For a small group of engineers from PS&S, the days after Hurricane Sandy were spent walking the streets of Lavallette.
Their task: inspect the storm-damaged homes to determine if they could be salvaged.
It was just the beginning for the Warren-based firm after it joined a state task force aimed at rebuilding from the October 2012 superstorm. And it wasn't long before PS&S executives realized they would need a permanent presence at the Jersey Shore, allowing them to tackle the untold amounts of cleanup work that was yet to come.
That landed them in Wall Township, where they found temporary space last June before opening a permanent site in September. The office not only gave PS&S the footprint it needed, but opened the door to a market that it hadn't tapped in its 52-year history — a market that was long dominated by the now-defunct Birdsall Services Group.
“I think there are a lot more opportunities that haven't hit yet,” said John Sartor, the firm's president and COO, who anticipates a large volume of Sandy-related work as more federal funds become available. PS&S already has worked on the boardwalk restoration in Seaside Heights, the construction of Lavallette's new municipal building and the Department of Transportation's reconstruction of Route 35.
“And there was a void created in the market down there,” Sartor added. “Birdsall had a big presence — they had a big chunk of the market, both public- and private-sector.”
The design and engineering firm has quickly built a staff of 25 at its Wall office on Route 34, representing about 10 percent of its 250 total employees. And Sartor said that could grow to as many as 50 in the coming years.
For PS&S, it was largely a case of being in the right place at the right time.
Joseph Fleming, the firm's executive vice president, said discussions about opening the new office began early last year, about three months after Sandy. But he knew it could take until after the summer to make the investment properly, he said.
“So I started talking to John in February and I said, 'We could do this, but I'm really looking quite a distance down the road here.' ” Fleming said. “He called me up a month later and said, 'Things are changing faster — I don't know that I can wait that long.' ”
Meantime, the scandal was growing around Birdsall, the Eatontown-based engineering firm that had spent decades as a fixture in the Shore region. The 90-year-old institution and seven of its former executives were indicted in March 2013, amid charges they bundled political contributions from employees to skirt New Jersey's pay-to-play laws.
With the temporary space on the way, PS&S was ready to start looking at new hires. That included 16 former Birdsall employees who would end up at the Wall office, some of whom had prior relationships with PS&S executives.
With a roster of new professionals, the firm has since turned its attention to Sandy-related work. It already works closely with hard-hit towns such as Lavallette and Seaside Heights, Sartor said, and it's lining up projects in others such as Brielle and Toms River.
There's also the potential for work with high-density residential projects around the Shore that need reconstruction. That's not to mention infrastructure work with the power and wastewater utilities, which are seeking to fortify themselves against future storms.
It's not the first time PS&S has planted a flag to tap into a niche market. The firm has offices in Camden and Atlantic City, with four others in the Northeast and one in Caguas, Puerto Rico.
So in Wall, there's also the prospect of unlocking a wealth of private- and public-sector work that PS&S was never considered for because it didn't have a footprint in the Shore region.
“The good thing is we've hired great talent,” Fleming said. “I believe by having local professional talent that's going to allow us to go from this very, very strong beginning and allow us to continue to build.”
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