E.D. Swett Inc.
The roots of E.D. Swett Inc. (EDS) trace back to the historic floods that plagued New England in 1936. Everett David “Dave” Swett founded the company, which bears his name, in response to the need for firms to rebuild and replace the many bridge structures that were damaged or wiped out by the flood waters. Today, 78 years later, the New Hampshire-based company continues to specialize in bridge construction, along with the associated fields of pile driving, cofferdam construction and earth retention systems.
The company currently employs approximately 50 skilled professionals, many of whom have been with EDS for many years. According to Steve Cole, CEO of EDS, the company owes much of its success to the team’s ability to perform technically difficult and complex projects.
Typically, the company works on three or four major multi-year projects primarily for the NH Department of Transportation (NHDOT), as well as the transportation departments of neighboring states and municipalities.
With its long history of family ownership, Steve believes a team’s mentality is crucial to the successful completion of what are often high risk, and therefore, high reward projects. Accordingly, Steve has developed close relationships with each of the company’s employees.
Dick Cole, Steve’s father and a veteran of the Army Corp. of Engineers, purchased EDS from Dave in the 1960s after having been employed at the firm for 10 years. “My father served as president and CEO until the mid-1990s when he sold the company to me,” Steve explains.
Under the Cole stewardship, the company resisted the temptations of rapid growth and diversification into unfamiliar areas. Instead, Steve notes that EDS adopted a very conservative approach of maintaining tight controls and focused its resources in the company’s areas of expertise.
“This strategy has served the company well,” Steve continues. “We have always believed that success in this business can be very difficult to sustain. We’ve seen many contractors come and go over the years. Our strategy is, and has always been, to keep ourselves lean and mean in order to not only capitalize on the good times, but be able to weather the bad times, as well. We’ve been around for 78 years now, and my goal is for the company to be around for another 78.”
Having no heir apparent to take over when he retires, Steve was faced with the very familiar succession issues encountered by many family-owned businesses. “The future sale of the company or liquidation of its assets are not desirable options,” he explains. “Because the company was valuable as a going concern and employed many long-term employees, I wanted a means by which the company could continue to thrive after I leave.”
The solution to this dilemma was found with the formation of the EDS’ employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). An ESOP is a qualified retirement plan that provided Steve with a buyer for the company while granting the employees ownership through the ESOP trust; EDS is now officially an employee-owned company.
Having put the ESOP in place, Steve then added staff to begin the process of assuming his day-to-day responsibilities, and the succession plan was complete. “I lost a lot of sleep thinking about the future health of the company and continuity issues before we put this plan into place,” he details. “While I have no plans to retire any time soon, it’s good to know we’ve addressed these concerns in a way that also benefits all of our valued employees.”
Jonathan Pitre, formerly a contract administrator for the NHDOT and now president of EDS, joined the company in February 2010, assuming his current title only three years later. Jonathan is committed to continuing the tradition of the Cole family, focusing on what the company does best and remaining lean.
Bridge construction is an inherently dangerous undertaking, and EDS spares no resources when it comes to keeping its employees safe. OSHA standards are considered the minimum, and the company strives to go above and beyond such requirements, particularly with respect to fall protection issues. EDS takes great pride in its safety record, and employs a full-time safety manager who oversees the implementation of the company’s safety policies on projects.
Of note, EDS was the first contractor in New Hampshire to participate in OSHA’s partnering program on a large project performed for the city of Manchester, N.H., which involved the widening of the Granite Street Bridge over the Merrimack River, a key link to the downtown area from Interstate 93 and the city’s west side. This technically challenging project required that four lanes of traffic be maintained while construction was taking place.
“This project had it all, and took all of our skills to successfully accomplish,” recalls Steve. “It involved the construction of a trestle for access, blasting in the river bed, the construction of three difficult cofferdams for pier construction, a very tight construction site and maintaining four lanes of heavy traffic. We even had to deal with flood waters, which briefly submerged the work trestle. Despite the adversity, the bridge came out beautifully and it’s a project that we’re very proud of.”
All hands on deck
Another interesting project EDS recently completed was for the NHDOT, involving the complete replacement of the superstructures of the north bound and south bound Interstate 93 bridges over Loudon Road in Concord, N.H., at Exit 14. The contract required each span to be replaced in two 60-hour windows.
“This project was an all hands effort where even the office staff pitched in,” Steve details. “We ran three crews around the clock and had to demolish and remove the existing deck, remove the existing beams, erect the new beams, set and grout-in new precast deck slabs and be open to traffic, all in 60 hours. And we had to do this twice.”
The project also required an extensive traffic control effort in high traffic. “Many hours of planning went into this effort, and we had to try to anticipate every possible contingency,” explains Steve. “While we encountered a few issues we hadn’t envisioned, we were able to hit the 60-hour window both times. This is a real tribute to the teamwork exhibited by our employees.”
Another completed project involved replacement of the bridge and causeway across a section of Mascoma Lake in Enfield, N.H. According to Steve, the first wooden causeway and bridge built by the Shakers there in 1849 was destroyed in the hurricane of 1938. “Its steel-framed replacement stood for over 70 years until it was closed to traffic in 2010,” he details.
Steve is proud to note that EDS rebuilt the bridge and causeway, and in 2012 hundreds of local residents showed up for a parade commemorating the reopening of the bridge, the third such ceremony in 163 years. Notably, the same pair of scissors used in the first ribbon-cutting ceremonies was also used by state and local facility for the 2012 event.
Having completed major projects on Interstate Route 93 in Hooksett and Windham, N.H., the company has work ongoing in Newington, Portsmouth and Nashua.
Jonathan is optimistic looking forward. “The future looks very bright for us,” he says proudly. “We have a healthy backlog right now, and given the economic conditions we face and the uncertainty of government funding in the short term, I’m quite pleased with where we stand. We’ll continue with our conservative management philosophy and we’ll be selective about any new work we take on. I’m convinced we have the best group of employees in the business, and that EDS will continue to be a player in this business for many years to come.” With some of the best employees in the business, E.D. Swett Inc. continues to be a big player in the local bridge industry.
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