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Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute

Steve Porter

Steve PorterIt’s hard to believe Steve Porter (BS CE 1985) doesn’t have an MBA. An engineer by training, Porter rattles off business terms so rapid fire that it’s hard to keep up.

The words estimator, sample contract, lump sum, and phased fix fee flow out of his mouth in one quick breath. Another breath, and he’s on to hourly billing rates, scoping the project, negotiating the contract, and preparing the fee proposal.

It’s apparent that as an entrepreneur, Porter knows every tiny detail of his business, happily sharing what he’s learned since graduating from WSU with an engineering degree twenty years ago. With Porter’s frenetic pace, it’s also very clear why Coughlin Porter Lundeen, the engineering consulting firm that he helped to found eleven years ago, has been so successful.

Jim CoughlinThe company, founded by the three principals, including another WSU alum, Jim Coughlin (BS CE 1979), started in Seattle in a “nearly saturated market,” where there was little need for another civil and structural engineering firm. Since then, it has grown from the original three to a total staff of 70, including 63 technical staff. The number of projects the team has worked on is staggering. Their work includes more than 19 million square feet of commercial/corporate facilities, including work for Microsoft; retail work for businesses, including the Gap, Macy’s and REI; more than 9 million square feet of education facilities; 15 million square feet of historic renovation and seismic upgrade projects, including the King County Courthouse and the Smith Tower; hospitality and recreation facilities; medical centers and laboratories, including the Children’s Hospital Medical Center campus expansion; multi-family residential; and public facilities, including the Renton Aquatic Center. They also worked on the largest seismic retrofit in Seattle, the Starbucks Center.

Through it all, Porter maintains that the most important part of their business and what accounts for their success is knowing what they’re about and staying true to their ideas. When they started the business, they had good ideas and ambition, but no direction or planning. Soon after they started their business, they needed a brochure and went to an acquaintance for help. They soon discovered that they needed to know what their mission, vision, and core values are, and they needed to be able to articulate those. During the next month, the group developed a strategic plan for their business. “We developed a “soul” for our company,” says Porter.

For CPL, their guiding principles are providing “large company expertise and horsepower with small company efficiency and personalized service.” They also made it a goal to use evolving office technology to create more efficiency and to be highly responsive. This responsiveness means returning phone calls the same day, rather than several days later, “putting ourselves in the shoes of the owners and treating the project like it is our own money we’re spending,” said Porter.

Since initially developing a strategic plan for their company, they’ve reviewed their principles a couple more times. With just a few tweaks, their goals and mission have remained fundamentally unchanged.

“It’s easy to look at market conditions and think, “we should be doing this,” but we don’t want to try to be something we’re not,” he said. “If we did that, everyone would see right through it.”

Advice to Students

“Take advantage of your time in college.” When Porter was in school, he didn’t take advantage of learning the people skills that became so important. “The thought didn’t occur to me,” he said. Instead, he has learned those necessary skills from his wife. Take those accounting classes and the psychology classes. “I feel like I’m a counselor sometimes,” he says. As for accounting, Porter says he may look at 120 bills in a morning. He needs to be able to quickly look at a sheet and see what’s happening.

“In general, knowing how the business runs makes you more valuable, even if you end up being an employee rather than an entrepreneur.”