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Published: 10/12/2008

SSOE adds jobs, boosts revenues in Toledo

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Tony Damon, CEO of the architectural/engineering firm in downtown Toledo, says he is confident going into 2009. Tony Damon, CEO of the architectural/engineering firm in downtown Toledo, says he is confident going into 2009.
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo
The Honda plant near Marysville, one of the first U.S. assembly plants built by a Japanese automaker, was designed by SSOE. The Honda plant near Marysville, one of the first U.S. assembly plants built by a Japanese automaker, was designed by SSOE.
JEFF HINCKLEY / AP Enlarge

GIVEN the economic hailstorm pounding down on U.S. business, Tony Damon ought to be one frazzled CEO.

The automotive sector, for which his SSOE Inc. designs factories, is in free fall.

Major retail chains, another important source of revenues for the architectural/engineering firm in downtown Toledo, have scaled back store construction.

And as hopes for corn-based ethanol and other gasoline alternatives have faded, a plant construction boom in which SSOE participated has gone bust.

Mr. Damon, 56, admits that recent developments have caused him anxiety. But he is anything but frazzled.

"We're confident going into 2009," he said, seated at a granite-topped conference table in his stark white office on Madison Avenue. "We have a great backlog of work."

SSOE is one of downtown's quiet success stories.

As Fortune 500 firms have cut back or pulled up stakes, SSOE has bumped up its employment in Toledo's city center to 500 people making an average of $60,000 a year.

SSOE employees have filled the company's headquarters at 1001 Madison, and also the sixth floor of the nearby Hylant Insurance building, formerly North American headquarters of Pilkington PLC. Fast-growing SSOE soon will take possession of a second floor there.

Companywide, the firm has 900 employees at 19 offices from Carlsbad, Calif., to Shanghai, China.

Revenues at SSOE are expected to rise this year for the fifth straight year and hit $115 million - a 10 percent increase over 2007. Executives forecast a 20 percent jump next year, and sales have doubled in five years.

SSOE's major projects currently include a $1 billion plant for Volkswagen AG in Chattanooga, Tenn., that is just beginning construction. Later, SSOE will send a dozen engineers to the site and assign 60 to 80 others to work on the project from Toledo.

It also designed an addition to BMW AG's assembly plant near Spartanburg, S.C., on which construction started in the first quarter of this year. The 1.2 million-square-foot project is to be completed in 2009.

Although revenues at the privately held firm are strong for now, that could change in 2010 if the U.S. economy doesn't improve soon. Mr. Damon conceded that the tumultuous financial markets make him nervous. "I'm worried about a year from now," he said.

Typically, engineering firms lag the economy, meaning they feel downturns later than other sectors.

Leading the drive to make sure sales stay strong is Mr. Damon, a low-key, unfailingly polite career architect.

Asked about a photograph in his office in the Hylant building depicting him in a football helmet of his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, Mr. Damon explained that a gift-giver added a digital image of the helmet to the picture.

"I was not a jock," he said with a laugh. "More of a total klutz."

With his salt-and-pepper hair and easy smile, Mr. Damon dresses conservatively - one day last week he wore a crisp white shirt, a subdued purple tie, and dark suit - and has an aura of steadiness.

He shuns the limelight, asking that any story be focused on SSOE, not him.

He and his wife, Laura, have two grown children who have moved from the area. The couple reside in North Baltimore, where Mr. Damon grew up. The Wood County village of 3,400 was founded in 1860 and thrived because of an oil discovery and the coming of railroads.

Now a part-time member of the North Baltimore village council, as a youth Mr. Damon was a gas-station attendant, in the days before self-service stations made that job an anachronism.

His father, a grocery wholesaling executive, and mother, a clerical worker, were active in the local Catholic parish, and Mr. Damon planned from an early age to attend Notre Dame.

He was so confident - or, he now concedes, foolhardy - about admission to the prestigious school that he failed to submit an application for his second choice: Ohio State University.

During summers, he worked on the factory floor at D.S. Brown Co., a local manufacturer of highway and bridge components, and took a job there after leaving college with a bachelor's degree in industrial design.

In 1977, he joined SSOE, which had recently adopted that name after being known as Samborn, Steketee, Otis & Evans since shortly after its formation in 1948 by structural engineer Al Samborn.

Mr. Damon rose through the firm's ranks, eventually being named head of an important unit serving auto manufacturers, including a growing list of Asian and European companies that are building factories in the United States.

Among the first was Honda Motor Co.; SSOE designed the Japanese automaker's assembly factory in Marysville, Ohio.

In 2002, Mr. Damon became SSOE's chief executive officer.

Leslie Green, a marketing consultant in Purchase, N.Y., who is a member of SSOE's board of directors, praised Mr. Damon's management style.

"He surrounds himself with good people, and he doesn't micro-manage them," she said.

"He cares deeply about his employees," she added.

"He's quite extraordinary, but he's quite introverted. I think he forces himself because his job is to be the CEO."

Another board member, local executive Tom Brady, said he is pleased to see SSOE so close to cracking the top 100 list of national architectural/engineering firms.

"What I see in that business is that talent keeps moving," said Mr. Brady, president of Plastic Technologies Inc. in Springfield Township. "Talent moves on a whim. SSOE's turnover is extremely low."

About 5 percent of employees leave each year, which is less than half the industry average.

Mr. Damon attributes that to solid pay and benefits, including the opportunity to acquire an ownership stake in the firm.

All company shares are held by active employees. Twenty-one longterm employees own 80 percent of shares. The remainder is held by newer hires.

Mr. Damon said he likes to give his employees goals "and then let them do their thing."

Associates said he doesn't anger easily but becomes troubled "when there is a lack of sense of urgency or commitment to making sure we succeed."

Mr. Damon is convinced the firm should stick to areas where it has expertise, including auto plants and other factories, health care facilities, retail stores like Lowe's and Meijer, and alternative energy plants.

He expressed pleasure with the performance of SSOE's Chinese unit, which had a slow start but now has 90 employees and has landed important contracts, including a 3 million-square foot factory for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

But Mr. Damon also has opposed proposals to expand in the Middle East. SSOE has little experience in the region, where employees would face safety risks, he said.

Although overall business remains strong now, construction cuts by major retailers resulted in layoffs of about 25 employees at satellite offices this year.

Ethanol and biodiesel producers, which once offered promising new business, have reduced construction drastically.

SSOE has no plans to leave Toledo, and although it has fielded merger and buyout offers, "we always tell them, 'We're not for sale,'•" Mr Damon said.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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