Spending time as mayor of Vancouver was good training for Tim Leavitt in his new job at Otak.
The international design and architectural firm, which Leavitt joined in September after leaving his mayoral post, has tasked Leavitt with growing its Vancouver office and Clark County operations. And with the skill set he developed as mayor working with the region’s many and varied interests, along with his background in architecture and engineering, Leavitt said he feels like it’s a perfect fit that will help him grow while also helping the county thrive.
“I think when you serve in elected office, you’re put in some difficult situations on a routine basis,” Leavitt said. “If you’re conscientious about it, you develop a skill set to handle difficult situations and individuals, as well as how to navigate complex situations. You’re more aware of the big picture by looking out farther than next week.”
That skill set has helped Leavitt already in his nine months at the new job. He said he’s been able to build on friendships and associations that he made during his public service, and leverage them to get things done in Vancouver.
“That’s what Otak was hoping the experience I would bring – my relationships, understanding of the public planning process, investment in public infrastructure and an appreciation of the importance of stewardship of public resources,” Leavitt said.
Otak, founded in 1981, is a Portland-based international design firm that employs architects, planners, landscape architects, urban designers, surveyors and construction managers, among others. Overall the company has about 350 employees in Oregon, Washington and Colorado, and it hopes to grow to 500 in the next few years through acquisition and hiring. It also has small offices in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, but the company plans to wind down its international operations and keep their focus more local.
“We’re an international company right now, but we’re being strategic about our growth within the U.S. market,” Leavitt said. “We see opportunities to grow here in the metro area and in Colorado.”
As part of that growth strategy, in the last 18 months, Otak has acquired Loris and Associates, a Colorado design and engineering firm, and Day CPM, a Beaverton-based project management/owner’s representative, said Marie Gettel-Gilmartin, senior communications manager with the company’s Portland office.
And that growth by acquisition is likely to continue, she said, adding that the decision to hire Leavitt in Vancouver dovetailed nicely with the company’s growth plans.
“Last summer Otak called and said a senior position opened up and asked if I’d like to talk,” Leavitt said. “We had a few conversations and by September I was here.”
That said, Otak is not Leavitt’s first stint at an architectural firm, or even his first stint building up an office in Vancouver.
Leavitt grew up in Clark County, graduated from Clark College and transferred to Washington State University for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He got his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and his master’s in environmental engineering in 1998.
After graduating, he went to work for PBS Engineering and Environmental, a Portland-based firm with offices throughout Oregon and Washington. Leavitt helped that company found its first Vancouver office, and had been working there for about 19 years when he became mayor. Leavitt continued working for PBS during his time as a Vancouver City Council member, as well as during his time as mayor.
“We got the Vancouver office off the ground and it’s been wildly successful,” Leavitt said.
That’s one reason Otak saw him as a natural fit to grow its own Vancouver office. And Leavitt was attracted to Otak because it’s a much larger company with a broad array of services and skills to work with. Leavitt said a big draw was that he’d be able to expand his professional knowledge with the group.
“The reason I made the move is I saw great opportunity for personal and professional growth,” Leavitt said. “I’m impressed with the company, its leadership and its vision.”
The two firms – Otak and PBS – also sometimes overlap and work together on projects, although sometimes they also compete over them, Leavitt said.
Otak’s Vancouver office was founded in 1996 and has continued to grow steadily since then. It started with two architects in an office downtown, then grew after expanding into engineering services.
“We had 10 employees in Vancouver after a few years,” Leavitt said. “And it’s just continued to grow over the years working on a diverse range of projects.”
Today Otak’s Vancouver office has about 36 employees in the Vancouver Center building, and the company is in the process of renovating and moving the fourth floor office to a different, larger one on the third floor of that building in order to accommodate even more growth.
“We project to grow (the Vancouver office) by another 10 to 12 employees,” Leavitt said of his plans for the next year or two. “The only restraint on us really is the availability of experienced, qualified engineers, architects and planners that would fit into our culture.”
Otak has several projects in Vancouver currently, but the company is also having issues finding qualified workers, he said.
“We’re hiring from out of the area, and I’ve heard similar from other consultants locally.” Leavitt said. “We try to develop our pipeline with internship programs. There are lots of well qualified entry level engineers. We’re addressing that, but that’s also an investment because they have no real-world skills yet. What we really need right now is people with experience.”
About 60 to 65 percent of Otak’s work is done for the public sector, with 35 to 40 percent done for the private sector. Overall, the company’s growth strategy calls for 10 to 15 percent growth per year.
“We’re making our projections,” Leavitt said. “That’s continuing to fuel our growth as a company. That’s a combination of both our public and private work.”
The company is already working on several prominent projects throughout the Clark County area, and Leavitt said he’s also on the lookout for more future projects.
In Vancouver, Otak is working with Kirkland Development on the Hotel Indigo at the Vancouver Waterfront and also with Vesta Hospitality on the AC by Marriott hotel, located at Terminal 1 of the Port of Vancouver.
The company master planned and permitted the Columbia Palisades project currently underway at 192nd Avenue and Brady Road.
“We’ve got a number of multifamily housing projects and we do both affordable and market-rate,” Leavitt said.
Both the 15 West and 13 West apartment projects are under development by Otak as well.
Otak has also done a significant amount of work on water resources and stormwater management in the area, although those projects don’t often get a lot of news attention, Leavitt said.
“We get involved in fish passage projects and bank stabilization projects,” he said.
And in Ridgefield, Otak is managing the construction of the Ridgefield Outdoor Recreation Complex, a multi-field sports complex with six synthetic turf fields and playgrounds, a handful of small buildings and other amenities.