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Cherokee engineering and construction, based in Miami Lakes, is a force in environmental cleanup

Cherokee Enterprises Inc. in Miami Lakes, is an engineering and construction firm that works on projects in environmental engineering and remediation, heavy construction and construction management, and fuel storage/delivery systems for tank farms. From left, seated: Christine Franklin, president; Gabino Cuevas, CEO. Standing, from left: Amanuel Worku, vice president of engineering services; Alex Sanchez, executive vice president; Jeffrey Northrup, vice president of sciences.
Cherokee Enterprises Inc. in Miami Lakes, is an engineering and construction firm that works on projects in environmental engineering and remediation, heavy construction and construction management, and fuel storage/delivery systems for tank farms. From left, seated: Christine Franklin, president; Gabino Cuevas, CEO. Standing, from left: Amanuel Worku, vice president of engineering services; Alex Sanchez, executive vice president; Jeffrey Northrup, vice president of sciences. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

The company and its services: Cherokee Enterprises Inc. (CEI) is an engineering and construction company that provides a wide range of highly technical services, including environmental remediation, design and construction of fueling systems for aviation and ground vehicles, storm water systems and other infrastructure construction projects.

It also provides services in civil engineering, alternative fuels and project management.

Based in Miami Lakes, Cherokee is a small, minority-owned firm that successfully competes with the largest companies in its field for government and private-sector projects, mostly in Florida.

Inc. Magazine has ranked Cherokee one of the fastest-growing companies in the country for seven years, starting in 2007.

“Our main business lines are environmental remediation and jet and motor vehicle fuel systems for the non-retail market,” said Christine Franklin, an engineer and building contractor who is president and co-founder of Cherokee.

“We have extensive in-house expertise, a unique combination of engineers, scientists, contractors, technicians and business strategists,” said Franklin, who received an MBA from the University of Florida. “Our primary differentiator is to solve the problem and implement the solution while minimizing the disruption to a client’s operations,” she said.

The company stresses quality work, competitive cost, safety and on-schedule work. This year, about 80 percent of its projects are being carried out for government agencies and the remainder for private companies. Past and present clients include the city of Miami, Miami International Airport, Allied Aviation, Florida Power & Light, Coca-Cola, Verizon, the South Florida Water Management District and various federal agencies.

Cherokee is working on a major environmental remediation project for the city of Miami in Douglas Park. “There was an old city incinerator near the site years ago, and the plant left toxic levels of arsenic, lead and other dangerous chemicals in the soil of what became a public park,” said Amanuel Worku, Cherokee’s vice president of engineering services. “We removed the topsoil, transferred it to an appropriate landfill, installed a liner and replaced the soil with clean fill,” he said. Cherokee is also making drainage improvements, will plant new grass and shrubs and do landscaping on the site, he said. “It’s big job — we had to move 6,000 to 7,000 tons of soil.” The park was closed by the city in September 2013.

Getting started: Founders Christine Franklin, Gabino Cuevas and Alex Sanchez — all professional engineers — were working together at a large construction firm based in the Northeast. Their employer decided to close its Miami office and the three, after talking to local clients who wanted to work with them, decided to start up their own company in 1999. Since then, the firm added two additional partners, grew to employ more than 70 people and reported revenues of $20 million last year.

Cherokee was the name of a subsidiary of the company where they previously worked. The firm allowed them to keep the name of the subsidiary, which was already well known in South Florida.

The difference: Cherokee competes effectively with large national engineering and construction companies as well as with local firms, Franklin said. “Our edge is our in-house expertise and our ability to do both engineering and construction,” she said. “We pride ourselves on providing ‘large-company services at small-company prices.’”

Sales: Revenues in 2015 were $20 million, up from $12 million in 2014. Cherokee expects 30-40 percent growth this year, thanks to large contracts in jet fuel systems and environmental remediation. Outlook for the coming years is very strong.

Competitors: Depending on the type of project involved, Cherokee competes with other mid-sized engineering and construction firms as well as much larger companies. Competition includes HRC Construction, UCCO and Guardian Construction.

Learning experience: “One lesson came when we went after a job that was outside the area of expertise of one of our principals,” Franklin said. “The client hired away the person [an employee] who had that expertise. We had to finish the multimillion dollar project without the former employee’s help and lost a lot of money. We learned that we need to ‘own’ our major knowledge base.”

Outside view: Cherokee and its president, Franklin, have been recognized numerous times for achievement. The Environmental Business Journal choose Cherokee for its 2016 gold medal in business achievement for small companies and the Engineering News-Record (ENR) listed the firm among the country’s top 600 specialty contractors. Cherokee received the outstanding performance award from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and, in 2015, was ranked among the top 20 women-led businesses in Florida for the fourth consecutive year. Earlier this year, Inc. Magazine chose Cherokee as one of the 5,000 fastest-growing companies in America.

What customers say:

“We’ve worked with Cherokee on several government and private projects, starting when they were founded,” said Maria Molina, president of Nova Consulting, a civil and environmental engineering firm. “They are a great outfit with wonderful professionals who are experts in different disciplines. I look to them as a model, and would recommend them without a doubt,” she said.

Allied Aviation Fueling of Miami has been working with Cherokee for the last 12 years on a variety of highly specialized and challenging projects, including reconstruction of their jet fuel facility and the upgrade and expansion of a jet fuel hydrant pit at Miami International Airport’s Concourse E. Cherokee’s strong core business values, esprit de corps, ability to work closely with clients and high level of expertise have led them to become a major contender in the mechanical, civil and environmental sectors of the aviation industry, said Thomas Doherty, general manager of Allied at MIA. “Allied is very satisfied, and proud of the business relationship we have grown throughout the years, and we look forward to building on the relationship in the future.”

Challenges and outlook: “Our most important challenges are attracting and retaining the people who fit our entrepreneurial culture,” Franklin said. The firm, which expects robust growth over the next several years, also needs to manage growth so that its key professionals don’t burn out, and to identify the right business development opportunities. Aside from new work in South Florida, “Our biggest opportunities will be opening offices in other cities and going after international projects in the Caribbean and Central America,” she said.

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

This article has been updated to correct a quote from Amanuel Worku.

Business: Cherokee is a minority-owned engineering and construction company that specializes in environmental remediation projects, such as cleaning up contaminated sites, hazardous waste handling, storm water management and brownfield redevelopment. Offering clients a broad range of experience and expertise in engineering, construction and sciences, the Miami Lakes firm also designs and builds projects in aviation and ground-vehicle fueling, alternative fuels (compressed natural gas, biodiesel and others), civil and heavy construction, and provides regulatory compliance and management services. Clients include government agencies and private companies in Florida and other states.

Headquarters: 14474 Commerce Way, Miami Lakes. The firm has its Broward County offices at 18503 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines.

Founded: 1999 in Miami.

Founders: Christine Franklin, Gabino Cuevas and Alex Sanchez, all licensed, professional engineers specializing in environmental, chemical and civil engineering.

Leadership: Gabino Cuevas, CEO; Christine Franklin, president; Alex Sanchez, executive vice president; Amanuel Worku, vice president of engineering services; and Jeffrey Northrup, vice president of sciences.

Employees: 70 full-time, five permanent part-time, plus contract employees as needed.

Owners: The three founders, plus Amanuel Worku, a certified professional engineer specializing in environmental health engineering, and Jeffrey Northrup, a chemist and geologist.

Website: www.cherokeecorp.com

Source: Cherokee Enterprises

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