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Calif. firm takes flight after Birdsall crashes

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Partner Engineering & Science had always planned to grow in New Jersey. But the pay-to-play scandal that ensnared Birdsall Services Group this year offered an opportunity well beyond any blueprint it had for expansion.

The six-year-old Torrance, Calif., company increased its Garden State workforce nearly fivefold with the acquisition of most of Birdsall's assets in June, following the bankruptcy of the once-prominent Eatontown firm. And Partner now has the foundation for an East Coast hub that can feed its business across the country, largely because its bench of engineers is suddenly deeper and more diverse.

"Our clients are spread across the 50 states," said Frank S. Romeo Jr., Partner's director of East Coast operations. "And really, the idea is to grow the operation here in New Jersey and make this almost a brain center to provide expertise to our project managers, our relationship managers, our staff and our clients nationally."

Partner's reach comes from its roots as an environmental due diligence company, a practice that has drawn some of the country's largest banks, Romeo said. But taking on more than 70 former Birdsall employees has effectively added new practices such as land development and mechanical, electrical and plumbing, he said, while boosting Partner's capabilities in surveying, energy and health care.

And Partner hopes to add at least 30 new hires in the next six to eight months — all in New Jersey — to help service a national platform that already has 24 offices nationwide.

For many ex-Birdsall engineers, most with decades of experience, the state of affairs is far from where things stood less than a year ago. The 90-year-old firm and seven of its former executives were indicted in March, with authorities charging they bundled political contributions from employees to skirt the state's pay-to-play laws.

"Anybody in the service business had to be affected by something like this," said Anthony Sartor, chairman and CEO of the engineering firm Paulus, Sokolowski & Sartor, in Warren. "They had to think about what transpired there and how to examine what their policies have been."

Sartor added that economic conditions or debt problems have forced other service firms to fold in the past, "but I've never seen anything like this, where a firm is just decimated because of the actions of a few at the top."

Birdsall filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March, giving way to the sale of most of its assets to Partner. So began a transition in which Partner managed to carry over a stable of business and clients from Birdsall, despite the cloud of the scandal.

"You don't want to lose sight of the individuals and the work that was done," said Chris Gaffney, the New Jersey group president for Toll Bros. Inc. Like other clients, the Horsham, Pa.-based homebuilder retained Partner for Regency Woods at East Windsor, a 200-unit residential project predating the recession.

Gaffney also said Partner's national footprint allows it to "augment what some of the folks that were left at Birdsall had. And it really allowed them to take some of the stuff they've worked very hard on and just take it to the next step."

Ralph J. Orlando, Partner's division president here, said holding onto business was less difficult "on a number of projects, as long as the clients were connected to the professionals that came over." In many cases, the experts have longstanding relationships that span up to 40 years.

"Where some of the professionals left and didn't come to Partner, there was some additional convincing or confidence-building that we could continue to work," said Orlando, who stepped in as Birdsall's CEO last year. "And that happened both on the public side and private side."

Meantime, the breakup of Birdsall was an opportunity for other engineering firms in New Jersey. Sartor said PS&S hired roughly a dozen former Birdsall professionals, helping the firm open a Monmouth County office as it ramps up work tied to Hurricane Sandy.

For those who chose Partner as their landing spot, the ex-Birdsall employees bring decades of institutional knowledge to the young, entrepreneurial company from California, said Orlando. Romeo, Partner's East Coast director, said "there was so much to be gained from the experience in this building." And while "it's difficult any time you try to marry separate business cultures," it hasn't taken long to see the benefits.

"There was adapting to be done on both parts," Romeo said. "And the people from Partner, prior to the acquisition, and the people who came over as part of the acquisition of Birdsall have really done a great job of working together and making this whole thing as painless as possible."

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

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