It is an understatement to say that 2021 was difficult. The continuing — and unpredictable — effects of the Covid pandemic rattled around the commonwealth's economy. But if there is one word that could describe the secret to the success of the 2022 Fast 50, it is: Pivot.
Successful enterprises found ways to reinvent how they produced their product lines or service offerings. And as this year's Fast 50 makes clear, many companies, in many sectors, were up to the task.
High-growth enterprises, ranked by revenue change from 2019 to 2021, ranged from building materials suppliers to cybersecurity defenders to financial planners, among many other lines of business. New work flows made a difference. So did improving talent acquisition and retention — something that was most important during the "Great Resignation."
In the following Q&As, we talked to the companies that landed in spots 2 through 10 on this year's list. They all saw triple-digit growth from 2019 to 2021. Still, they are keeping their eyes on the future.
We asked them questions tailored to their business models and connected to the vagaries of the market. Take the time to read their answers. They are the voices of success.
No. 2: Brewer Airport Toyota
Brewer Airport Toyota, a full-service automobile dealership in Moon Township, confounded expectations and overcame the obstacles imposed by a continuing supply chain squeeze in the automotive industry to grow its revenue 293% from 2019 to 2021 to $90.6 million, landing it at No. 2 on the 2022 Fast 50.
That stands in stark contrast to the 12.4% decline in the number of cars sold in the U.S. in that same time period.
According to Scott Brewer, company president, key to the dealer's success was the outstanding performance of its 82 employees, a focus on teamwork, flexibility and a strong emphasis on meeting the needs of clients in a difficult time.
One theme for the biggest opportunity/challenge companies faced last year was adaptability. How did you get your staff to internalize the need to be more nimble?
We were fortunate with our staff buy-in with the changes that we made. Because the state of Pennsylvania forced auto sales departments to close in March of 2020, when we were allowed to resume selling, I think that everyone understood how dire the situation was. They all understood that the customer is at the top of our triangle and that their comfort and safety was a priority. Everyone embraced what we were doing, and they also saw the immediate impact to our business.
How did you execute on your plan in this difficult environment?
We are in a very competitive industry, so the only way to differentiate ourselves is to work hard and to find a way to say "yes," every day and every time. We are blessed with a great team that really cares. … In the end, the secret to our success has been the customer-first mentality and our team member execution.
How did you help staff adapt to the more difficult circumstances?
We tried to be as flexible as possible with our team members. We insisted on following the proper safety protocols and erred on the side of caution. We did not ask the staff to do anything that we weren't doing, and we all worked as a team. We asked a lot of questions as to how we could improve, and we put the best ideas to work.
So, 2021 is behind us. Has 2022 presented you with similar problems so far?
2022 has continued to be more of the same. … The good news is that the consumers are aware of the issues and are showing a great deal of patience and loyalty as we work to provide them with the vehicle of their choice.
Will you end up on next year’s Fast 50 based on 2022 sales?
We expect 2022 to be another good year. It will be a challenge to grow our business as much as we have the past few years, but we are confident that 2022 will still be very positive. We know that the demand is there.
Is the changing interest rate environment having an effect on your sales this year?
The changing interest rate environment will certainly have an impact. An auto is the second-biggest purchase that most people make; the majority of our customers finance or lease their cars. Fortunately, we have models that run from the low $20,000 range and up. … We also manage a diverse used car inventory with vehicles under $10,000. We try to have [new and used vehicles] for everyone.
No. 3: PGT Services
In times of crisis and change, the ability to adapt frequently defines the difference between disaster and success. The people at PGT Services clearly understand the critical importance of nimbleness and responsiveness on a cellular level. As a result, the company enjoyed 207% growth in revenue from 2019 to 2021, reaching $46 million last year and earning it third place on the 2022 Fast 50.
The changes have been across the board: Expanding the core business, engaging customers in new and creative ways, and understanding and responding to the needs of its 38 employees to enhance recruiting and retention in an increasingly competitive labor market, according to Justin D. Burgh, company vice president of sales/marketing/pricing.
What was once a fleet of flatbed trucks providing long-haul transportation of steel, pipe and building materials is now a multi-modal transportation services provider based in Edgeworth that can help fill the huge holes left by supply chain bottlenecks — in effect, turning crisis into opportunity.
You must have found yourself in the middle of the supply chain challenges of the past few years. Has it changed your business?
We no longer exist in a predictable transportation market. … It requires us to be flexible in our sales approach, pricing approach and our relationships with our carrier partners. Through this strategy, it has helped us to grow and build stronger relationships with new and existing key customers. As a flatbed transportation industry expert and resource, we’ve been able to provide solutions to our customers’ key supply chain issues and been a valuable resource to help them stay ahead of the curve.
What do you see in terms of industrial transportation going forward?
If industrial transportation is seen as an interdependent business process, we should be prioritizing the collaboration between carriers, manufacturers, shipping facilities and logistics companies. Companies that have been able to step away from the norm of hierarchy have been able to resolve issues and improve their services, and in turn, provide higher-quality products at a more efficient speed.
Many industries have had problems finding the correct candidates to fill their openings. Has that been a problem for you?
Over the past 18 months, finding quality talent to match our growth has definitely been a challenge. That said, by creating a culture that values our employees' growth personally, professionally and financially, we’ve been very successful at retaining all of our key employees. … Our recruiting processes and employee testimonies to potential new hires has created a successful model … to find high-quality talent that continues to foster our growth.
Do you see opportunities for growth that you didn’t have before the pandemic and the economic slowdown?
Before the pandemic, the majority of our business was contracted through 12-month long rates. … The lack of consistency in transportation practically eliminated 12-month rates and now spot bidding and quarterly bids are how business is handled. The quarterly bidding process seemed tedious at first, but we have been a better partner for our customers because of it. Each quarter, with greater confidence, we can look at a region and market and predict what rate will move the product. Providing a more accurate rate each quarter allows us to fulfill our partnership responsibilities on both ends and continue being a vital player in the supply chain.
No. 4: Piatt Sotheby's International Realty
Many real estate companies did well in the overheated environment of 2021 and early 2022, but the 198% revenue growth to $13.2 million experienced by Pittsburgh-based Piatt Sotheby's International Realty from 2019 to 2021 was above and beyond, landing it a No. 4 ranking on the 2022 Fast 50.
Growth of company headcount was even more explosive, as the number of employees grew from 10 in 2019 to 110 today.
Huge growth is probably not in the cards for 2022, but Chris Dickson, company president, believes the many adaptations the company made in response to the brave new world of real estate created in the era of Covid will put it in a very strong relative position going forward, no matter what happens to the broader economy.
The obvious question is how has the turbulence affected your business?
We have excelled. We were fortunate that real estate was the security that people turned to through these challenging times. … However, it was not done without challenges, and success required that brokerages and sales agents make many adjustments to how they operated. … [We grew] our capabilities of delivering a variety of high-quality virtual showing options with property and drone video and 3D photography, as well as digital marketing for our listings.
Was 2021 a more difficult one than 2020, and how is 2022 going so far?
Both years had their own challenges. In 2021 the challenges … shifted from the safety of showing measures and other pandemic-related issues to a low-supply and heavy-demand market … requiring a high level of negotiating and communication expertise. … Inflation, rising interest rates and emotional exhaustion for buyers has led to an easing of demand. However, Pittsburgh has always remained more resilient and stable during economic shifts than much of the rest of the country. … Our company is up in closed sales volume by 20% and closed units by 15%, outpacing the overall market, which is down 6.7% year to date.
How big an issue is the interest rate environment for your business?
It has definitely affected many first-time and move-up buyers who have seen their buying power decrease. However, while rates have seen their largest increase in many years, they remain lower than they have been since 2008. Overall, it is impacting the total amount of home sales, which are expected to be down 16% nationwide this year.
Do you find yourselves having to bring on a different kind of employee today than a decade ago?
While many of the required skills for a successful real estate sales agent remain the same, there are definitely new areas of expertise that agents in today’s market environment need to succeed. … The highly competitive, multiple-offer sales environment in the past couple years has required highly skilled negotiation capabilities. In addition … understanding and use of new technology, property staging, digital marketing strategies and video, as well as the ability to provide meaningful and comprehensive information to clients, [is required].
Does the anticipation of a recession have an effect on your business?
It will definitely affect the amount of home sales. However, with the exception of the 2008 recession, housing has remained a stabilizing factor in most recessions. … Existing home sellers are having to reset their expectations of pricing and speed of sale, but we do not anticipate any significant price depreciation.
No 5: Holland Mortgage Advisors
From 2019 to 2021, existing home sales saw a significant uptick, according to YCharts, to 6.1 million from 5 million, a roughly 20% increase.
During that same time frame, Robinson-based Holland Mortgage Advisors saw revenue growth of 183% to $19.6 million. That pace, which landed it at fifth place on the 2022 Fast 50, will not be possible this year, with inflation and interest rates heading up.
But with plans to continue attracting, training and retaining talented staff, which stands at 70 today, and an emphasis on controlled and managed growth, Holland Mortgage's President David Holland Jr. hopes to ride out the current challenges and position the independent mortgage banker to take advantage of the opportunities that arise on the other side.
After a long time of not having enough inventory to fill demand despite an advantageous interest rate environment, what effects are the Fed’s rising interest rates going to have on your business?
While some analysts are predicting another housing crisis similar to 2008, I think the more likely outcome is that the rate of housing price appreciation will slow from the 18% year-over-year we have seen recently. If housing appreciation does moderate, it would actually bring a more balanced marketplace, which could provide relief to many prospective homebuyers.
And what about the issue of inflation, real or anticipated?
Inflation is a double-edged sword for the real estate market. Inflation will put upward pressure on interest rates, which will make the cost to finance a new home more expensive. On the other hand, it will also put upward pressure on rents, which will make it more costly to be a renter. Conversely, once an individual becomes a homeowner, they will get the benefit of accumulating equity in their property through a combination of paying down their mortgage over time and real appreciation in the value of the home.
How will you remain focused on growth given the new realities?
We have seen a reduction in revenue year-over-year, but continue with our plans for controlled, managed growth by recruiting talent to our team.
What do you see looking forward? Do you see consumer demand for housing remaining robust?
The Millennial demographic is larger than the Baby Boomer generation, and Gen Z is even larger and are just now beginning to enter their homebuying years. They all have to live somewhere, so despite some headwinds in the real estate marketplace, it is hard to imagine that demand for housing will collapse.
Where are the opportunities going to come for you?
There are a lot of businesses and loan officers that got into the mortgage business during Covid because of the surge in demand. Many of those companies and loan originators will likely exit the business as demand tapers. We continue to focus on growing our business in a controlled, managed fashion, and expect to be strongly positioned to take advantage of the marketplace when conditions normalize.
Will you be on the Fast 50 next year?
Given the correction in the market, it is hard to imagine we will be on that list for this year.
No. 6: RareMed Solutions
Covid brought a laser focus — and massive expenditures — to medical research and innovation. But for RareMed Solutions, a company that provides a link between people with rare diseases and the treatment they need, the race for a vaccine and antivirals for the pandemic did not translate into as many life-saving therapies for its clients.
In fact, the attention on the pandemic meant a freeze in many other critical research and development efforts. Covid added a level of complexity in caring for patients who would be most vulnerable to the effects of the virus. Still, the company took on the challenge of filling a gap that can seem like a chasm to patients living with one of 6,000 rare diseases. And once the pandemic effects had peaked, RareMed, with its 185 employees, was able to resume its course, said Chairman and CEO Dr. Gordon J. Vanscoy.
Founded in 2018 and based in Collier, growth is built into RareMed's business model. Sales hit $11.1 million in 2021, an increase of 172% since 2019, making it No. 6 on this year's Fast 50 list.
How does RareMed provide services to individuals with rare diseases and challenging treatment and payment scenarios?
RareMed accelerates care for rare disease patients. The team is the vital care link between the health care center of excellence … where patients go to specialists to get diagnosed and initially treated for their rare and devastating condition, and the patient who travels home, often hundreds if not a thousand miles away. We are the hub for advanced biotech manufacturers who develop life-saving therapies and connect patients to specialty pharmacies. RareMed ensures that the patients are ideal for these biotech therapies, works with insurance companies to obtain coverage and monitors outcomes to ensure ideal results.
How does one learn to be an advocate for people with rare diseases?
RareMed was founded out of personal experience of being a health advocate for a family member who had a rare oncologic disease. Our associates look at their positions as more than a job. … Recruitment for employees (advocates) seeks compassionate people who are looking for more than a paycheck, people who are committed to a better good. Detailed training for such a role is done in-house by the leaders of the company, who were the architects of the national accreditation standards for rare disease pharmaceutical care.
How much technical knowledge must every advocate have?
We provide a concierge approach to managing patients. Although each patient may have one personal advocate, it is the collective expertise of the entire team … that funnels through to that individual case manager.
How do you go about vetting treatments for your clients?
Patients come to RareMed already, and often recently, diagnosed with a rare disease where a life-saving therapy was recently launched. … RareMed works diligently with specialists, hospitals, laboratories, insurance companies, manufacturers and the patient to insure that all factors are favorable for therapeutic impact.
Is growth an important part of your business plan?
Rapid and exponential growth is inherent in our business plan. Only 5% of the nearly 6,000 rare diseases have a treatment, but much of the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) pipeline is filled with new and emerging rare disease (orphan drug) therapies.
No. 7: Aspirant
Aspirant has had to manage its own accelerated growth while helping other companies deal with rapidly evolving technologies, a changing economy and increasing competition for top talent.
One key to its success in attracting highly skilled employees — its staff grew from 47 in 2019 to 200 in 2021 — was quickly recognizing the possibilities of the virtual workforce and subsequently expanding the geographic reach of its recruiting process beyond its Pittsburgh home. During that same time period, the company saw its revenue grow 166% from 2019 to 2021 to $32.7 million, placing it at No. 7 on the Fast 50.
Times of dramatic change present unique opportunities for consulting companies, said CEO Mike McClaine, as clients are constantly trying to adapt to stay on the cutting edge of trends. It is a challenge that Aspirant so far has had no trouble meeting.
The change in your revenue from 2019 to 2021 was significant. But you had an even greater percentage increase in staffing levels. How did you manage that?
When the pandemic hit, we were already 50% virtual. Many other companies had not made the virtual environment a part of their business model. As a result, when meeting in person became less common, we were able to take advantage of the opportunity that virtual recruiting offered. In fact, it was harder to sell our services than it was to recruit people in that time.
You are a consultancy. Did you find the nature of the assignments you worked with clients on changed in 2021? And how do you expect it to change in 2022?
Major changes in engagement types have occurred from 2020 to 2021, and the changes have continued through 2022. Digital transformation consulting and cloud transition are at the top of the list for almost every company. … Marketing and innovation consulting engagements have significantly increased due to the need for companies to change marketing, promotional, sales and innovation strategies as the economy has changed.
Has the dynamic interest rate environment had an effect on you and/or your clients?
Clients continue to push for longer pay terms, especially large corporations. This has been occurring for several years, but the return to higher interest rates increases the focus on terms again.
With your staff growing so much, have you changed the nature — experience, education — of the people you bring on?
Do you see that happening in the future? There are no changes to the type of talent we are looking for. … We are still looking to hire team members with strong consulting experience, expertise in specific functional areas and a client-focused mentality.
Since you are so virtual, how do you create a company culture that is strong, connecting staff who don't come into an office on any regular basis, if at all?
We do have coffee calls and virtual meetings, where people can see their colleagues. But one way that we connect with one another is our shared commitment to helping women and children survive abuse. It has led to a collaboration with the Women's Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, even to the point of developing apps that have been downloaded in all 50 states.
Does the dynamic nature of the economy present you with new opportunities, and what are they?
There is a tremendous need for organizational design and change management. … The transition to a virtual environment has led companies to ensure that their organizations and operating models are still fit for purpose. … With the competition for talent continuing to be extreme, our Recruiting Process Outsourcing business is seeing significant increases in demand.
Will you be on the Fast 50 list in a year?
No. 8: Claitman Engineering Associates Inc.
Claitman Engineering Associates Inc. is a full-service engineering firm operating in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia that designs solutions for the electrical power, HVAC, plumbing and fire protection needs of commercial real estate projects.
Like almost every company that has navigated pandemic-related operational challenges, Claitman relied on virtual work to get through. Zoom meetings for its 29 employees became second nature and helped keep problems to a minimum. But there was no avoiding the difficulties a virtual environment caused.
Despite the new realities, the company continued to grow rapidly — from $3.5 million in revenue in 2019 to $8.6 million in 2021, an increase of 144.5%. That growth landed Blawnox-based Claitman at No. 8 on this year's Fast 50 list. The company drew on its long-term relationships and existing client base, and on its solid reputation and effective marketing to nurture new clients.
Company Executive Vice President Ron Wuenstel does not expect the growth to continue in the near-term, however, as interest rates climb and the construction industry slows.
Given the level of your growth, it would seem the supply chain disruptions other industries faced did not present a large problem for you. What were among the other significant challenges you faced?
Remote work created inefficiencies in our work flow. Our industry requires close coordination between staff that is difficult when working remotely. We were able to overcome it by requiring daily virtual team meetings between project staff. This was not foolproof, and we estimate that projects were performed about 10% slower, thus reducing our margin.
You have expanded aggressively over the last few years, with a resulting shortfall of the professional staff you need. Do you expect to continue on this growth trajectory into the near future?
We do not see additional growth happening this year. Rising interest rates have slowed the construction industry, and we see our business slowing some this year.
Has the nature of the projects you work on changed in the past few years? For instance, has the federal infrastructure bill had an effect on your business?
No, our project nature has not really changed. Our growth was more related to our current clients understanding our capacity to produce a quality product in a timely manner, which created more opportunities with those established clients. This also led to adding new clients due to our solid reputation and marketing work. Our marketing push used our long-term relationships as a testament to our product, which attracted new clients.
Does your staff spend a lot of time on project sites?
We do not spend much time on construction sites. We do some construction management, but it is limited to initial project field observation and final punch listing efforts.
Are you spending more time training new staff to meet the needs of today’s projects?
We are continually providing training and continuing education opportunities to our staff. It is our opinion that staff career development is an important part of a successful design engineering firm. We want to keep our staff updated on current technologies that are related to the systems that we design. We also want them to have the latest tools they need to work as efficiently as possible.
No. 9: SVN Three Rivers Commercial Advisors Co.
Looking at the current conditions in his field, Jason Campagna, managing director of SVN Three Rivers Commercial Advisors Co., said succinctly, "Now wouldn't be a good time to enter into commercial real estate."
Rising interest rates and lack of inventory are leading to unrealistic client expectations and creating very difficult cross-currents. Keane George, managing director, has seen different market segments present challenges of different natures.
At the same time, the Pittsburgh-based commercial real estate brokerage looks to its seasoned workforce of 32, supported by what Campagna said is a clear grasp of relevant data, an ability to manage expectations and the skill to navigate rapidly changing circumstances and create opportunities. SVN's revenue in 2021 of $6.4 million, the result of growth of 118% from 2019 revenue of $2.9 million, resulted in a No. 9 rank on the 2022 Fast 50.
That success has SVN believing it is poised to take advantage of such opportunities, even in today's climate.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced in the last few years?
Lack of inventory to sell.
Has that applied to commercial as well as residential real estate?
For the most part, yes. However, unlike residential, there are many different asset types, and some have seen demand increase much more than others over the past couple of years. For example, for the past five-plus years, demand for multifamily assets (large and small) has skyrocketed, and the supply has been unable to keep up. On the flip side, the demand for office buildings (to buy) has not increased since the pandemic. The demand for leasing has also gone down, especially for office space in central business districts.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced in the last few years?
For many asset types, it has been finding deals to keep up with the demand. Most recently, the rising interest rates have pushed down values on investment property, making it difficult to achieve desired prices for sellers as their expectations remain high. [On the flip side], a lot of buyers are moving to the sidelines anticipating a price correction and softening of occupancy. In fact, buyers are reevaluating at 85%-90% of the most recent values.
Do you see the need to change your approach to business with the expectations of a recession heading our way?
Yes, with rising rates and a recession looming, we could see the market shift in favor of buyers.
If you were starting a commercial real estate company right now, is there one piece of the sector you would concentrate on — office, retail, industrial, residential?
Multifamily/industrial remain the hot sectors. More so, I would condition people for the concepts of foreclosures and short sales as a strategy to handle dispositions in a declining market.
No. 10: The Efficiency Network: TEN
The Efficiency Network: TEN, an independently operated subsidiary of Duquesne Light Holdings Inc., rounds out the Fast 50 top 10 with revenue growth of 115% between 2019 and 2021 to $51.4 million. At the same time, the number of employees jumped more than 30% to 47 from 35, and the Pittsburgh-based company added offices in Philadelphia and Harrisburg.
CEO Troy Geanopulos said the company, which provides energy efficiency projects and sustainability programs, operates on the premise that almost every business could be run more efficiently. And with efficiencies constantly being developed and improved, growth is pretty much built in. "Even customers who completed projects five years ago are coming back and asking about new technology," he said.
Your clients are from diverse industry sectors, including education, government, health care and commercial real estate. Which of your markets could use the most help in becoming more efficient?
In the short term, K-12 education will be an area where our services will be in the greatest demand. School districts are utilizing federal funding from the recent stimulus program to replace antiquated systems to make buildings healthier and more efficient. Many health care and higher education organizations are also very challenged by the impact of aging infrastructure and rising energy costs and are utilizing building efficiency projects to deliver critical energy projects. As the economy becomes more stable, I expect commercial real estate owners to embrace ESG-oriented projects to attract new tenants and improve their bottom line.
How far along are renewable energy solutions in terms of producing enough power to meet existing needs?
As of 2020, in Pennsylvania, renewables made up less than 5% of the fuel mix for power generation. A significant number of solar projects are proposed, so perhaps the level of renewable generation could double and make up closer to 10% of the fuel mix in the next five years.
You nearly doubled your revenue from 2019 to 2020, when the pandemic really got a grip on the economy. How did you do that?
Our growth is a direct result of staying focused on the needs of our customers. As an example, during the height of Covid, we recognized that public school districts would face significant challenges in ensuring the safe return of their students to classrooms. Many school district buildings have HVAC systems that far exceeded their useful lives, causing inferior indoor air quality. We responded to this need by developing the capacity to deliver projects, oftentimes funded by federal stimulus funds, to quickly and efficiently improve educational environments.
Doesn’t your work involve on site visits; weren’t your employees worried?
Our employees were naturally worried, as were our customers. However, we created disciplined procedures based on best practices from OSHA and the building trades to ensure their health and safety. We had frequent all-employee virtual meetings to discuss concerns, listen to feedback and provide the resources they needed to work safely.
Do we need to build more power plants?
Our region has a sufficient level of power generation and can support increased electrification to facilitate a sustainable energy future. The key questions for our customers are how best to make their energy use more efficient and cost effective.
Is there a limit to how much the energy efficiency marketplace can grow; if so, what is it?
I like to think it is unlimited. I have been in this business my entire 25-year career, and I have not seen it slow down yet. Customer motivation has evolved over time. … The motivation is no longer limited to financial impact. Environmental impact and sustainability are now legitimate drivers. … This trend is a long time coming, but I am grateful the day has come.