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Laid-off Tampa Bay men start engineering firm, win stimulus-funded contracts

Brad Foran, 41, of Safety Harbor, left, and Joe Payne, 37, of Westchase, meet at a Starbucks in Westchase to discuss a job they’re doing near Gainesville.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Brad Foran, 41, of Safety Harbor, left, and Joe Payne, 37, of Westchase, meet at a Starbucks in Westchase to discuss a job they’re doing near Gainesville.

SAFETY HARBOR — Brad Foran doesn't spend a lot of time in the office. At least not a traditional one.

"We go down to Buffalo Wild Wings, have a beer and a plate of wings, talk about the job and review what we're doing," he said. "My boss doesn't mind."

Foran is the boss. He runs Lighthouse Engineering Inc., mostly out of his Safety Harbor home, sometimes out of Buffalo Wild Wings, Starbucks Coffee or any other place he can find a WiFi hot spot. He has a payroll of three: his dad, a friend and himself. All of them were laid off from major engineering companies in the past year.

In just six months, they've not only rebounded, they've secured work as a subcontractor on 12 stimulus-funded Florida Department of Transportation projects. They've designed sidewalks and other small-scale jobs that big engineering companies — like their former employers — wouldn't touch. All told, they've gotten $150,000 worth of work.

They've succeeded because they've embraced BlackBerrys, Craigslist and other technology, attained complete portability and eliminated the need for expensive office space, staff salaries and other costs.

"We just don't carry the overhead of other contracts," Foran said. "We have the ability to do the same service requirements that need to be provided for the contract at a lot smaller fee."

Welcome to a new, recession-era business model.

• • •

In this model, Foran doesn't drive to work sites all the time. Sometimes, he sits at his home computer or flips open his laptop and pulls them up on Google Earth.

"We can zoom down at what we want to look at and find out what we think the issue may be and probably save ourselves a lot of time," he said.

If he has to get in the car, he videotapes the project site so he can call it up digitally as many times as he wants. "So really, I can visit the site an infinite number of times," Foran said.

His projects span the state: Leon, Gadsden, Okaloosa and Alachua counties. He's even working on a project in Kentucky.

He swears by his BlackBerry. It's the first thing he checks when he wakes every morning.

"They've made it so simple now," Foran said. "You can tie in all the various e-mails that you may get into one device so you don't have to have 15 different ways to get your information."

A typical day begins at his Safety Harbor home. He checks his BlackBerry, reads e-mail, grabs breakfast, then gets to work in a back room he's converted into an office. "My command center," he said. He participates in conference calls and shoots paperwork back and forth to business partners.

"The only difference is I don't get in my car, and I don't drive anywhere," he said.

In the back room, he has a high-speed color laser printer and scanner, a full-sized copier that pushes out the 11 by 17 prints that the DOT requires, a computer with dual monitors.

"Years ago, what made corporate office America so appealing and a necessary entity was in order to buy pieces of technology, they were extremely expensive," he said. "That's not the case anymore. All of this stuff with an investment was a couple thousand dollars."

Every now and then, he catches snippets of a football game or ESPN's SportsCenter — like the beer and the wings, just because he can.

• • •

Bob Forsythe, dean of the College of Business at the University of South Florida, said he's not heard of a model quite like Lighthouse's.

"Lighthouse has found a very intriguing business model where you're not restricted by bricks and mortar and use technology in smart ways to enhance what you do," he said.

Take Craigslist. Most users think of it as a place to sell personal items, sublet apartments, hire babysitters, find romance. Foran uses it to solicit landscape architects.

"We found it to be a very easy and effective thing," he said. "We get immediate response. Anything you want. It's amazing."

If a city or a homeowner association has a specific need and Lighthouse does not specialize in that area, Foran puts an ad out for a subcontractor that does.

"We tell them, 'Hey, we've got a project we'd like to pursue,' " he said. " 'Would you like to be part of our team?' "

The responses vary. Some come from business owners who don't carry their own insurance. And some come from people who are in the position Foran was in seven months ago: out of a job. Recently, former employees of a Tampa company that went bankrupt answered one of his queries.

"There's a multitude of people we solicit from," he said. "They're looking for work and we try to help them."

Foran vets the responses, reviews resumes and conducts negotiations — all on the phone or online.

"We'll reach out to anyone that we think is qualified and capable of doing the work," he said. "For us, it's trying to extend our resource network, if you will."

• • •

Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the DOT, said Lighthouse is exactly the kind of company the stimulus projects were intended for: a small firm with an ability to do work efficiently.

"Definitely," she said. "The whole goal is to put people to work."

At Greenhorne and O'Mara, the St. Petersburg engineering firm where Foran worked for five years until May, he managed contracts worth millions. Now, Foran and his partners manage contracts as small as a few thousand dollars.

Since June, Lighthouse has done work on about a dozen stimulus-funded DOT projects. The Panhandle city of Chipley didn't mind taking a chance with a company that hadn't been in operation that long. Lighthouse designed its expanded sidewalk along State Road 77. Construction was completed Dec. 10.

"I see a lot of small firms opening up, but I see a lot of bigger firms that have laid off people" said Dan Miner, the assistant city administrator. "They have to find work somewhere. We've been pleased."

Foran said Lighthouse is "making enough money to kind of get by and drive the engine," but he wants more. More business, more revenue. Someday, he'd like to expand the company. "You get that by going out and winning work," he said.

And embracing the technology.

"The time is here," Foran said. "I know a lot of people now that used to go to offices everyday. They don't anymore. It's conference calls, video conferencing, all of these things. You just have to know how to go out and pick up the different little pieces of the puzzle to make it work."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Lighthouse Engineering projects

• State Road 267 sidewalks, Gadsden County

• Bonifay Middle School to State Road 79 sidewalk, Holmes County

• City of Gretna sidewalk, Gadsden County

• State Road 285 sidewalks, Okaloosa County

• State Road 77 sidewalk, Washington County

• Brookmeade Drive sidewalks, Okaloosa County

• Lucy Street (from Magnolia Drive to Hillcrest Street) sidewalks, Leon County

• Joe Louis (from Alabama to Preston streets) sidewalk, Leon County

• Ingleside (from Martin to Terrace streets) sidewalk, Leon County

• CR 384/Bluff Road (from Avenue M to 25th Street) sidewalks, Franklin County

• Home Avenue, Kenilworth Boulevard and Memorial Drive resurfacing, Highlands County

• Keystone Heights Safe Routes to Schools sidewalk, Alachua County

Sources: Florida Department of Transportation and Brad Foran

Laid-off Tampa Bay men start engineering firm, win stimulus-funded contracts 12/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 9, 2010 2:25pm]
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