, American Society of Civil Engineers. During Wiberg’s term, the organization compiled and released its first Maine Infrastructure Report Card. Nickerson was a founding member of the DEP Task Force and a past chairman of the Transportation Conference.
“The health, safety and welfare of our citizens are directly tied to the quality of our infrastructure,” said Wiberg. “Maine’s economy is built on its infrastructure. If Maine is to grow economically and sustain its quality of life, investment in our infrastructure needs to be a higher priority.”