Strong Foundation Allowed Rock Gap Engineering to Grow

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, December 24, 2010

Three years ago, Keith Keetso had no employees, a couple of small jobs lined up and a full-time position as an electrical engineer that he was about to quit to follow his dream.

That dream is already being realized.

Keetso relocated the office earlier this year to make room for a rapidly growing staff, and is already at capacity. Even in the downturn, his business has managed to swell in revenue about 300 percent every year.

He started Rock Gap Engineering, an architecture and engineering consulting firm, because “I didn’t want to be 60 years old and say I hadn’t tried,” he says.

He won’t disclose how old he is now, he says with a grin, but he started thinking about launching a company around 2003. He established Rock Gap as a legal entity in 2005, but kept his day job at AECOM until Dec. 31, 2007.

Keetso started small, focusing solely on electrical engineering. As he began hiring, he broadened Rock Gap’s scope. Today, Keetso has 18 employees specializing in electrical, mechanical and civil engineering; architecture; planning; construction administration; building commissioning; and project management and controls.

In August, Keetso opened a Phoenix branch, which has three employees and will serve as the construction arm of the company.

Rock Gap’s secret to success has been strategy—knowing where the company wanted to end up and where it could start. Keetso says he always intended Rock Gap to be a government contractor, but eased into it with tribal work. He is American Indian and grew up on the Navajo reservation in Tuba City, Ariz., so he says stepping into tribal work was natural for him.

In January 2008, 100 percent of Rock Gap’s work was tribal. Now 80 percent of it is with the federal government and 20 percent is tribal, even though tribal work has grown tenfold.

One of Rock Gap’s smaller projects was providing electrical and mechanical engineering support for the Isleta Education Center. On a larger scale, the company’s working with the U.S. Department of Defense to rewire three naval bases. Rock Gap’s fees generally range from $80,000 to $500,000.

Keetso worked for most of his senior-level employees in past jobs. Combined, they have more than 200 years of experience in their fields.

That allows Keetso to spend most of his time traveling to garner new clients. Rock Gap has projects in Seattle, Chicago, Phoenix, Virginia, Italy and Turkey.

“As an engineer, I’m not trained to sell anything,” he says, “but I’ve learned to do it.”

The most crucial thing he’s learned, he says, is to be honest “about what you can and can’t deliver.”

Learning how to sell also means learning how to speak differently to each audience.

“Europeans’ personal space is much smaller than Americans’,” he says, “and the same is true with Native Americans; personal space needs to be adjusted.”

Rock Gap was recognized by the New Mexico Native American Business Enterprise Center as the Native American Business of the Year in May. Michael Peacock, the associate director of the organization, credits the company’s success to the quality of its staff and its aggressive marketing strategy.

“They’re targeting local cities, government agencies and the private sector, too,” he says, “and Native American projects throughout the country. They don’t limit themselves; they’re very mobile.”

Like any startup, Rock Gap has faced its share of hurdles.

“I made a lot of mistakes,” Keetso says.

Those included failing to keep in touch with past clients. Now, no matter how large the company or its clients get, he makes a point of trying to keep even its smallest ones.

A mistake that nearly brought down the company was due to not researching how much it truly cost to hire someone, once the price of equipment is factored into a new hire.

“I hired six people in a month,” he says, “and it almost took us down.”

Keetso also has learned how to delegate. At Small Business Administration (SBA) classes he took this year, he found that failure to delegate is the main reason a lot of startups go under. As a result of the class, he’s given more responsibility to Brian Sullivan, Rock Gap’s engineering manager, and says it’s one of the best moves he’s made.

Rock Gap’s 2009 revenue topped out at $600,000, but Keetso predicts that by the end of 2010, the company will have pulled in about $2 million for the year just at the Albuquerque location. He expects the Phoenix office could generate an even higher number next year. The increasing revenue is being funneled back into the business for things like more staff.

If things keep going Keetso’s way, he plans to open a third branch somewhere on the East Coast in the not-too-distant future. Eventually, he hopes to sell 51 percent of the company to a tribally owned entity. Rock Gap is classified by the SBA as an 8(a) company, or small disadvantaged business. The classification makes it easier for the company to land federal projects, but the program only lasts nine years. Tribally owned entities can obtain the same classification without an expiration date.

Keeping the company 100 percent American Indian-owned is important to Keetso.

“I grew up on a reservation,” he says, “and my parents told me the world was much bigger.”

As a kid, he didn’t believe them.

He says a lot of Native people are surprised to hear that Rock Gap is wholly American Indian-owned.

“It’s nice for Native people to see that it can be done,” he says, “to tell kids to shoot for the stars.”

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Vital Stats:

  • Company: Rock Gap Engineering
  • Owner: Keith Keetso
  • Address: 3737 Princeton NE, Suite 100, Albuquerque 87107
  • Phone: (505) 344-2366
  • Website: rockgap.com
  • Employees: 19 in Albuquerque, 22 total
  • 2010 revenue: about $2 million

  

Strategies:

1. Start small. Every time Rock Gap expands into a new area, it starts with tribal work and gradually grows into federal work.

2. Hire experienced employees, and don’t hesitate to delegate to them.

3. Keep your name out there. Rock Gap’s marketing is all based on Keetso’s traveling and networking.