By the late 1990s Ravi Gupta had had enough of mergers and acquisitions. An engineer working for Redmond, Washington-based Secor, one of the largest environmental consulting firms in the world with an office on Lenox Drive, Gupta had watched too many small consulting companies become food for aggressively expanding firms.
Not eager to be on the menu, Gupta and some of his engineer friends struck out on their own. The timing was good as more than a dozen former colleagues had found themselves laid-off after those aggressively expanding firms started to implode. The group got a $500,000 line of credit, hired all those people who had been laid-off, and formed Sovereign Consulting in January 1999. They based the new firm at 111 North Gold Drive in Robbinsville — a space that up until then had belonged to Secor.
Ten years later Sovereign is 10 times its original size, at least in terms of its people. What started as 17 engineers looking to control their own fate is now a company of 170 employees spread across 11 offices — four in New Jersey and the rest spread around the east and northeast. The growth, however, has come not by way of gobbling up other environmental consulting firms, but by simply adding people as business has increased over the years.
If there is one thing Gupta wants the world to know about Sovereign it is that the firm is not interested in taking the 1980s approach to growth. The people who work here, he goes to great pains to point out, are here because they get to do what they went to school for — engineering, geology, and science. Growing too big and too fast, he says, not only creates a bloated infrastructure of accountants and lawyers and executives, it does something far more distasteful to him: “It kills the soul.” Better to build a company in which people are actually excited by their work; to build a company in which “your people are your assets,” rather than one focused on some prescribed bottom line.
In just the last few years Sovereign has built its annual income from $5.6 million to $25.6 million.
In 2006 Sovereign was named one of six contractors Shell Oil would deal with, following a consolidation of 120. It was a sensible move for Shell, says Gupta — “You can’t manage 120 companies, for safety reasons and consistency.” And it proved a boon to Sovereign. By 2007 Shell named Sovereign its highest-ranking contractor (despite being the smallest) in job performance. This July Sovereign was named Shell’s “top performer of the year” in the environmental consulting field.
Sovereign’s largest projects in the state are the Sewaren rail tunnel in Middlesex County — site of northern New Jersey’s largest planned ethanol plant — and the cleanup of the once-disastrously contaminated BP site in Paulsboro. Sovereign has worked with BP around the country for years and took over the remediation and consulting work at the Paulsboro port site in 1999. That site, which the borough leases from BP and is planning to someday reopen as an industrial port to rival those near Camden, has been a headache for Paulsboro since remediation efforts started in 1979. The plant itself, the only one of 10 in the east that BP still owns (others were divested years ago), has been closed since 1996.
It might seem an appropriate moment to ask what’s taking so long. After all, it’s been 29 years since the first engineers stepped onto the site. Well, environmental cleanup is a lot like losing weight, says Iain Bryant, one of Sovereign’s founding partners. You can take away a lot of the problem at once, but those last few pounds is a bear.
The job, says Gupta, is done when contamination is down to a level that can be lived with. While environmentalists sometimes give remediation companies grief for not shaving the last drop of toxic residue from the ground, the truth, says Gupta, is that once most of the problem is removed, the rest might either be no threat or might be containable.
Most of the jobs Sovereign gets deal with properties that have been seized and have sat dormant for a while. Companies in need of environmental consultants are aware of the geological pace of cleanup, Gupta says, so no one expects the company to get things done faster than anyone else. But where Sovereign has hit a snag is with its small size. Regardless of the fallout surrounding large firms that were made through mergers, many companies more easily take the large consulting firms at face value. Small firms like Sovereign are viewed more like boutiques.
“We were lumped into the niche providers,” Gupta says. “We got tired of hearing that.” Sovereign’s solution, he says, was to go after large government contracts. Recently Sovereign has added the U.S. Army and Navy to its list of clients. Still, Gupta says, the firm plans to stay working in the northeast, rather looking for international contracts. He doesn’t see any sign that the type of work Sovereign does will be made obsolete anytime soon.
But the need for large-scale cleanup of toxic sites will slow in the coming decades, he admits. With strict environmental laws and a major shift in corporate thinking about the environment, the creation of new wastelands will become less a factor. Where Sovereign sees the future of its business, says Bryant, is in compliance and prevention education.
Regardless, Gupta says he wants to keep working until he is 100, and he wants to keep his soul the entire time. Born in India to parents who were both accountants and Pakistani refugees, Gupta earned his bachelor’s in chemical engineering from the City College of New York in 1984. He says he got where he is through small steps and an unwillingness to trade his principles for more money, and he says he wants employees who feel the same way.
Getting hired is another matter. “We’re very picky about hiring,” Gupta says. You not only have to have credentials, you have to be trustworthy. The company does, after all, want to leave you alone and let you do what you do best. And Gupta is willing to take the heat if something goes wrong. “It’s not the employee’s fault,” he says. “It’s our fault for hiring that individual. We should know better.”
Sovereign Consulting, 111 A North Gold Drive, Robbinsville 08691; 609-259-8200; fax, 609-259-8288. Ravi Gupta, president. Home page: www.sovcon.com.