If there’s a major design, development, planning or transportation infrastructure project in south Louisiana, there’s a good chance Baton Rouge-based CSRS is involved in it.
The firm was recently awarded the program management contract to oversee the bulk of what will be the largest public works program in East Baton Rouge Parish history—the $1.2 billion MovEBR package of road improvement projects.
It’s working with the state to relocate a coastal community to higher ground, and is in the running for a separate state contract to manage some $1.2 billion worth of flood control projects.
It serves as program manager for EBR Schools, where it manages school building projects, and is wrapping up nearly three years of work helping the school system—and several other local governmental agencies—navigate the complex, federally funded recovery and rebuilding process that followed the August 2016 flood.
It’s also engaged in a public-private partnership with LSU, serving as program manager of the university’s Nicholson Gateway mixed-use development, which was completed in 2018, as well as its building plan for residence halls, which is currently underway.
And that’s just some of the work it’s doing in the public sector. CSRS does land-use planning, engineering and resiliency work for private clients, too, including Raising Cane’s, and several local land-use developments.
It’s a diverse array of sectors to be involved in, which is not unusual for a large engineering-design-program management firm. What makes CSRS interesting and somewhat unique, though, is that it’s really not all that big—at least, not by national standards.
Sure, a company with $29 million in revenues and 130 employees is a somebody in Baton Rouge. But compared to the worldwide players with which it both competes and partners, depending on the project—AECOM or HNTB, to name just two with revenues in the billions—CSRS is really just a big fish in a small pond.
That the firm has been so successful on so many local fronts is due to several factors. It has been deliberate and strategic in its growth, slowly and methodically adding product lines to its menu of services over the years, developing an expertise in each along the way.
It has recruited talented people, who are skilled not just in the technical disciplines, but in business, law and the ways of getting deals done in local government. They know how to leverage their considerable contacts at the state and local levels—not to influence the outcome of a procurement—but to maximize their competitive position by knowing who to partner with and how to effectively respond to a RFQ.
It has also developed a successful track record in most of the areas in which it competes, which is why it gets so much repeat business in south Louisiana, where the bulk of its work originates.
But can a relatively small company be so many things to so many clients and successfully replicate that formula in larger markets out of state? It’s a question you sometimes hear from the firm’s competitors, who are both a little in awe and a little envious of all the gigs CSRS manages to snag.
CSRS President Tim Barfield—who, in his three years at the helm, has elevated the firm’s profile and pursued contracts it might have ignored in the past—acknowledges the company covers a lot of bases. But he says there’s a common thread that runs through its various lines of work, enabling it to compete successfully on many different but related fronts.
“We’re a very unusual company and coming up with our elevator speech is very difficult,” he says. “We do a number of things well and in a market like Louisiana there aren’t billions of dollars of work in all these areas, so you have to do many things well. But everything we do—if you had to describe it—deals with the built environment. It’s about building smarter, stronger communities.”
CSRS dates its official founding to 1992, though the company’s roots actually stretch back to 1978, when two young architects, Norman Chenevert and Curtis Soderberg, decided to go into business together. Their small firm did primarily commercial design work and was growing steadily, until oil prices collapsed in the mid-1980s, sending Louisiana’s economy into a tailspin.
As Soderberg and Chenevert saw their work dry up, they began looking to diversify their revenue stream and came up with the idea of merging with the local engineering practice owned by Michael Songy and Ron Rody. In 1992, the two firms combined to create what was eventually known as CSRS.
The idea behind CSRS, initially, was to provide a suite of multidisciplinary services that would include both engineering and architectural design. Though each of the four partners maintained his own book of work, they collaborated on projects and hired employees that worked jointly for all of them.
Over time, they began to realize their collective expertise qualified them to compete not just for engineering and design jobs but for more complex, program management contracts, which require knowledge in a broad array of technical fields as well as experience in finance, budgeting and management.
“Our DNA was really that we were not interested in commodity services,” recalls Soderberg, who retired from the firm in 2016. “We were interested in doing work that was complicated, new, in terms of what kind of approach you would have to solve those problems—and they’re all business problems people have—so that was the space we wanted to play in.”
The firm’s first program management contract came in 1998, when it landed a small deal to oversee a building project for the Ascension Parish School System. In 1999, it was awarded a larger program management contract for EBR Schools, to oversee the first phase of its five-year building program.
When voters renewed a one-cent sales tax in 2003 to continue the school building program for another five years, CSRS had established a strong working relationship with the system that worked to its advantage. Two decades later, it continues to represent the school system.
Program management work wasn’t for everyone, however, and Chenevert decided to bow out in 2003. Managing projects is different than designing them, and the architect missed having input into the creative process. What’s more, in a small market like Baton Rouge, it can be awkward to wear two hats, managing your colleagues on some projects, collaborating and competing with them on others.
“I thought, ‘This was a great idea but I’m not enjoying it,’” Chenevert says. “I didn’t know half the people who were working for me, so I decided to sell my interest and start Chenevert Architects.”
An inside track?
CSRS’s growth over the years has been both strategic and organic. The decision to move into program management, for instance, came out of a strategic planning session with a consultant, whose input really launched the firm in an entirely new direction in the late 1990s, Barfield says.
Similarly, much of its private sector work, which currently accounts for just 25% or so of total revenues, has been the result of a deliberate effort to seek out those kinds of opportunities. To that end, the firm in 2014 hired Walter Monsour—who previously served as chief administrative officer for two mayors and, more recently, headed the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority—to lead its private business development division.
But a lot of the growth, particularly in the public sector, has been evolutionary, the result of one success building on another. CSRS’s early program management contracts with Ascension Parish and EBR Schools made the firm something of a specialist in school building programs, which helped it land work after Hurricane Katrina, rebuilding the New Orleans’ Recovery School District.
The RSD contract, in turn, helped establish CSRS as an expert in the disaster recovery field of grants management and administration, which involves dealing with FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As a result, CSRS was a natural to land contracts with Ascension Parish Schools, EBR Schools, the city-parish, BREC and the City of Central after the 2016 flood.
“The work is legally complicated but also technically complicated, and so much of it is architecture and engineering intensive,” Barfield says. “You have to understand the regulatory side but also the architectural and engineering side. We were well positioned because we had both.”
Because CSRS is so well-entrenched with so many different city and state agencies, involved in so many different phases of projects, and awarded so much repeat business, it sometimes appears to have an unfair advantage, the inside track.
It was program manager for the Greenlight Program, for instance, and will now lead MovEBR’s road construction program, which includes a handful of Greenlight projects that were never completed. Yes, it put together a qualified team to bid on the MovEBR contract, and was selected through a public procurement process. But no one was surprised when it was awarded the deal.
Similarly, CSRS is now working on the fifth phase of a building program for EBR Schools, which has renewed the firm’s program management contract every few years since the 1990s, only opening the contract up for bid once in all that time, which CSRS won. Is there a fair opportunity for others to compete?
Yes, says Barfield, who argues that CSRS’s experience with projects like the Greenlight Program and with EBR Schools only makes it that much more qualified to oversee subsequent and similar phases of work, even if with the same agency.
“These are huge programs and they take a lot of time,” he says. “If we weren’t performing, I don’t think they would select us again. This is the way business is done everywhere. If you’re not performing you don’t get selected next time around.”
Sometimes, however, CSRS’s connections work against it and it doesn’t get the job. A procurement for a piece of work on the state’s Restore Louisiana flood recovery contract was recently thrown out and rebid because of an alleged conflict of interest involving CSRS, which was part of the team that had originally been awarded the deal. The state’s procurement office said because a CSRS employee had previously been a contract employee with the state’s disaster recovery agency as it developed the request for bids, CSRS was ineligible to bid on the contract itself. Barfield declines to talk about the deal specifically because it has been appealed to the Commissioner of Administration. But he says in general, it’s unfair to prohibit a contractor from bidding on work just because it has worked in that area in the past.
“I would be very fearful of a world where a contractor who worked on a previous phase of a project is not eligible to compete on the next phase,” he says. “I think that is a disservice to the taxpayers and the constituents.”
Knowing how the system works
Barfield has been a powerful and high-profile force at CSRS since joining the firm in 2015 and becoming its president a year later. He’s the kind of guy who makes everything look easy—tall, athletic and boyishly handsome with an affable, unflappable demeanor that belies a competitive, intensity. But then, running CSRS probably is easy for Barfield, compared to the pressure cooker environments where he previously worked—the Jindal administration, where he served as revenue secretary, and, before that, The Shaw Group, where he had a 12-year stint in executive management, including as president when the company cracked the Fortune 500.
Those experiences in state government and in a publicly-traded company known for its aggressive, fearless corporate culture have uniquely qualified him, he says, for his current role at CSRS, and he has also pushed the company in new directions, going after contracts it might not have pursued in the past. He has also utilized his contacts to build partnerships and teams to compete for work. If it’s a local contract, CSRS often takes the lead. If it’s an out-of-state deal, the firm finds it more effective to play second chair to a larger prime.
Barfield has admittedly been more visible than his predecessors—Songy, who still serves as CEO of CSRS but stepped down as president three years ago—and Soderberg. But he says it’s not that the firm wasn’t involved in as much before. It just kept a lower profile.
“Curtis, more than Michael, was much involved politically than people realized,” he says. “I’m probably just noticed a lot more than they were and maybe more determined to be involved.”
Barfield isn’t the only well-known public face with government experience to join CSRS in recent years. Monsour, who served as CAO under Mayor Pat Screen in the 1980s and Kip Holden a decade ago, is known for his skills as a masterful negotiator, not to mention his institutional knowledge of City Hall. Domoine Rutledge, who joined the firm earlier this year as vice president and executive counsel, served as executive counsel to EBR Schools under four superintendents, and has an intense familiarity with the parish school system.
That three attorneys with governmental experience now hold key positions in a firm that does engineering, planning and program management might raise eye brows. But Soderberg says it’s the nature of the business and makes CSRS more effective as a program manager.
“When you’re doing public work, the folks who are determining what that work is going to be and how it’s going to end up are publicly elected officials, so you have to know how city councils work, how legislatures and school boards work. You have to understand the basics,” Soderberg says. “You have to know how the systems work. It’s not that you have an ‘in’ with somebody, but you have to know how they work. They work very differently than private sector clients.”
What the future holds
While CSRS has seen considerable growth over the past five years, Barfield predicts revenues will level off in 2019, as a result of the flood recovery contracts coming to an end. That’s the nature of government work; it goes up and down. He hopes to spend more time cultivating opportunities in the private sector, particularly in the field of civil engineering, site selection and land-use planning. That kind of work is also subject to market fluctuations and variables like interest rates. But it helps offset the peaks and valleys of the public sector contracts.
He also expects to see continued growth in the areas of flood mitigation and resilience planning. Billions of federal dollars are pouring into Louisiana and other coastal states to help shore up vulnerable communities. There are also growing private sector opportunities in the resilience space, as developers increasingly recognize the need to build sustainable subdivisions and communities that can withstand floods and don’t detract from existing natural watersheds.
CSRS is also looking to more aggressively pursue opportunities out of state, particularly in Texas, where it has a small but growing Dallas office that was originally opened to accommodate Raising Cane’s, which is largely based there. The firm recently added some key talent to the office and hopes to continue growing.
“You grow in a market by growing relationships there,” Barfield says.
Barfield believes Texas holds a lot of promise. At the same time, it’s a very challenging market. CSRS did some post-disaster housing work in Houston following Hurricane Harvey in 2017. But competition is fierce, and the sheer scale of the deals, the numbers and the competition is beyond anything in Louisiana.
“Texas has been a very competitive market for us and the question is, how do we have some level of success in that market, where it costs tens of thousands of dollars before you even know you have a contract?” he says. “We think our strategy will be to be a second-tier player, help out with some of the big boys, because that is what this world has become, just huge money and huge contracts.”
For now, the company has no exit strategy or plans to position itself to sell. The goal is controlled, sustainable growth, with an eye toward opportunities in other states and a concentration on Louisiana, where it has ties and has had so much success.
“We want to maintain the areas we have been in and grow them,” Barfield says. “Being here, living here, being local, we have to live with whatever we do and I think that is a difference than just being mercenary.”