Wilkes-Barre Times Leader: Gas drilling gives boost to Borton-Lawson’s business

By MATT HUGHES

In a recessionary economy that’s stalled home construction, factory expansion and government projects, local engineering and architecture firm Borton-Lawson has hired more than 60 new employees and opened new branch offices across Pennsylvania and in Ohio. Development of the Marcellus Shale by natural gas drillers hasn’t been the only driver of that growth, but it’s been the most important, firm Chief Executive Officer Christopher L. Borton said. Growth has also enabled the company to insulate itself from the highs and lows of what can be a volatile industry.

“The one thing about the gas is it hit right in the dead of a recession,” Borton said. “In 2009 and 2010 there were a lot of firms that were laying off 10 to 15 percent of the workforce where companies in Western Pennsylvania were growing.”

The engineering and architecture firm offers more than 60 professional services to companies extracting and transporting natural gas in Northeastern Pennsylvania, including surveying, site engineering, environmental review and permitting.

It has undergone tremendous growth over the last two years, expanding from 143 employees in December 2010 to 204 employees today, and is continuing to grow. Borton said he hired two or three employees last week and the company is continuing to interview potential candidates for jobs.

Borton said he attributes about 60 percent of that growth to Marcellus Shale development, and that about a third of the work his company does is in some way related to the gas industry. As the company started winning contracts and building relationships with the gas industry, Borton said in a way the company had no choice but to grow.

“Our business is client-driven, as all businesses should be, and when your clients ask you to get things done in a certain time you have to get it done,” Borton said. “And in our business there’s no shortcuts. You have to put in the hours and you have to create employees to put in those hours.”

Borton-Lawson approached the industry carefully at first, assigning employees to study shale plays active in other parts of the United States and the economic impact of drilling in those areas, as well as the potential for development of all non-conventional oil and gas resources in Pennsylvania.

“What we found was, for every gas job that was created 10 other jobs were created,” Borton said.

And because the development in eastern Pennsylvania would be concentrated in the sparsely-populated Northern Tier, the industry would bring with it developments in infrastructure, like highways, water and gas pipelines and power grid upgrades, all of which would require the engineering and surveying services the company could provide.

The company now does business with about 15 natural gas extraction and pipeline companies, Borton said. It’s also joined the trade group Marcellus Shale Coalition as an associate member company and opened several satellite offices.

Marcellus Shale Coalition President Kathryn Klaber said the company “is providing a key service to the natural gas industry across the region.”

“Their expanded natural gas offering has allowed them to hire dozens of Pennsylvanians and open new offices across the commonwealth which is representative of many of our member companies,” Klaber said.

The company established field offices in Pittsburgh and Towanda in 2010, acquired an office in Nazareth in May 2011, and opened its first office outside Pennsylvania in Canton, Ohio in March. The company has also expanded its State College office, Borton said.

Those offices provide a base of operations for field workers like surveyors, but they also help insulate the company from the highs and lows of the gas industry. Due to the relatively high price of oil and low price of natural gas, some companies with gas lease holdings throughout Pennsylvania have recently shifted their brunt of their operations to the “wet gas” regions of Western Pennsylvania, where oil can be harvested together with gas.

“It provides a little bit of stability if you’re an employee and you know when work is slowing down in this area your company can move you to another area,” Borton said.

He also said his company has been less affected by the slowdown than some companies working with the gas industry because his company also does work for gas transportation companies, and the development of pipeline infrastructure is continuing unabated.

“The slowdown was in the actual drilling, the pipelines are going right ahead,” Borton said. “They still need to be surveyed; they still need environmental testing.”

Borton called the company’s growth “a double-edged sword” in that offering a full spectrum of architectural, engineering and surveying services it loses the niche appeal of a specialty firm but enables the company to serve clients more efficiently and quickly, and that’s been a benefit in working with the gas industry.

As the company has grown it’s also broadened and deepened the services it can offer by hiring employees with specialized experience. In addition to hiring locals, Borton said he’s brought professionals from around the United States to the area to work.

In April Frank Joanlanne, the former chairman of the company’s board of directors, accepted the position of president, taking over for Borton, who had been president and CEO.

Borton doesn’t see his company benefiting from the gas boom forever, though he thinks drilling will continue to be a growth industry in Pennsylvania for the next 15 to 20 years. But he said this isn’t the first time his company has adapted to fill a new role or take on a new market.

“We did not build this company on Marcellus Shale and going forward the company’s going to have to change with the times,” Borton said. “One of the things we have to plan for is the next best thing, and I think we do that pretty well here.”

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