Firm that worked on Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher building changes hands

By Jennifer Sasseen
(Everett) Herald Business Journal

The list sounds like a Who’s Who of Pacific Northwest landmarks: Benaroya Hall and Experience Music Project in Seattle. Museum of Glass in Tacoma. Children Museum Lightcatcher Building in Bellingham. Providence Medical Center’s Pavilion for Women and Children in Everett.

All owe their creation, in part, to a Lynnwood-based firm that’s been lighting the way for nearly 70 years.

Sparling is an award-winning electrical engineering and architectural lighting design firm known for its depth of knowledge in a variety of building types and for its specialty consulting services.

“We’ve had a brand and a legacy of very high-quality engineering,” said Sparling Chief Executive Officer Eric Overton.

Now Sparling and its lighting-design brand, Candela — with some 130 employees in offices in Lynnwood, Portland, Oregon, and San Diego — is joining with the 15,000-employee-strong Stantec, based in Edmonton, Canada. The merger was expected to be finalized on March 1. It’s the right move for Sparling, Overton said.

“It just really enhances the firm’s ability to do the kind of work that we do,” he said.

The company had been considering such a merger for nearly three years, he said, ever since it consolidated its local offices and moved everyone to Lynnwood in August 2012. Sparling had been headquartered at 720 Olive Way in Seattle for 65 years, but subleased the building during the tail-end of the recession, partly to save money and increase efficiency. At the time, Overton said the move was temporary and vowed to return. Last month, he reiterated that vow.

“I believe that we need to be back in downtown Seattle,” he said.

It’s uncertain whether the company will keep a Lynnwood presence. Overton said the lease on offices in the Sparling Technology Center on 194th Street is up in August 2016. Complicating the decision is the fact that, over the years, some employees moved north, to places like Edmonds and Monroe. The congested traffic that can make getting into downtown Seattle difficult will have to be considered, he said.

Overton’s new role with Stantec is vice president in charge of West Coast offices. Sparling and Stantec have known each other for years, he said, even partnering on some projects, and he’s comfortable this is the right decision.

Stantec has been looking to increase its West Coast presence and the merger will help Sparling continue to attract the best engineers in the business. He is now looking at adding mechanical engineers to the mix.

Little will change for Sparling’s current clients, he said, other than “enhanced services” made possible by the merger. Stantec’s resources will also aid in competition for projects on a national level.

“You don’t build a Benaroya Hall every day in the Northwest,” he said.

The Sparling and Candela names will not be immediately dropped. “We’re going to go through a brand transition,” Overton said, during which time “Sparling, a Stantec company” and “Candela, a Stantec company” will be used. But probably by the end of the year that will change to, simply, “Stantec.”

While avoiding any suggestion that Sparling was a victim of the recession, Overton wholeheartedly agreed with Boeing’s Kent Fisher that the new business reality is, “we’re in a more-for-less world now.” (A Boeing vice president and general manager of supplier-management, Fisher spoke last month at the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance’s annual conference in Lynnwood.)

“Oh that’s absolutely the truth,” Overton said.

Businesses, including those in the architecture and engineering field, had to lower fees when everyone was fighting for work, he said. The climate started improving in 2012 and “it’s come back very, very strong in the last 12 months,” he said, but still has a long way to go to match pre-recession levels.

“That’s a very, very slow pendulum swing,” he said.

In March of 2008, Sparling had an annual revenue of more than $24 million and Overton had said the company expected to reach $30 million by the end of the year. Then the recession hit and revenue dropped for a few years.

“Our 2014 revenues were $23 million by the end of the year,” he said.

The merger with Stantec takes Sparling out of the private domain and into the public. Previously it had been a private company with three owners and 25 shareholders, the result of a commitment by company founder Tom Sparling to make it employee-owned.

Overton said Stantec is buying “all the shares of all shareholders” of Sparling. He said he couldn’t say how much that cost Stantec because he and others had been specifically told not to disclose that information.

Asked what founder Tom Sparling might have thought of the deal, Overton said: “I think he’d be incredibly proud of what this company has done over the years.”

Born in Wisconsin, Tom Sparling was an engineering genius who worked before and during World War II for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton. He tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy, but was blocked because he was considered too valuable as a civilian engineer, and spent the rest of the war years directing the installation of shipboard radar systems, a new technology at the time.

His engineering consulting firm opened in 1947 in Seattle and Sparling built a reputation as an expert in complex control systems, designing drawbridge controls for the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge on Lake Washington connecting Seattle and Bellevue. He also designed the safety gates along the I-5 express lanes in the pre-computer age.

Later on, Sparling’s company began designing electrical systems for buildings, including the World’s Fair Playhouse theatre in 1960 and University Village in the 1970s.

He was still working at Sparling when Overton started working there in 1985, though he retired shortly after; he died in 2004 at the age of 87.

His legacy continues. The engineers and staff of Sparling perform to the high standards of integrity and community-mindedness set by Tom Sparling, Overton said. And Overton doesn’t expect that to change. They are a close-knit group and he hasn’t heard of anyone declining to join Stantec.

“I think everyone’s going along for the ride,” he said.

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