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British firm buying Tampa engineering company PBSJ for $280 million

Tampa engineering and construction firm PBSJ Corp., one of Florida's biggest government contractors, is being bought by British design firm WS Atkins in a $280 million deal disclosed Monday.

The acquisition, if approved by PBSJ shareholders and regulators, marks the latest in a string of lost corporate headquarters in the Tampa Bay area. Tampa steel producer Gerdau Ameristeel Corp. is becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of its Brazilian parent, and Walter Energy is in the midst of moving its headquarters from Tampa to Birmingham, Ala.

PBSJ is the parent of PBS&J, long active in infrastructure projects statewide, including the $400 million I-4/Selmon Expressway Connector in Tampa. The employee-owned company, founded in 1959 to build former Sen. Bob Graham's family's Miami Lakes development, has approximately 3,500 workers in 80 offices, including 350 in its Tampa headquarters.

"We are fortunate to have maintained solid performance even during the recent, challenging economic climate," PBSJ chairman and chief executive officer Robert Paulsen said in a statement. "But we wanted to grow the company in a way that employee ownership alone could not support."

PBS&J will operate as a national business unit of Atkins in the United States, with Paulsen leading the unit and reporting directly to Atkins' chief executive. C.L. Conroy, a spokeswoman for PBS&J, said Atkins will make Tampa its U.S. base of operations. In response to queries, the company did not rule out layoffs in Tampa, but Paulsen noted, "The focus is on growing our operation, not downsizing."

It has been a difficult period for PBSJ, between ongoing economic turmoil and an internal bribery inquiry.

On Dec. 30, the company disclosed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that directors were internally investigating whether bribery laws may have been violated, including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, by subsidiary PBS&J International "in certain foreign countries."

Last year, the Federal Election Commission released a report stating that the company had regularly made illegal campaign contributions over decades. Investigators concluded that "political contributions were an important part of PBS&J's business strategy." But the commission didn't pursue the case, and the statute of limitations ran out in March. The company, which didn't get to argue its case since charges weren't pursued, said it believed it would have prevailed.

Current and former employees told investigators that PBS&J had funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians in seven states in a strategy dating back to the 1980s. Evidence of the contributions turned up during investigation of a $36 million embezzlement scheme uncovered in 2005. PBSJ moved its headquarters from Miami to Tampa in 2006 to "make a fresh start," its former CEO said.

In 2009 the company had $103 million in contracts with such federal agencies as FEMA and the Defense Department. Its state contracts last year, totaling more than $63 million, were with the Department of Transportation and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

In January, CEO John Zumwalt, 58, announced his resignation.

A deal to sell the company has been anticipated for months.

Paulsen told employees in March that investors and competitors expressed preliminary interest in buying a stake in PBSJ or acquiring it outright. At the time, the company stopped workers from buying or selling company stock while it considered overtures from outsiders.

Securities laws prohibit companies from engaging in stock transactions without disclosing information that could influence an investor's decisions to buy or sell the stock.

Atkins has agreed to pay $17.137 per share of PBSJ in an all-cash transaction expected to close in early fall. Atkins, the 11th-largest international design firm in the world, is the official engineering services provider for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Times files contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jeffmharrington.

British firm buying Tampa engineering company PBSJ for $280 million 08/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 12:09am]

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