The Legacy and Future of Universal Engineering Sciences
He is as sharp and enthusiastic about his business at 83 as he must have been when he launched the company in Merritt Island fifty-two years ago. In 1964, Universal Engineering Sciences was a one-man operation headquartered in office space rented at a sewer plant in a housing subdivision.
Today, the Orlando-based consulting engineering firm that Seymour (Sy) Israel founded all those years ago has branched out to embrace trend and technology, specializing in geotechnical engineering, environmental sciences, construction materials testing and inspections services.
With more than 600 employees and 18 offices strategically located throughout Florida and Georgia, it’s a marvel to consider that UES continued to grow steadily through the boom and bust cycles of a half-century, all the while retaining a large cadre of skilled employees throughout those years. Placed prominently in their lobby is a display celebrating the employees who have been with the company 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 and even over 35 years! One reason could be that to Sy, they aren’t employees—to this patriarch they are “part of the family.”
This type of employee loyalty pays dividends that are firm that Seymour (Sy) Israel founded all those too abundant to list. The most significant among them is years ago has branched out to embrace trend evidenced in the quality of the services provided by the company: Universal was again ranked among Engineering News-Record’s Top 500 Design Firms for 2016, the only Florida firm on the list. Quite an accomplishment, to be sure, but the bar is set high. UES has been on the Top 500 listing for the past 31 years running. Their unique family-style inclusion towards employees and customer- first approach has helped spur Universal’s growth, right along with the growth of the region.
From the Ground Up
Mark Israel, Sy’s son, who has served as company president since 2001, earned his Engineering degree at Tulane and his M.B.A. at Rollins. He seems to have as much pride in his father and the company he forged, as his father obviously has in him. “I suppose one reason my dad and I connect with our people is we have both done their jobs,” Mark explained. “It is hard work, but it isn’t foreign to us, as my father and I both were out in the field for years and we appreciate what it takes to do the job. That builds a synergy all the way through the ranks that we never want to lose; we don’t have a blue collar- white collar disconnect here.”
The senior Israel believes he may have caught the entrepreneurial bug from his father. “My father was a great business mentor for me; he owned a local meat market, leaving home at 5am and returning after 6pm, six days a week. But,” Sy adds with a smile, “He wouldn’t let me step foot in the place because he told me he didn’t want me to work that hard. After retiring he had two or three small hotels in South Beach, and my mother was in real estate. I thought about working with him in the hotel business, but the market was pretty dry in the late 1950’s.”
Instead, he took a job with a national engineering firm and eventually ran their office out of Ft. Pierce. While working on the Treasure Coast in the 1960’s, he noticed the booming growth going on in the Space Coast. Sy recalled, “I told the company I was working for, ‘I need to move the office north to Brevard, that is where the business is.’” When the company didn’t want to act on his recommendation, he decided to launch out on his own. His father agreed to underwrite him for $600 a month for one year, which he only drew for ten months before he was able to support his young family from the young company.
“Eventually we were able to dominate the Brevard market, through professionalism and determination. I remember one engineering company that did a lot of work in the area, but they were happy with who they were working with. So I went by that firm every day and asked, ‘How are you doing? Do you have any work for me?’ ‘No, no, no,’ the owner always replied. After forty-five days, dropping by every day, he said, ‘I’m going to give you a job just to get rid of you.’”
It is a formula that allowed UES to move into metro Orlando in the 1970’s and ride the growth tsunami across the state. Mark commented on his early connection to the company, “I always wanted to be a part of this business, but it was the family dimension that attracted me. If my dad had been a florist, I probably would be a florist, a terrible one mind you. Other boys wanted cowboy boots, I wanted engineering work boots. When my friends were flipping burgers, working for Universal always made me feel like I was making a difference and it still does.”