All in the family

December 2004 » Business
Hackensak, N.J.-based Boswell Engineering is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. And while this is a significant occasion for the multidisciplinary firm, its longevity alone is not what sets this firm apart from many other U.S. engineering firms. This company's true distinction lies within the very structure of its incorporation as a family-owned business that treats its entire staff like family.

BUSINESS PROFILE

Boswell Engineering

By Cory Sekine-Pettite

All in the family

Hackensak, N.J.-based Boswell Engineering is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. And while this is a significant occasion for the multidisciplinary firm, its longevity alone is not what sets this firm apart from many other U.S. engineering firms. This company's true distinction lies within the very structure of its incorporation as a family-owned business that treats its entire staff like family.

This family is approximately 315 strong, and is run by the Boswell brothers: Stephen T. Boswell, Ph.D., P.E., president; Bruce D. Boswell, P.E., vice president; and Kevin J. Boswell, P.E., vice president. The firm was founded as a two-man field office in 1924 by their grandfather, David C. Boswell, to provide municipal and transportation services in and around Ridgefield Park, N.J. In 1963, David's sons, Howard L. Boswell, Sr., and David J. Boswell, took over operations of the firm and transferred ownership to the third generation of Boswells - the late Howard Boswell, Jr. - in the early 1980s. Upon Howard Jr.'s untimely death in 1990, his younger brothers stepped up to provide the leadership necessary for the continuation and expansion of the company.

Through each generation of ownership, Boswell Engineering has thrived and broadened its engineering capabilities. The company began modestly under a founder who did not go to college but was “of the time when engineers were those who learned as they went,” according to Stephen. Today, as a 21st-century engineering and construction management firm that offers environmental services and underwater inspections, the firm includes two New York branch offices and handles thousands of active projects at any given time. All of the staff at Boswell Engineering takes pride in the fact that the planning, design, and construction supervision of a multitude of projects has improved the quality of life for the cities, towns, and counties with which the firm has been associated. “The company has grown up serving clients. And we have adapted to the needs of our clients rather than trying to adapt them to what we'd prefer.” Stephen said it was his grandfather's intention to keep ownership of the firm within the family, and even as teenagers, he and his siblings were encouraged to get a taste of the life of an engineer and what it meant to provide such invaluable services to the public. “We've all been involved [with the firm] since we were 14 years old,” he said. “All of us began in the field, working summers in New Jersey.” And living up to their grandfather's plan still today, the only shareholders in the firm are Boswells.

In fact, the stock must be owned by a family member who is a licensed engineer.

That is not to say, however, that the employees of Boswell Engineering lack any ownership in the firm. While they do not own stock, the staff feels a great amount of pride in the work that they do, and each person is encouraged to take on as much work as they personally think they can handle. “We're still small enough that [employees] have responsibility and authority - not just responsibility - but we're large enough that we have all the resources you could possibly need,” said Stephen. Further, this career-nurturing atmosphere has spawned a unique setting where employees have encouraged their own family members to join the firm. For instance, one family has five members that work for Boswell. There even are multiple generations of employees from certain families.

“Employees make their comments about what they think about the firm by their longevity here with the firm, and also by the fact that they bring their friends and family to come and work here also,” said Stephen. “We have very few people who have been here five years and leave.”

“We find that most employees that come to work for us make a career out of it,” added Bruce, who said that the company's open-door management style has been key to the firm's success, both economically and from a human resources perspective.

“I have been at Boswell for five years and the only regret that I have is that it hasn't been for the past 25 years of my professional career,” said John Rottenbucher, P.E. “The Boswells strive to ensure that each individual's contributions … are recognized and appreciated.” Clearly, the brothers take their leadership roles seriously. Following in the footsteps of their familial predecessors, Stephen said the three of them choose to lead by example. “One of our rules as owners is that we don't want anyone here working harder than we do,” he said. “And I think that employees see that. They see the difference between absentee owners and owners that are in there with them.” The firm's clients take notice of the Boswell brothers' actions as well.

Each client receives as much “face time” as they choose from one or all of the owners. Stephen said that this personal attention to their clients is a primary advantage to the firm's continual success. He said that clients are comforted by the fact that they have access to an engineering firm's owners. “We're personally involved with the quality control of the product that goes out of here,” he said. “They see us, they know us, and they know they're dealing with the people who can impact the business.” With such impressive cooperation among the firm's family and with its clients, many of Boswell Engineering's projects have led to industry recognition and awards, reflecting the firm's commitment to excellence. And while the list of awards is too lengthy to mention here, it is worth noting that the range of award-winning projects varies from $200-million transportation projects for state agencies to small projects for local municipalities.

This high-quality work also has garnered the attention of Boswell's competition, many of which have approached the firm regarding a possible sale or merger. “We have been approached many times. … It's just that we are a family business,” said Stephen. “The three of us would do quite well [if we sold the firm] but I'm not so sure about our employees.” So, what happens when these protective leaders retire? Fortunately for the firm's staff, the fourth generation of Boswells will be ready to take the helm. The Boswells have a nephew who already is an employee, and Stephen's daughter plans to join the company once she completes her civil engineering course work at Duke University. Further, Bruce's daughter - although still a high school student - has expressed an interest in studying civil engineering. (Kevin's children still are young.) If history is any indication, the firm will be left in capable hands and will continue to thrive.


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