Since the 1980s, Sebago Technics has surveyed, engineered and permitted thousands of lots for residential development throughout southern Maine. In 2005, residential development accounted for nearly 37 percent of the company’s workload. But in 2006, during the depths of the downturn in the housing industry, Sebago didn’t survey a single subdivision.

“We just didn’t get a call,” said Mark Adams, president and chief executive of the firm. “From June of 2008 through late 2011 the workload roller-coastered.” That made it difficult to project staffing and financial levels. The firm survived, but had to make a series of drastic changes to do so.

Between 2008 and 2010, Sebago laid off or lost 50 people – nearly half of its staff, a situation made more difficult because the company is 100 percent owned by an employee stock ownership program, or ESOP. Because employees who left the ESOP could begin drawing on their shares within a year of leaving, the company’s liabilities increased much more than they would have with normal attrition. But the ESOP structure also made the departures tougher emotionally for everyone.

“It’s a cultural thing,” Adams said. With the ESOP, “there was a sense that we’re all in this together for the successful and the not-so-successful times. So it gave it an added element of difficulty than what it would have been if it was just a big corporate decision from away.”

It was difficult for those workers who remained as well. Sebago staff members were accustomed to juggling multiple jobs and fast-paced work. “It was difficult not to be busy,” Adams said. “It wore on people to be sitting next to empty cubicles.”

Sebago’s executives and employees embarked on strategic planning, and interviewed economists and business and municipal leaders to identify where opportunities would be on the road ahead. In light of what they learned during those interviews, they reshaped the firm around key sectors, including energy and utilities, water and wastewater, transportation, health care and education, redevelopment and climate change, and identified practice leaders. And they encouraged every employee to be entrepreneurial to identify other opportunities.

Sebago also went after more public sector work, which had been less than 10 percent of the business in the past. Now, work for cities, towns, schools and other public entities comprises 40 percent of Sebago’s business.

Other changes the company made in 2011 – like refreshing its website and the logo – seemed more cosmetic, but played a critical role in boosting employee morale and reconnecting with customers.

“We wanted to let past clients know that we’re still here and better than ever,” he said.

Sebago moved into airy, modern new offices in South Portland, which it carefully designed to accommodate current staff levels. It also invested in new computers and software, and upgraded its technology.

“It helped us create a sense of a new start that we were hoping to make,” Adams said.

The results seem to have paid off.

In 2012, Sebago’s work began to stabilize, and it has been able to grow business in the municipal, health care and education sectors, and other areas that aren’t related to new home building. Last year saw good growth, yet residential development comprised only about 16 percent of the company’s workload. So far this year, business is on track to beat last year. Sebago has hired eight people, including the first marketing coordinator the company has had since the recession.

“Everyone’s glad to be busy again,” Adams said.

Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at:

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