Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007

Carnes has engineered CECA’s success

Lanham consulting company has found its niche

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Greg Dohler⁄The Gazette
L. Terry Carnes, owner of CECA, offers some tips to Bill Trent, CEO of Kingdom Square Mall in Capitol Heights. Carnes and his crew were installing a re-engineered electrical system at the mall.
Staff Writer

L. Terry Carnes had his eye on an engineering career since he was in the seventh grade — when he learned that the job commanded a hefty $10,800 salary after four years of college.

‘‘I remember it to the penny,” said Carnes, 57, founder and president of CECA, an engineering and architecture consulting company.

The Bowie man now runs a multimillion-dollar enterprise that was recognized as Small Business of the Year by the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce at its annual trade show last month. The Lanham company earned $2 million in revenues in 2005, and Carnes projected it will hit about $3.5 million in 2007.

Although he worked for large companies for about 20 years, he was intent on carving an entrepreneurial path for himself one day.

‘‘It was just always in my blood. Something I knew I was supposed to do,” said Carnes, who describes himself as a ‘‘rebel” who was not well-suited for corporate life.

During his career, Carnes often heard contracting officers talk about being unable to find good minority companies to work with, he said. When he worked as a facilities director and engineering director, he also had a hard time finding small minority companies able to perform at the same level of larger businesses.

‘‘But that doesn’t mean they weren’t capable. They were often undercapitalized,” he said, which influences management and administrative capabilities. ‘‘It really motivated me to show that we could do the job, and it could be done as well as anyone else could do it.”

Carnes first tried starting a business in 1984 after almost 12 years in the industry.

‘‘I went into business with no money” — his first mistake, he said. The ’80s recession grounded his venture, so he went to work in facilities management at hospitals.

He gave business ownership another shot in 1998 by starting CECA.

‘‘We tend to sometimes, because of frustrations in dealing in the regular corporate world, believe that we can do it on our own, but we don’t always get the training and experience we need to do it correctly,” Carnes said about minority professionals who try to start a business. ‘‘When we go into business, sometimes we don’t always have the experience that we need to operate on the same professional level [as] firms that are more experienced.

‘‘You have to do your homework and pay your dues so that you have the experience that will make you competitive with the larger firms,” he said.

Carnes also advised that entrepreneurs find a specialty in their trade. Although it may be easier to be broad and cast a wider net for opportunity, as the company develops ‘‘you need to be working on finding a niche that will give you an opportunity to be in demand or sought out,” he said.

While CECA’s volume has steadily increased over the years, Carnes said the company’s profitability improved substantially around the time he joined the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce and became involved with CEO Focus, a coaching and peer consulting group for business owners.

Both groups made him recognize the importance of marketing, he said.

Carnes has been aggressive in pursuing contracting opportunities and working with chamber initiatives to help improve the contracting process across the board for small businesses, said James A. Dula, the chamber’s president and CEO.

‘‘He has earned the right to the title he’s won,” Dula said.

‘‘’He has seen where there are particular needs or niches that his company can fill, then he has established a plan to go serve that need,” said Henri Schauffler, local owner of CEO Focus Metro Washington.

When the field of third-party commercial building inspections began to expand, Carnes ‘‘saw that it was going to grow and he positioned his company to be the leader,” Schauffler said.

Carnes’ business strategy keeps the company moving at a steady pace, even when business in one of its three divisions — inspection, design and engineering — is slow. CECA staff have the skills to contribute in different areas, he said.

If business starts lagging in the engineering sector, that same staff can cover inspections. ‘‘One division is able to carry the other in the up and down cycles of business,” he said.

The company has done mechanical plumbing and electrical engineering work at the 4,000-seat First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro and lighting retrofits for eight Prince George’s County schools. It is also responsible for most of the building inspections at National Harbor, Carnes said. CECA’s longtime relationship with ECS Mid-Atlantic LLC, a geotechnical engineering and construction materials testing company in Chantilly, Va., created a partnership that was poised to win contracts at the $2 billion National Harbor project.

Carnes’ future goals for CECA include creating its own development projects, becoming employee-owned, and doing more for the community.

‘‘I’d like to be in a position where we have an impact in the county with internships and training programs, where we’re actually helping the community we’re living in,” he said.