By Randy Arrington
LURAY — Pat Racey knows a thing or two about perseverance paying off. The former VDOT employee started a side business from his basement in 1994 that earned only $18,000 in its first year. Friends and local businessmen openly conveyed their skepticism about opening an independent engineering firm in a small town like Luray. Well today, Racey Engineering employs about two dozen in a Main Street office and touts a multi-state client list that generates several million in revenue annually.
“I started with nothing,” Racey said earlier this week. “It’s amazing how far this thing has come.”
Racey credits much of his company’s success — especially since the “Great Recession” more than a decade ago — to two things, his “secret sauce” and the hiring of Tyler Austin.
On March 1, Racey did something he hadn’t done since officially establishing the company in 2002 — he added a second principal. Rewarding the perseverance and loyalty that Austin had shown the company since almost his graduation from Page County High School in 2006, Racey named him a principal in the company, on par with himself, with a “vested interest in ownership.”
“This is a huge deal for me, us and Racey Engineering as we near our 20th year on Main Street,” Pat stated. “You could see Tyler as he grew from an intern to an employee…and now to a principal…our raw capability and capacity more than doubled…Home grown kids that went and produced for the home team…there’s nothing better…their loyalty is not to money.”
Austin, 34, is a Page County native, and earned a B.S. in civil and environmental engineering from Virginia Tech. Soon after the recession, he started working for Racey Engineering back in his home county. Next month will mark 15 years with the Luray-based firm.
“I’ve had him around as long as one of my sons,” Pat joked.
“I’ve been here almost half my life,” Tyler responded.
While the pair seem like a mutually beneficial match, it wasn’t always a sure thing. As Tyler began looking for full-time work, Pat was worried about a competitor offering Tyler more money in those leaner, earlier days of his company’s evolution. That competitor? McDonalds.
“When he got out of school, McDonald’s was offering more than I could because of the ‘Great Recession’…he had to take less money to come here…he could have been a regional manager for McDonalds and made more,” Pat admits. “You can honestly say…he’s my right-hand man…he tells me, ‘You get it, we’ll do it’…it’s unbelievable what has changed since he came on.”
After being the second recipient of a Racey Engineering scholarship and working through an internship, Austin would begin full-time employment in 2010.
“It’s a huge sense of pride,” Austin said of becoming a principal with the company. “I’ve come a long way with Pat’s mentorship and help…a great staff…to have built what we have today.
“To be here and watch this thing to grow into a very viable engineering firm in this industry and continue to provide professional employment…providing a place to work and make a good wage…to see the work we’ve done in our communities…it gives you a sense of pride,” Austin continued. “It’s a real sense of accomplishment for me, I rode it out…I’m a company man and when everybody believes in that, you work better together…there’s something special here.”
It’s the “sauce”.
“We like to say we do all the services no one else wants to do…because we have a good relationship with our clients,” Austin said. “You get that personal connectivity with our staff…we genuinely want to serve you the best we can.”
That’s the “secret sauce” according to Pat — creating a culture of service, with the client and among co-workers; and then protecting that environment vigorously by hiring carefully.
“We serve others that way, and we serve each other that way,” Pat said. “We’ve got what big companies wish they had…that servant heart.”
In the early years, Racey Engineering rarely worked outside of the Lord Fairfax Planning District, contained within the northern Shenandoah Valley, and rarely did jobs beyond residential work. After the recession hit, Racey began bidding on statewide contracts. Today, the Luray-based engineering firm is a fully licensed and insured Virginia Professional Engineering and Surveying Company and has Professional Engineering and Land Surveying licensure in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania; and Professional Engineering licensure in Georgia, South Carolina, and West Virginia.
In his first year as a side business in 1994, Pat earned $18,000. By 2007 — five years after opening an office on Main Street and the year the Chamber of Commerce named them “Luray Business of the Year” — Racey Engineering surpassed $1 million in gross billing. Today, he says the local engineering firm has grown three-fold — emerging from the recession even bigger and better.
“Bringing Tyler on as a principal is a huge deal to me…When you start out small in your basement on Greenfield Road in Luray…doing it on weekends…you have limitations on who you can hire,” Pat said. “So to work up to a point to give someone a title who has been with me…through the internship program…this is huge. It was hard for me to get engineers at all…I couldn’t pay an engineer at the time.”
Austin now represents the company in many local contracts, often finding himself at public hearings defending developers against unhappy neighbors.
“I truly try to see both sides of the equation and see where they are coming from,” Austin said of those situations. “I understand that passion that they bring because I have a passion for what I do…I try to be deliberate and not offend people. I always tell people I try to be the most rational one in the room.”
His calm, rational approach to complex problems doesn’t surprise Pat, who says he often resolves those issues on the spot because of his outlook, despite many times being the youngest person in the room.
“When he was 20, he talked to people like he was 35,” Pat said. “He’s got a big, big heart, and he loves everybody like they are his favorite uncle or aunt.”
Racey believes that the once-intern that he now describes as an “engineer’s engineer” will help take the “hometown firm” to even greater heights.
“He’s my right-hand man,” Pat said. “I’ve got guys that are emulating him. I never worry about Tyler handling things. He knows what I’m thinking.”
Racey Engineering, PLLC is managed by a team of multi-disciplined licensed Professionals that come from diverse backgrounds in Civil, Structural, Mechanical, Plumbing, Construction Engineering, Project Management, Inspection, Surveying and Mapping that coordinate projects in Residential Design and Surveying Service, Commercial Development, Subdivision Design, Water and Wastewater Utilities, Construction Surveying, and Total Project Management.
For more information, visit their website at https://www.raceyengineering.com/