Revenues continue flowing for Ottawa-based consulting engineers

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Mark Brownlee
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J.F. Sabourin & Associates is not your standard business.

Jean-François Sabourin is the president of J.F. Sabourin & Associates.

While most companies in Ottawa have salespeople picking up the phone and fanning out across the city in an effort to drum new business out of a stagnant local economy, all the local consulting engineering firm needs to do is wait for the phone to ring.

“We’re special in that sense,” said Jean-François Sabourin, the president of the Ottawa- and Gatineau-based company. “There’s not another entity like us in this city.”

The company’s highly specialized knowledge means that, in addition to clients such as the City of Ottawa and local homebuilders, it even has other engineering firms calling to tap into its expertise in water management.

It’s just one of the elements that is unique about consulting engineering, an industry that was thrust into the spotlight with the sale of a major local player last month.

That’s when Parsons, a U.S.-based engineering firm that specializes in areas such as infrastructure and transportation planning, announced that it had acquired Delcan.

The Markham-based company did extensive work in Ottawa, including working on redevelopment plans for the federal government’s Tunney’s Pasture development project and the expansion of the Bayshore Shopping Centre.

A spokeswoman for Parsons did not respond to OBJ’s request for an interview.

However, the company sent a statement outlining plans for “investing in and growing” Delcan’s Ottawa operation, which currently employs 80 people.

“Delcan and its customers in Ottawa will benefit immediately because now – with Parsons – they have the resources to access Parsons’ thousands of world-class employees whose leading-edge experience and knowledge will be applied to our ongoing and future work in Ottawa and throughout Canada,” the statement read.

The consulting engineering business appears to be standing away from the shadow that the federal government’s austerity has cast over the local economy.

Mr. Sabourin said his company has been doing roughly the same amount of business each of the past few years. He declined to discuss specific figures, but said it brought in between $2 million and $3 million in revenues last year.

The 21-year-old firm, which does about half of the business out of its Ottawa office with the public sector, received a boost from the infrastructure money the federal and provincial governments spent to combat the global recession in the past few years.

The end of those programs is one of the reasons why the company is doing less business with the city than in the past, said Mr. Sabourin.

However, the firm, which has 20 employees, has managed to replace that lost revenue by dealing more with the federal government.

The company does extensive work with the feds on examining the impact that climate change will have on wastewater systems, he said.

Mr. Sabourin’s firm is also hired by insurance companies to help determine whether they are responsible for paying out claims to customers. In a separate area of the business, it also works with residential developments across Ontario and Quebec, including Tamarack Homes’ Cardinal Creek Village project in the city’s east end.

But not all engineering firms are so locally focused.

Baird, an international company with offices in Ottawa as well as in countries such as the United States, Chile and Australia, also does water engineering work for the City of Ottawa.

However, most of its work is focused on international projects for clients that include governments and major mining companies, said Derek Williamson, a project engineer in the firm’s 20-person Ottawa office.

That means the company’s business cycles are highly dependent on what projects it’s working on at a given time. A big contract here or there can suddenly place the company in a boom period for it even if the economy is slowing down.

He said one of the main attractions to working in the capital is that the company uses one of the federal government’s National Research Council labs for model testing.

“If you’re not just working in your backyard, what you really want is access to the rest of the world,” he said. “In Ottawa, we feel that we’re well-placed to go just about anywhere.”

Organizations: Bayshore Shopping Centre, National Research Council

Geographic location: Ottawa, United States, Canada Ontario Quebec Chile Australia

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