Leadership People and Companies

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Christiane Nelson and Mark Israel

UES Helps Move Florida into the Future

By Todd Persons

The walls at the sprawling corporate headquarters of Universal Engineering Sciences Inc. (UES) in Orlando are not covered with fancy art, but rather company mission statements and mottos like Founder and Chairman Seymour “Sy” Israel’s favorite: “Whatever it takes.” There are also handmade displays commemorating the geotechnical consulting firm’s 20 branch offices participating in community events throughout Florida and the Southeast U.S.

A notable exception to the homey displays hangs along a narrow hallway behind the brightly lit reception area. Stretching some 20 feet is a trail of 8-by-12-inch aerial maps taped together. While the maps will never be considered art, the linked sheets tracing the path of the proposed high-speed rail line from Cocoa to Orlando International Airport (OIA) paint an exciting picture of the future, both for UES and for Central Florida.

“I get excited every time I walk by the route map,” said Christiane Nelson, a UES engineer whose office is at the end of a nearby hallway. “It represents the future of connectivity for Florida, especially for the tourism industry. Imagine tourists getting from OIA to Miami in less than three hours.”

While the growth of UES as a company has been traveling fast, business wasn’t always so high speed. The firm literally took root underground more than a half-century ago when the founder and his one-man drill rig were hired to clean out a clogged septic system on Merritt Island.

Fast-forward to 2019, when UES can lay claim as the largest family-owned company of its kind in the United States, with more than 800 employees offering clients an ever-increasing array of engineering services as it closes in on $90 million in annual revenues. The founder’s son, Mark Israel, is now the firm’s president and CEO, with his dad at age 86 still an important daily presence at corporate headquarters.

One of the firm’s fastest-growing service areas is the transportation segment, where UES offers consulting services that touch almost every mode of moving Florida’s burgeoning population from one place to another.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rail titans Henry B. Plant and Henry Flagler strung train tracks up and down both Florida coasts — lines that would drive a golden economic spike into the Sunshine State’s fledgling tourism and snowbird industries. Today, developing and executing new methods of moving people around Florida for business and pleasure are major money-makers for farsighted companies like UES.

During the last decade, the firm has assisted in building highways and bridges in Tampa, airports in the Panhandle, a tunnel in Miami and the first section of a high-speed rail system in South Florida that will eventually connect with a multimodal “planes, trains and automobiles” complex at OIA, another UES project. 

“UES has carved out a major niche in transportation,” Mark Israel said. “This sector continues to increase in importance and has evolved onto numerous platforms.”  An increase in toll roads as well as public/private partnerships in transportation have created new opportunities for UES to increase and diversify its projects. “The exciting thing is that we’ve been able to move easily between roads, rail and airports,” Israel said.

Standing squarely at the intersection of the firm’s growth and its growing menu of people-mover services is Nelson, one of an increasing cadre of female civil engineers in a profession historically inhabited by men. Initially hired by UES 14 years ago as a young engineering intern, Nelson worked in a variety of jobs as the company began to expand beyond its core of geotechnical engineering, environmental, materials testing and threshold inspection, services that were primarily offered to private land development clients.

Transportation was becoming one of those new growth drivers for the company, and Nelson was ready to jump on board. She began earning her transportation credentials working as the firm’s project manager on the new SunRail system, Central Florida’s first commuter train, which runs on a north-south path from Volusia to Osceola counties with stops throughout the metro Orlando area.

With active encouragement from the Israels, Nelson continued managing the SunRail project while she earned her civil engineering degree from the University of Central Florida and balanced a family life with husband Scot, an engineer designer, and 6-year-old son Cooper, who was convinced his mom was learning how to become a real train engineer who could operate a SunRail locomotive.

Sorry, Cooper, Mom has had to settle for being an integral member of the increasingly busy transportation team at UES, a group that also consists of John Barker, Jeff Pruett and Josh Adams. In addition to SunRail, the team has worked on the initial South Florida leg of Virgin Trains USA, formerly Brightline, the high-speed rail line that will make tracks up the east coast to Cocoa at 125 miles per hour before taking a dog leg left and ending up at OIA’s South Terminal in the airport’s new multimodal center.

If, as anticipated, UES is tapped to work as a subcontractor under Granite Construction on the 40-mile east-west Virgin Trains extension from Cocoa to the outskirts of OIA, the company will continue to play an integral role in the $3 billion-plus rail project for the next three years or more.

Virgin Trains President Patrick Goddard has said plans include future stops at Walt Disney World, a tie-in with SunRail, and another rapid ride from Orlando to Tampa. UES will also continue to have a presence at OIA’s South Terminal complex as an owner’s representative overseeing structural inspections.

“Universal’s transportation team is unique,” Nelson said, “as are the challenges of a growing population in Florida that wants to travel safely as well as quickly. Engineers have to consider the effects and changes in planning life safety on both transportation and infrastructure.”

In her position of addressing these special transportation challenges, Nelson gives special thanks for the support she has received from Mark Israel and his father. “I’ve had many wonderful mentors here,” she said. “Hopefully, I can pass it forward by motivating other young women to pursue engineering careers and have confidence in themselves.”

“Christiane has earned it,” Mark Israel insists.   

UES continues to reap growth benefits from its extensive transportation work throughout Florida. The company has expanded its office in Atlanta and recently opened a new DC Metro branch outside of Washington. UES is currently listed No. 197 in the Engineering News-Record Top 500 Design Firms in the U.S. 

This article appears in the July 2019 issue of  i4 BUSINESS.

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i4 Business

i4 Business magazine has become one of the most trusted voices for and about the Central Florida business community. Each month through our print and digital platforms, we provide access to meet, to learn from and to learn about some of the incredible entrepreneurs and business leaders who are shaping our region.

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