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A Kinder, Gentler Approach to Civil Engineering: How SBA Guaranteed Loans and Advice from SCORE Helped Make the Road Smoother for Vicki LaRose’s Civil Design, Inc. (CDI)
If you’re one of the thousands of St. Louis-area drivers every day making your way easier through the new I-64/Highway 40 interchange, you can offer a little thanks for the work done there from a small, but fast-growing mom-owned business.
Vicki LaRose’s firm, Civil Design, Inc. (CDI), is on track to break $3 million in sales this year, and has a portfolio of civil engineering projects including work on the Boone Bridge, University of Missouri system, Metropolitan Sewer District and Metrolink. She began her company as a stay-at-home mom, and over the years thanks in part to SBA small business financing, has expanded to offices in southern Illinois and Kentucky, specializing in construction management, environmental, site development, surveying, water resources, and transportation engineering.
Pretty good for somebody who didn’t know what kind of engineer she wanted to be when she grew up. Back in high school, LaRose chalked up good grades in math and science, and followed a friend to college. When asked by a professor what engineering field she wanted to study, she exclaimed: “There’s more than one kind? I thought I had this figured out!”
Civil engineering was her choice, “because it sounded interesting and it would help the community at large.” After graduation, she worked for 10 years at a large firm before she decided to blaze her own path by creating a responsive, quality-driven, woman-owned civil engineering firm. With excellent advice from a local area SCORE chapter, LaRose put together a solid strategic business plan, hired a lawyer and an accountant, took business classes to get smart on running her own company and incorporated Civil Design in 1996.
She grew the business slowly, while still working part time for her old firm, and part time at home chasing after her two young boys and later her daughter. By 2004, she took out an SBA Express loan to purchase computers and other equipment; three years later, she used the 504 program to finance the company’s current headquarters in the Soulard area of St. Louis.
The 504 Loan Program provides approved small businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing used to acquire fixed assets for expansion or modernization. These loans are made available through Certified Development Companies (CDC), SBA's community-based partners for providing 504 loans. This program calls for the participating lender to provide half the financing, with the SBA offering up to 40 percent of the costs financed through the CDC.
LaRose made sure her growing business had a family friendly work environment; experts now call her firm a lifestyle company, one which offers a better balance between work responsibilities and home life. Employees, the dads as much as the moms, can adjust their schedules to catch a recital or a game, or take care of a sick child. It’s also the kind of firm that handles projects like site development for a middle school and surveying work for a future elementary school.
Over the past few years, LaRose has grown from 18 employees to 28 (she started with just herself in 1996); among that number is her husband, who brought his 20 years of civil engineering work aboard to serve as the company’s Chief Financial Officer and Quality Manager.
While sales remained fairly flat during the recent economic downturn, LaRose leveraged new business in surveying work and other strategic moves to stay profitable, and a reputation for delivering on-time, within-budget designs to stay that way. She’s constantly on the lookout for trends in area construction and engineering, and quickly acts to hire the best to permit the firm to pursue new projects; she’s also fast to refer a job to another firm if she doesn’t think it’s something Civil Design can do well, and has benefitted from other cooperative firms doing the same for her company.
Her email signature block reads: “Civil Design, Inc. Expertise of a Large Firm–Responsiveness of a Small Firm.”
“I take a commonsense approach and try to simplify everything for my clients,” she said. “I treat people like they are my friend, with respect and honesty.”
Civil Design’s employment turnover rates are low, as her staff appreciates the flexible, family-friendly atmosphere. LaRose offers health insurance, matching contributions for individual retirement accounts, tuition reimbursement, and short-term and long-term disability insurance. She even has her employee needs in mind when making business decisions: the company is opening an office in Effingham, Ill., in part to keep in the fold one engineer who wanted to move back home.
She’s committed to a better community by participating with teams in athletic events to raise funds for area charities, and Habitat for Humanity is not only is a client, but another of the company’s charitable efforts.
LaRose knows she, and her company, don’t fit the typical civil engineer image. Instead, she’s a vanguard of a new generation of engineers, helping to pave the way for women—and men—who not only want to build the bridges, infrastructure and schools of today, but a better community for tomorrow.
To contact Civil Design, Inc., visit http://civildesigninc.com/ or call 314-863-5570. They are located at 1552 S. 7th Street, St. Louis, MO, 63104.