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‘Dumb luck’ fuels smart growth plan Gulf spill creates revenue spurt for engineering firm’s new division

By , - Last modified: March 2, 2011 at 2:56 PM

When the BP oil well exploded in April, sending millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, Matrix New World Engineering was poised to jump right in. Today, the East Hanover company has 40 employees in the Gulf, most of them hired rapid fire by Matrix in the wake of the disaster.

By diversifying into the private sector to increase its government contracts, Matrix New World Engineering doubled its revenue in recent years, says Dennis Petrocelli, senior vice president.

The firm’s decision in March to launch a new division to clean up the environmental damage from spills “was just dumb luck,” said Dennis Petrocelli, senior vice president. But the decision grew out of a long-term strategy to position the company for growth, regardless of economic conditions, by diversifying into the private sector to supplement Matrix’s government work. And that strategy has worked — the firm’s annual revenue has doubled in recent years, to nearly $11 million.

In March, Petrocelli had hired an engineer with a long track record of working on spills, and who came on board with a wealth of contacts in that business. “We thought we’d get involved in some of the small harbor spills that happen on a day-to-day basis, when a boat rams into something,” he said. “Then the largest spill ever occurs in the Gulf, and we were pulled in very, very quickly.”

But there was more than luck involved: Matrix had spent years developing the financial and organizational strength to seize the opportunity presented by the Gulf oil spill. The company needed to put up its own capital to start working in the Gulf because Matrix would be later be reimbursed by BP. Petrocelli was able to borrow the cash he needed from his bank at a time when the credit crunch and the recession were shutting many businesses out of the lending market.

Matrix was founded by Petrocelli, a geologist, and his wife, President Jayne Warne, a licensed professional engineer. As a woman-owned firm, Matrix started out 20 years ago as a subcontractor to giant engineering firms that are required to assemble a diverse team of suppliers when bidding for government jobs. Matrix has worked on the Second Avenue subway in New York and the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line: “Just about every major transit or infrastructure project in New York and New Jersey, we have some role on,” Petrocelli said.

About six years ago, “I was concerned that the public sector was winding down, so I pushed us into the private sector” by hiring several key project managers with good relationships in private industry. With expertise in the public and private sectors, Matrix can retool its focus based on the economy, when needed. “I’ve been through two or three recessions, so I knew as soon as one starts, we have to push our marketing into the [other] sector.”

Another key move was diversifying within engineering. From its base as an environmental firm, Matrix expanded into permitting, surveying, and civil and geotechnical engineering.

Then, about four years ago, Matrix decided that rather than settle for subcontracting “we needed to start getting our own work.” Now, Matrix successfully bids on its own behalf, while still taking subcontracting jobs.

“We have lots of our own contracts now, which helps us manage our own destiny,” Petrocelli said.

E-mail to:  bfitzgerald@njbiz.com

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