Malcolm Pirnie, Inc.
Malcolm Pirnie, Inc.
Sales: $203 million (2000 est.)
NAIC: 541330 Engineering Services
Malcolm Pirnie, Inc. has been in the business of cleaning water and wastewater for more than 100 years. Named after one of its pioneering sanitary engineers, the company is management-owned, with its corporate headquarters located north of New York City in White Plains, New York. Over the years, Malcolm Pirnie has moved beyond water services to offer a wide range of solutions to environmental problems, working for both the public and private sectors, in the United States and around the world. The company’s staff of more than 1,300 engineers, scientists, architects, and consultants service at least 3,000 clients.
The forefather of Malcolm Pirnie was one of the country’s first sanitary engineers, Allen Hazen. He was born on a Vermont farm in 1869 and earned a B.S. from the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts before studying sanitary chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At the time, there were very few students interested in the field of sanitary engineering and little recognition for the importance of the field. It was only in the 1870s that Dr. Robert Koch and Dr. Joseph Lister proved that microorganisms in water supplies could cause disease. In 1886 the Massachusetts legislature voted to protect the purity of the state’s inland water, and as a result the Board of Health established an experiment station in Lawrence to conduct research on water purification and sewage treatment. This move represented a major step in the growth of the sanitary field. Although he was not yet 20 years old, Hazen was named the facility’s first director. The group conducted research on the effect of sand filters on treating sewage and improving municipal water supplies, which in addition to being troubled by poor taste and a disagreeable odor often spread deadly diseases such as typhoid and cholera. These filters were essentially large patches of land, an acre or two in size, where water or sewage would seep through layers of sand to remove impurities. Europe led the way in this technology. By the end of the 1800s, some 11 million people in England would be supplied by filtered water, 4.6 million in Germany, 1.4 million in Holland, and more than three million in other European countries.
Hazen gained further recognition for his work on sewage disposal at the World’s Columbian Exhibition at Chicago in 1893. He then traveled around Europe and studied at the Dresden Polytechnic Institute, accumulating experiences that contributed greatly to the writing of his first book, The Filtration of Public Water-Supplies, published in 1895. In that same year, he returned to the United States and teamed up with another sanitary engineer, Alfred F1. Noyes, to open a private consulting practice in Boston, specializing in the design of large municipal filtered water systems. When Noyes died the following year, Hazen continued the business alone. He moved his offices to New York City in 1897 to work on the first modern filtration system in the United States, a slow-sand water-filter plant in Albany that treated the highly polluted Hudson River. Within a year, deaths in Albany caused by typhoid fever fell by 80 percent. It was a time of considerable advances in the field. Sanitary engineers would then introduce coagulating agents and settling basins to eliminate some solid matter before water reached the new rapid sand filters, which could process much higher volumes than previous systems. Chlorine also was introduced in the early 1900s to fight disease.
As a leading figure in sanitary engineering, Hazen was in great demand throughout the world. In 1904 he formed a partnership with a fellow student from MIT, George C. Whipple, who also became a professor of sanitary engineering at Harvard. In 1911 a young Harvard graduate student joined Hazen and Whipple. His name was Malcolm Pirnie. Five years later he was made a partner of the firm, which was now known as Hazen, Whipple & Fuller. In time it would become known as Hazen, Everett & Pirnie. By 1929 Pirnie and Hazen disagreed on methodology and Pirnie struck out on his own, establishing the business Malcolm Pirnie Civil Engineer. While traveling with his daughter in 1930, Hazen died suddenly, and Pirnie essentially inherited the old partnership, receiving the company’s books and records, as well as its slate of projects. Pirnie persevered through the Depression years, building up a staff of sanitary engineers, supported by a lone designer/draftsman. His son, Malcolm Pirnie, Jr., also began working for the company, which by 1940 had a staff of 25 working in offices located in Richmond, Virginia, and Miami Beach, Florida, in addition to the New York headquarters. After World War II, when Pirnie focused on military projects, the firm became a partnership known as Malcolm Pirnie Engineers.
Pollution Becoming a Concern in Post-World War II Era
The company was narrowly focused on water supply and treatment facilities, but a growing national concern about the environment would begin to open up new areas of activity. The Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was the first piece of federal law to address the subject, followed by additional legislation in 1956. In response, Pirnie turned more of its attention to the treatment of wastewater and sewage. Not only did it build municipal systems, Pirnie worked for the private sector, in particular heavy-polluting paper mills. The company eventually would design water treatment facilities for more than a hundred U.S. paper mills.
It was the publication of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring that would cause a public outcry and lead to the rise of the environmental movement. It was Carson, in fact, who added profound new dimensions to the word “environment,” which would never be the same after she wrote: “The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers and sea with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.” The book was so explosive at the time, that even before it was officially published, President Kennedy promised an investigation and Congress established a score of committees to study “environmental problems.” The first Clean Air Act was passed in 1963, followed in 1965 by the first Clean Water Act. In 1969, when an oil platform spewed 235,000 gallons of black crude oil over 30 miles of pristine beaches in the affluent community of Santa Barbara, California, the environmental movement gained rich, politically connected converts. The following year marked the first celebration of Earth Day. Although viewed skeptically by both the political left and right, Earth Day, at the very least, brought together a number of diverse groups. The organization that was created to coordinate Earth Day, Environmental Action, would become a major Washington lobby. Also in 1970 President Nixon signed the law that created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Finally, the country would have a single entity charged with monitoring and enforcing environmental protection laws.
Malcolm Pirnie, Sr., who passed away in 1967, was not alive to see the rise of the EPA. His son assumed the chairman’s role in 1970, the same year that the company incorporated. Named as president was John H. Foster, who would later become CEO. By now, sanitary engineering was evolving into environmental engineering, and the firm’s services were never more in demand. A 1977 study estimated that 95 percent of the country’s river basins was polluted. Pirnie expanded staff to cover the many disciplines required in modern project teams, and in 1976 moved into larger quarters in White Plains, New York. It was also during the 1970s that the nation became aware of a small Niagara Falls-area bedroom community called Love Canal, which was plagued by an unusually high number of birth defects, miscarriages, cancer, epilepsy, and other diseases. The situation went from tragedy to scandal when it was revealed that city officials had concealed the fact that the community had been built on land that served as a chemical waste dump for the area’s largest employer, Hooker Chemical Company. The environmental movement gained a new political force in the so-called “angry mom” constituency, which applied even more pressure on lawmakers. The result would be legislation commonly known as the “Superfund,” an appropriation earmarked for the cleanup of toxic waste sites and oil spills. Pirnie’s work at Love Canal would lead to an increasing number of contracts to clean up hazardous waste.
During the early 1980s the environmental movement was slowed somewhat by the Reagan administration. The EPA, in fact, operated a year without a new administrator being named. According to Hal K. Rothman in his book, Saving the Planet, “The Reagan administration also worked to curtail EPA’s reach…. Enforcement standards were set so that the $1.6 billion Superfund would not be spent. This meant that the agency generally did not pursue law enforcement, instead resorting to sometimes fruitless negotiation with polluters…. Later, in 1986, Reagan signed Executive Order 12580, which gave the Department of Justice the right to disapprove any EPA enforcement action against a federal facility. The Justice Department held that the executive branch entities could not sue each other, effectively ending EPA’s ability to enforce its mandate on federal lands.”
Client satisfaction, integrity and quality work—they’re what Malcolm Pirnie is all about. It’s the way we do business. It’s what our employees take pride in .
Congressional hearings then revealed that the Pentagon itself recognized 4,611 contaminated sites at 761 military bases, many of which posed grave threats to local communities. In October 1986 Congress re-authorized the Superfund cleanup program, allocating $9 billion for the next five years. As a large number of military bases were closed at the end of the Cold War, there was even more need for the services of companies such as Pirnie to clean up the hazardous wastes left by munitions and military fuels. In 1992 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted Pirnie to help in cleaning military bases for four years in five EPA regions. In fiscal 1993 alone, the military planned to spend $537 million on active military bases, as well as an additional $120 million on closed bases.
Malcolm Pirnie, Jr., retired in 1987 but the company was not at a loss for leadership. It was staffed by a number of executives with many years of service. John Foster became chairman, and Dr. Paul L. Busch took over as president in 1988 and was named CEO in 1990. After earning undergraduate and master’s degrees from MIT and a doctorate from Harvard, Busch would spend his entire 38-year career at Pirnie. When he died in 1999, he was succeeded as chair and CEO by Garret P. Westerhoff, who had been with Pirnie for 34 years. Foster, who served 25 years in top management positions at the company, became chairman emeritus. Westerhoff had been instrumental in an effort to reorganize the business on a regional basis to stimulate growth and provide a geographic balance.
Offering Expanded Services in the 1990s
To meet future environmental problems, Pirnie broadened its capabilities in the final years of the 20th century to deal with such areas as wetland restoration, watershed impacts, energy management, information technology systems, telecommunications installations, and regulation compliance. Because of the complexity of modern mergers and business alliances, which can potentially give consultants an interest in the projects on which they work, Pirnie made efforts to maintain its independence and thereby ensure the integrity of its work. To reassure its municipal clients, for instance, Pirnie pledged not to interact, directly or indirectly, with any clients involved in privatizing utilities.
Because Pirnie was privately held, owned by senior management, it did not face shareholder pressure, nor did it have to release financial information (although the Westchester County Business Journal estimated the company generated approximately $190 million in 2000 and had been growing at an annual clip of 10 percent). The company was essentially free to expand at its own pace, mostly through internal efforts, adding offices and staff as its business increased. With more than 100 years in business and a sterling record, Pirnie had no reason to go into debt to acquire other companies and boost its revenues. The company estimated that 85 percent of its clients were repeat customers. In September 2000, Pirnie made a rare stab at external growth when it acquired Red Oak Consulting for an undisclosed sum. Red Oak offered services that would help Pirnie assist utilities to improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Operating as a division of Pirnie, Red Oak also would continue to serve its other clients, including Fortune 500 companies. The business was established in 1995 by clinical psychologist Stuart Kantor, who had gained experience helping corporate executives with leadership skills. He elected to merge with Pirnie because of a personal commitment to the environment and the opportunity to work in that field. For Pirnie, Red Oak was a way to achieve a goal: Introducing new technologies was not enough, if the people in charge were not changed as well. The company was founded by engineers and primarily owned by engineers, for whom the bottom line involved far more than just making money.
Red Oak Consulting.
Ecology and Environment, Inc.; CH2M Hill Ltd.; Montgomery Watson.
- Allen Hazen & Alfred Noyes establish sanitary engineering firm.
- Malcolm Pirnie, Sr., goes to work for Hazen.
- Pirnie becomes a partner in the firm.
- Pirnie establishes his own business following growing disagreements with Hazen.
- After Hazen’s sudden death, Pirnie takes over the books and records of the partnership.
- Pirnie dies.
- The company is incorporated; Malcolm Pirnie, Jr., becomes chairman.
- Headquarters moves to White Plains, New York.
- Malcolm Pirnie, Jr., retires.
Khaasru, B.Z., “Malcolm Pirnie Acquires Red Oak Consulting,” Westchester County Business Journal, September 4, 2000, p. 3.
“Malcolm Pirnie Jr. Dies at Age 79,” ENR, February 3, 1997, p. 26.
Rothman, Hal K., Saving the Planet, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000.
Silverstein, Ken, and Carol L. Bowers, “Water: Watering a Growing Nation,” Utility Business, June 2000, pp. 62–69.