If it wasn't a family business before, this should make it all but official.
After four decades at the helm of Paulus, Sokolowski & Sartor, Anthony Sartor has stepped aside as CEO of the well-respected, Warren-based engineering and architecture firm. And he has turned the job over to his son, John Sartor, who has logged 23 years of his own with the company and has served as its president since late 2012.
“He’s done a yeoman’s job,” Anthony Sartor said. “He’s not there not because of his last name, but because of his abilities. He’s really a sharp young man, and I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I want to back off a little bit.”
It’s part of the changing of the guard at the professional services firm of about 250, which has been a mainstay in sectors such as real estate, hospitality and utilities. The elder Sartor isn’t stepping aside completely, though, as he’ll stay on as executive chairman and continue to help develop the business he has led for much of its 53 years in existence.
John Sartor, 45, who had also served as chief operating officer since 2012, has handed off that role to Thomas Heim, a former PS&S executive who returned to the firm about three years ago.
“They’re going to take this company to the next level,” Anthony Sartor said. “These guys really have some tremendous ideas and they’re starting to implement them, and it’s going to go real well.”
The firm, which had revenue of more than $40 million last year, has seen plenty of change during its history, even with the stability at the top. After joining the firm in 1974, Anthony Sartor sold PS&S in 2000 to the utility known as KeySpan, only to see it become part of National Grid as a result of a subsequent acquisition in 2007.
Sartor then reacquired his firm two years later. John Sartor said “it’s fair to say” that, at that point, it was a goal to have him ultimately succeed his father.
“But it took some work along the way — it took the right amount of time for me to get acclimated to the position,” John Sartor said. “I’ve been here for a long time, but still there’s a lot of new folks that we’ve brought in over the last five, six years to help us grow the company.
“So I think I could say it was part of the plan. … And it’s nice that it’s coming through.”
Anthony Sartor said that, as executive chairman, he will stay active in maintaining client relationships and bringing in new business for the firm he has helped grow from less than 20 employees when he arrived.
And it will be up to John Sartor and Heim to help manage that growth.
The younger Sartor, who joined the firm in 1992, has managed just about every practice under its roof. And he has seen it rebound from the recession, when the firm lost about a third of its business in late 2008.
PS&S has since seen its revenue increase more than 50 percent and its headcount rise to about 250 from just under 200, thanks to growth in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The firm said it now plans to add another 20 employees by the end of the year.
And as PS&S has expanded and opened new locations, such as its 2-year-old Wall office, the Sartors have relied on Heim to ensure the firm is growing responsibly. John Sartor said that has meant improving cash flow by improving billing and collection processes, while “identifying projects that were maybe stalled and helped to shake them loose.”
“Tom has really done a great job at putting a structure in place to help us support that kind of growth, because it’s taxing, but it’s necessary,” he said. “It’s an exciting thing — we’re employing a good number of people here, but it comes at a cost. And he’s just been great with that.”
The relationship dates back to when PS&S was part of KeySpan, where Heim served as director of finance from 2001 to 2007. After leaving KeySpan, the now 43-year-old Westfield resident kept in touch with the Sartors and joined PS&S in July 2013 as CFO.
“So I was coming back to some very familiar people,” Heim said. “(In) my first stint I worked a lot with Tony. In the second stint, I get to work hand-in-hand with John, so I can attest to John’s sharing very similar traits with his dad, and I’m just very excited about where we’re going.”
With the firm’s new leadership team in place, John Sartor said PS&S is also “starting to consider different models of growth,” such as small acquisitions. That might include a smaller firm that wants to benefit from the company’s scale and data management capabilities, but “(doesn’t) want to become part of a 10,000-person firm.”
“We’re a nice size because we are still small enough to be very employee-focused, very client-focused,” he said. “We’re at a good size for that, so we’re looking at folks joining us who have traditionally been in the market on their own.”
That could help bring PS&S into new sectors or grow its footprint in existing ones such as health care, which “is an area that we’ve feel we’ve underserved,” John Sartor said. He also noted that the firm could look to form new “strategic relationships” to adapt to how contracts are now being structured by clients such as public utilities.
Those customers are now moving away from a traditional model, “a very linear process” in which bidding is done separately for design firms and contractors. The firm is now seeing that, “because the utilities need to spend so much in such a short period of time, they have reduced resources to do that, they’re now looking to the community” and asking for a different model.
“So our approach may change,” Sartor said. “We may evolve into, with strategic alliances, going out after larger projects in a design-build capacity or larger projects with a program management (component).
“A lot of it also relates back to what’s happened post-Sandy,” he added. “Sandy caused a lot of destruction. We’re now, over the past 18 months, rebuilding and will continue for a period of time. Part of it is just the destruction of the actual physical assets. Part of it is now building back infrastructure that’s not so susceptible to what happened in Sandy.”
Sartor also pointed to the buzz tied to the proposed expansion of casino gaming to North Jersey.
PS&S thrived in the late 1970s and 1980s from the birth of the Atlantic City gaming industry, working with casino mogul Steve Wynn and others over the subsequent decades, only to see that business fade with the decline of the industry about seven years ago.
But any northward expansion of the industry “would be tremendous for us,” Sartor said.
New sectors will also help guide the footprint PS&S maintains across New Jersey and the region. Sartor said the existing offices in the Garden State could be expanded depending on what happens in the industries the firm serves, but it’s also weighing expansion as far north as Massachusetts and as far south as Maryland.
All that will be part of what Sartor hopes will be a long run at the helm of PS&S.
“And Tom’s right here with me in terms of our ability to be here for 20 years and to help grow something,” he said. “That’s a unique opportunity, to have such a nice platform with a 53-year-old company … and to have that much time to do something with it — that’s exciting.”
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Anthony Sartor may have stepped down as CEO to make way for his son John, but he’s quick to note, “I’m not going anywhere.”
“I tell John, ‘Whatever you need, I’ll be here to help guide this place as I have since 1974,’” said Sartor, who is staying on as executive chairman. “So I’m going to be around.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not excited to have some extra time on his hands. Sartor said he’s looking forward to playing golf, an activity he’s neglected in recent years, along with traveling.
He also sits on the board of John Cabot University, an American college in Rome. Sartor said the institution just bought a new building, so he will oversee the team of architects and engineers working on rehabilitating the structure.
“That will give me some time to run over to Rome once in a while,” he joked.