Just over 10 years ago, Sterling Engineering held an open house to celebrate its upcoming 30th anniversary in Blount County.
What a difference a decade makes. If the company knew then what it knows now, that celebration would have been more subdued. It was October 2008. The Great Recession officially started two months later.
Hit hardest was real estate and development. Sterling doesn’t do development but makes it possible by providing civil engineering, architectural, land surveying and land planning services.
Like virtually everyone else at the time, the real estate collapse caught the Maryville-based company by surprise.
“We had no idea,” said Kelly Sterling, the firm’s co-owner, business manager and wife of CEO and founder Charles Sterling.
This time the company is celebrating with eyes wide open and the knowledge of what it takes to dig deep when the economy goes bust.
The 40th anniversary celebration is 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday at the company’s offices at 1020 William Blount Drive, Maryville. Customers, former employees and friends are invited. There will be a food truck, goody bags and door prizes. Plus, reminiscing about the way it was.
“When the recession hit in 2008, we went from 52 employees down to 12. We were, honestly, very lucky and are very blessed to still be here,” Kelly Sterling said. “We cut everything we could to tighten our belt in order to survive. A lot of companies didn’t survive, and we did.”
Now the company is up to 16 employees and not anxious to grow to its former size. Sterling Engineering has learned to do more with fewer personnel and by using robotics and improved software. It also ended its Employee Stock Ownership Plan, which had been transferring ownership to employees. It was no longer feasible with the reduced staff. So how did Sterling Engineering survive when others didn’t?
“Just buckle down and do the work. It made us healthy again, which is where we wanted to be. It’s where we are. We are a very healthy company again,” Sterling said.
Combination of things
President Derick Jones said it was a combination of things: cutting costs where possible, and being able to rely on its past history of successful projects helped. The company has left its mark across Blount County and beyond, from the Greenway trails built by the cities of Maryville and Alcoa, to the Pellissippi Parkway and TDOT interchanges, to the Rarity golfing developments, and even the old city of Maryville water tower that was disassembled when no longer needed.
“I think that we had a good reputation with a lot of clients. The ones still doing things were still using us,” Jones said. “And faith, honestly. I mean there was a whole lot of praying going on in this company during that time. I think it’s just all those things.” Jones and Sterling both credit the company’s employees.
“Everybody knew what we needed to do. We cut the work week, the salaries — obviously temporarily until we got through everything. It was a challenge,” Jones said.
The company’s employees are veterans who’ve been with Sterling Engineering for 10, 12, 15, 20 years. It’s basically the staff that pulled the company out of the recession.
“We’ve got amazing employees. I mean amazing, we couldn’t ask for any better. Dedicated,” Sterling said.
And they’re working. No one knows when the next recession will hit, but Sterling Engineering’s management figures they’ll be better prepared for it when it does. Right now, business is promising. They’ve got a couple of multi-family projects and about 20 subdivisions in the works.
“What we’re seeing is the projects are getting bigger. When things came back a little bit, the projects were 10 lots, 12 lots, 15 lots. No big investments. People were keeping it small,” Jones said. “We’re working on one now in the very early stages that’s 286 lots here in Blount County. People are getting more comfortable. And the market’s there. Houses are selling.”
To which Sterling added: “People keep moving here. It’s a great place to live and they need homes.”