In the 1880s, a German emigrant named Herman Schoel brought his civil engineering knowledge to Birmingham to be part of the building boom taking place in the rapidly growing city. And his family descendants have never left.
Today, the Schoel Engineering Company is the fifth-generation iteration of what began in 1888 as H. Schoel, C.E. The original one-Schoel show has slowly but steadily grown over the past century-plus and now has more than 100 employees with additional offices in Huntsville — initiated through the acquisition of the civil engineering firm 4Site in 2019 — and Tuscaloosa, which opened in 2022.
Through it all, the company has remained primarily a family-owned operation. Herman Schoel’s son, Walter, was the first to continue running the business, followed by Walter Schoel Jr. The current lineup has Walter Schoel III as CEO, with his sons Taylor and Brooks serving as company president and CFO, respectively.
For a company to make it to the fifth generation is extremely rare. Various research studies indicate that less than 3% of family-run businesses are passed down to even a fourth generation, while fifth generations barely register statistically.
“We are very proud of being fifth generation. When we work with other companies, that’s a big talking point for us,” Brooks Schoel says. “But it also makes you a little bit nervous, because you don’t want to be the generation that messes it up. That makes us work extremely hard to keep the company going and make it even better.”
Despite the longevity, the Schoel name is not necessarily well known to the general public. That’s because unlike architects and contractors, the work done by civil engineers can often go unnoticed to people outside the construction industry.
“We don’t offer a tangible product,” Taylor Schoel says. “We design technical drawings and maps and surveys that require a specific education and a specific set of skills. Basically, we’re responsible for everything on a project outside the building. So that’s things like topography, drainage, erosion control, utility infrastructure, roads, parking lots, environmental impacts and protecting the surrounding properties from the construction activity to build the project.
“We also do a test-fit of the property. What will physically fit on the site? Is what the developer wants to build allowed through current entitlements, or will they have to get the site rezoned or go through other entitlement processes? Then what will it cost to do all this? Can the owner get the return they need to make the project viable?”
For decades, this process remained largely the same. Things began to change significantly in the latter half of the 20th century with the advancements in computer technology. According to Taylor Schoel, the company was at the forefront of adapting to this new approach, which is one of the reasons it was able to continue operating into a fifth generation.
“Our grandfather (Walter Schoel Jr.) was the first person in our family to go through higher education,” Taylor Schoel says. “He used that knowledge to start changing the way we did our business, then our dad (Walter Schoel III) sort of piggybacked off that when the computer age hit.
“Our dad had a Ph.D. in hydrology from the University of Alabama, and he did a lot of computer work early on. He spearheaded the shift from human drafting — developing maps and drawings by hand — to computerized drafting. The whole industry has made that shift, but our dad really spearheaded that with his education background.”
All of which has enabled a company that began in the 19th century to thrive into the 21st century. In addition to numerous neighborhood and municipality developments, Schoel has worked on several major projects, including Protective Stadium, Regions Field, the Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children and Vulcan Park — all in Birmingham — as well as the Honda Manufacturing plant in Lincoln.
But possibly the biggest development for the company in recent years has taken place internally. Beginning in 2020, Schoel expanded its ownership to include people from outside the family. While the majority of the business is still family held, the ownership group now includes five non-family members.
“Opening up to outside owners has been a major change for us,” Taylor Schoel says. “As we’ve grown and tried to attract new folks to join us, providing the opportunity for ownership has been an important push for us.”
James Parsons was the first of these new owners. Parsons started at Schoel shortly after graduating from Auburn University in 2008 and worked closely with Walter Schoel III on projects over the ensuing decade. He helped the company acquire 4Site in 2019, joined the ownership team in 2020, then was named chief operating officer in 2023.
“My goal is to continue the Schoel legacy,” Parsons says. “I learned a lot from working with Walter, and one of the first things he said was to spend the client’s money like it’s your own. So don’t spend money on a project that costs too much or just isn’t feasible.
“Their definition of value is not measured in dollars. It’s measured in engineering excellence and taking care of clients. Understanding a client’s vision and talking very honestly with them when they have a bad idea or something isn’t going to work. Be very upfront and tell them. That’s what has kept the company so viable for all these years. They truly understand how to take care of people.”
Taylor Schoel says that element will continue to be the primary goal for the company moving forward, even as it continues to evolve with a new generation leading the way.
“We have a number of experienced people in leadership roles, but our management team is relatively young with a lot of folks in their 30s,” Taylor Schoel says. “So, we have a lot of goals to see what we can do and where the business can go.
“The main ingredients to our success are staying technically sound and excellent through robust training and hiring. And we have a big focus on business development and client service. We want people to hire us because we’re good at what we do, but also because they trust us. And you build that trust through relationships. If we do those things, then we should continue to grow and have success.”
Perhaps even into a sixth generation of Schoels.
Cary Estes is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the February 2024 issue of Business Alabama.