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At 120, Biscayne Engineering looks for new challenges

Mike Bartholomew, president of Biscayne Engineering, left, and Melissa Bolton Calabrese, CEO of Biscayne Engineering, in their offices near the Miami River, with an antique surveyor’s tripod. On the walls are images of South Florida in the 20th century.
Mike Bartholomew, president of Biscayne Engineering, left, and Melissa Bolton Calabrese, CEO of Biscayne Engineering, in their offices near the Miami River, with an antique surveyor’s tripod. On the walls are images of South Florida in the 20th century. mocner@miamiherald.com

Biscayne Engineering, founded in Miami in 1898, made the first map of the City of Miami in 1905, worked on construction of James Deering’s Villa Vizcaya in the early 1900s and, in 1916, was hired by Carl Fisher to help develop Miami Beach.

The firm later participated in a host of other projects throughout the state. Among them: construction of man-made Star Island, the design of the University of Miami campus, residential developments in Port Charlotte and Marco Island, President Richard Nixon’s helipad, and survey and layout work for the Metromover, according to the company.

More recently, the firm has worked on the mixed-use River Landing complex under construction on the Miami River, and on the 85-story Panorama Tower on Brickell Avenue, the tallest residential building south of New York City.

Biscayne Engineering today provides four types of professional services: surveying, civil engineering, GIS mapping (converting geographical data into specialized, high-tech, layered maps) and providing expert witnesses. A small business, it competes successfully on surveying, engineering and mapping contracts for public and private sector clients, often partnering with other engineering firms on major projects. Surveying is in high demand as developers/builders erect new buildings, expand or renovate.

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Mike Bartholomew, president of Biscayne Engineering, looks at an original ink drawing of the Miami River and Wagner Creek from 1911. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

“We’re celebrating out 120th anniversary this year,” said CEO Melissa Bolton Calabrese, who runs the family-owned firm with Mike Bartholomew, the president. “We’ve played an important role in planning and developing South Florida and other parts of the state.”

In a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in June, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen congratulated the enterprise on its 120-year anniversary. She noted then that the company — which is in her 27th Congressional District — is the oldest business and land-surveying firm in Miami.

How did the firm, which passed through several owners since its was started by two entrepreneurs in 1898, manage to become Miami’s oldest continuous business?

“Biscayne Engineering has gone through good and bad times,” said Calabrese, whose father, George C. Bolton took over the company in the 1970s. Over the years, the firm has succeeded in adjusting to different times for several reasons.

“Continuity of leadership. There has always been a continuity of seasoned leaders to provide stability as new leaders were developing,” Calabrese said. Retaining experienced personnel is also critical, and the firm currently has mix of employees who have been with the firm for 10-40 years. “As a result, we have shared a common vision” for the company.

The firm has always stayed ahead of the curve in acquiring new technology. In its early days, it bought one of the first blueprint machines available in the U.S., supplying blueprints used for construction of Villa Vizcaya in the early 1900s. Biscayne Engineering also was an early adapter of computers in the 1970s. Today, the firm purchases the latest hi-tech equipment — including advanced laser devices — for its surveying, mapping and engineering work.

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Mike Bartholomew, president of Biscayne Engineering, looks through old index cards. They are organized by location and help locate drawings and field books. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

The firm also listens carefully to the needs of its clients, Calabrese said. “Sometimes that means we must shift gears and do things a little different from the last time.” For every client, “we make sure we have a meeting of the minds from the outset, and then follow through. We have a lot of repeat clients.”

In looking to the future, “We face challenges every day. But we know that even in tough times, there is still work out there. We have struggled and survived because we understood that the work was there — we just had to dig harder to find it. It won’t find us.”

Company name: Biscayne Engineering Co., Inc.

Founded: In 1898, J. S. Frederick, a surveyor and mapper, formed a professional partnership in Miami with W. E. Brown, who worked for the Florida East Coast Railway. The founders in 1908 named the partnership Frederick Brown Engineering Co. In 1913, it was incorporated as Biscayne Engineering Co.

Ownership: Company is privately owned by the Miami-based Bolton family. George C. Bolton, formerly president of the company and currently a director, bought Biscayne Engineering from its previous owners in 1976.

Leadership: Melissa Bolton Calabrese, CEO, and Mike Bartholomew, president. Calabrese is a fourth-generation employee of the firm who has a degree in finance and international business from Florida International University and became CEO in 2017. Bartholomew, who took over as president in 2011, is a professional surveyor and mapper who received his Associate of Technical Arts degree from Everett Community College in Washington State.

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Melissa Bolton Calabrese, the company’s CEO, looks at original survey drawings of South Florida. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Headquarters: 529 W. Flagler St., Miami. Palm Beach County office in Boca Raton.

Employees: 40, including engineers, surveyors, mappers and administrative staff.

Clients: State and local government agencies (Florida Department of Transportation, Broward Health, Miami-Dade Transit) and private-sector projects such as the Panorama Tower and the River Landing complex in Miami, AAF/Brightline, golf courses and commercial developments.

Financials: Revenues are expected to rise by more than 20 percent year-over-year in 2018, and are projected to increase by 15-20 percent in 2019. Biscayne Engineering handles small commercial surveying projects and has service contracts as high as $5 million with the FDOT.

Competitors: Biscayne Engineering may partner on some projects with firms like Douglas Wood Associates, a structural engineering company, and Maser Consulting, an engineering and consulting design firm, or may compete with them and others on different projects.

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Alberto Rabionet, project manager, left, looks at an advertisement — “Blue Prints Strictly Cash” — that company President Mike Bartholomew found. In its early days, the firm bought one of the first blueprint machines in the country. Photos by MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

The difference: Experience, agility a reputation for proficiency, efficiency and quality work in several specialized areas. “Since we’re a small company, we can move quickly on projects,” Calabrese said. “Our history does give us an advantage. We’re very well known for our commercial surveys (such as surveys for downtown high-rise buildings) and we have broad experience working on projects in and outside South Florida cities.”

Client view: “In my work as a structural engineer, I have seen and worked with surveys by Biscayne Engineering for most of my 40-year career,” said Douglas Wood, president of Douglas Wood Associates, a Miami-based structural engineering firm that works on new construction and restoration of buildings and other structures. The firm has provided Douglas Wood Associates with a wide range of civil engineering services in water service, sanitary water service and storm water disposal, including projects like the Muss Park Pavilion and the proposed canopy addition at the North Beach Bandshell, both for the City of Miami Beach.

“On our projects, Biscayne Engineering has provided excellent service,” Wood said. “Their engineering has been technically proficient, and their service has been very responsive. They delivered what we needed when we needed it. For us, their ‘edge’ is our long-standing relationship and our confidence that they will provide proficient and responsive service.”

Business lesson: Several years ago, even as demand for its services grew in Palm Beach County and northward, Biscayne Engineering concentrated on its heavy workload in Miami-Dade, Monroe and Broward counties. Through its office in Boca Raton, the company has expanded its range and has gained new clients in Palm Beach County.

Challenges and outlook: Making sure the company continues to hire the right people and develop future leaders. It also must continue expanding in its traditional markets, as well as in Palm Beach County and points farther north and west. “The economy is pretty good and we’ve been growing,” Calabrese said. “For the oldest company [in Miami], our outlook is very good.”

The writer can be reached at josephmannjr@gmail.com.

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