Philadelphia company makes sure construction projects stay honest

As walk-ups go, the headquarters of Talson Solutions L.L.C. is a cardiac workout: The climb from the doorstep of 306 Market St. to the homey confines of the consulting business Robert S. Bright founded 10 years ago is 64 steps.

On his mother's first visit, she had to sit down for a breather partway up, Bright said.

Then again, he doesn't make a living as a property scout. His expertise is finding waste and other forms of trouble in construction projects, from cost overruns to fraud.

Locally, he has been hired for audit and construction-monitoring services on a number of prominent jobs, including Lincoln Financial Field, Citizens Bank Park, and Comcast Center.

Internationally, the company is assisting the Office of Inspector General in planning and conducting the audits of the $5.2 billion Panama Canal expansion project, expected to run through October 2014.

"The clearest indication of a reputation is who your clients are and [if] you see repeat clients," said Peter S. Longstreth, president of Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. PIDC used Bright's company on both stadium projects.

"He passes that test," Longstreth said.

Landing work is itself a challenge.

Talson is a company of 14 employees and more than $2 million in annual revenue in a field dominated by accounting behemoths such as Deloitte L.L.P., PricewaterhouseCoopers L.L.P., KPMG L.L.P., and Ian White. There are also an increasing number of small boutique firms.

To illustrate the growing competitiveness, Bright noted that Talson recently lost out on a project in Las Cruces, N.M., that had attracted nine bidders.

"Some of them were people we know, some were new folks," he said.

All are responding to a demand for transparency Bright attributes to the Bernie L. Madoff scandal and the risk-management debacle on Wall Street that brought down Bear Stearns Cos. Inc. and Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc.

Those spending big money on capital projects - such as government agencies, private developers, and the boards of directors of hospitals and universities - come to Bright wanting assurances, he said. His initial response: "What's keeping you up at night?"

Their answers are as wide-ranging as the trouble-shooting Talson offers: Does the contract adequately protect against cost overruns? Are contractors following project specifications? Are jobs being let on time? Is the project on track to meet deadline? Are we getting ripped off?

While declining to provide details, Bright said his work had uncovered criminal activity that led to jail terms.

Mostly, those hiring capital-project consultants - often these are people whose primary jobs are something other than construction - want peace of mind, and somebody other than themselves handling the sticky business of questioning contractors about their work.

"It was really nice to have independent perspective," Jim Lutz said of Talson's role as construction auditor on the $250 million Comcast Center, completed in 2008. Lutz is senior vice president of development for Liberty Property Trust, which has an ownership stake in the 56-story office tower and manages it.

The project was "well managed" by general contractor L.F. Driscoll and resulted in no major problems or surprises, Lutz said. Still, he said, he found it reassuring to have "another set of eyes looking at it from an accounting side."

Lutz said Bright had expressed concern early on about the pace of the project. Work wasn't being contracted out at a rate Bright believed was needed to complete the Comcast Center on time and avoid budget overruns and other problems. That was because tenant Comcast Corp. initially was supposed to occupy about 500,000 of the building's 1.2 million square feet. The media company then committed to taking about 1 million square feet, Lutz said.

"That required a number of changes to the building," he said. "Having somebody else that can look at that and make sure it's all adding up right gives you a lot of comfort and keeps everyone on their toes."

That's especially important on public projects, said PIDC's Longstreth: "It's the public's money."

For Bright, 50, of West Mount Airy, a career of numbers-crunching and construction-related sleuthing seems a natural fit. He has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. Besides, he added, "I just love to watch things get built."

Bright's growth plans for Talson (named after his children, Taylor and Jason) include opening offices in New York and Atlanta and overseas, initially in Panama. To build business abroad, Talson International was formed last year.

Longstreth said he hopes Talson makes one other move - to a building with an elevator. On his visits to the current offices, he said, "I was a little out of breath."

 


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Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.