While many of the private companies on this year's list continue to grow at a consistent clip year over year, others exploded in 2011 and proved that slow and steady doesn't always win the race.
Rettew grew 159.5 percent in 2011 compared with 2010. The Lancaster County engineering firm, which has a major stake in the Marcellus Shale game, posted revenue of $61.3 million, claiming the No. 32 spot on this year's top 100.
Sun posted growth of 123.7 percent over 2010. The luxury automotive dealer finished 2011 with $278.9 million, which was good enough to crack our top 10.
These two companies reported the highest percentage growth year over year.
Despite the soft market for engineering services during the recession, Rettew bucked the trend and held steady.
Between 2006 and 2010, annual revenue fell in the $23 million range. It exploded in 2011 thanks to an aggressive push in 2008 to expand as the natural-gas drilling boom was taking off.
The firm's energy business in oil and gas makes up more than 50 percent of its revenue. In fact, Marcellus work alone totaled $36 million in 2011, which was up from $5.9 million in 2010.
"We did a lot of research and worked hard to understand the market and where it was going," said Mark Lauriello, Rettew's president. "Within that market segment, there are maybe 24 to 30 players. They all know each other and talk. When we performed well, word got out."
In May 2009, Rettew had 189 people on staff. After landing big contracts with the larger drillers, including Chesapeake Energy Corp., everything sort of fell in line, Lauriello said.
By May of this year, the company was employing about 500 people. It jumped 249 spots on Engineering News-Record's annual list of top 500 design firms in the country.
Rettew was named the fastest-growing firm on the list. It ranked at No. 166.
"There is no way we'll sustain those (growth) rates," he said. "We'll continue to grow, but things are more challenging in 2012. The price of natural gas has plummeted, which has slowed production. Some clients have operational difficulties. Things have tightened because of the depressed prices."
Rettew's goal is sustainability and growing at a modest pace moving forward, Lauriello said. The firm is expanding geographically and working to pick up market share as well as to build the traditional engineering services that trailed off for many companies during the recession.
The company has 10 offices, including two in New York and one in Ohio. The firm is looking to expand into another part of the country, Lauriello said, though he declined to say where.
"I don't know anyone who was as aggressive. Most took a position because they know the boom and bust cycle of oil and gas," he said. "Since (Marcellus) is not going to last, most (firms) thought they would not jump in super aggressively."
Rettew's approach: Make hay while the sun is shining.
Lauriello said the company's goal was to be in the top 200 on the ENR list by 2018.
"We exceeded that goal six years ahead of time," he said. "Knowing that we did that and have solid plans and a strategy, we think we'll be top 100 within five or six years."
The economy still presents a lot of challenges, he added: "We wish there were more certainty in the economy."
The Cumberland County car dealer's success can be attributed to growth in all four of its brands, said Daniel Sunderland, Sun's vice president.
The company is a dealer for Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche and Audi.
Between 2008 and 2009, Sun invested heavily in new dealership spaces along the Carlisle Pike — about 170,000 square feet between sales spaces for its brands and a collision center.
"When you invest a lot of dollars, you get rewarded with additional inventories by manufacturers," Sunderland said about the 40 acres Sun built on near the Cumberland Valley Educational Complex. That has helped the company double available inventory.
Sun has seen big growth in new car sales after preowned, which had been growing, fell stagnant, he said. Service also picked up.
"Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche and Audi are all growing," he said. "We're seeing the benefit of that."
Mercedes-Benz sold nearly 138,000 vehicles through June in the U.S., which was up 16.8 percent compared with the halfway point of 2011, according to New Jersey-based Autodata Corp.
Audi sales were up 16.5 percent through June, while BMW and Porsche posted 11.3 percent and 5.8 percent growth, respectively, according to the June report.
"The brands that have the hottest products, the newest and most up-to-date, always are going to be seeing larger increases," Sunderland said, equating a lot of the company's success to the quality product lines from carmakers. "We see our clients have been getting more and more comfortable buying than if we shift back to September 2008 or March 2009."
The recession made Sun work harder to grow the business, he added. The company has been a Mercedes-Benz dealer for 30 years. It added Porsche in 2001, BMW in 2003 and Audi in 2007.
In 2010, Sun added the Sprinter van line made by Mercedes-Benz. Last year, business doubled in that commercial vehicle segment, Sunderland said. He said he expects it to double again this year.
Moving forward, Sunderland said he is anticipating steady 10 to 15 percent growth across the board.
"As you get larger, it's harder to have big increases," he said.
Future lines from his brands that include more economical luxury vehicles could draw in a new audience, he said. Those models are expected in 2014 and 2015.
The economy and the upcoming presidential election will be the biggest cursors for growth, Sunderland said.
"It's interesting to see auto sales improve, but remember, they were way down in 2008 and 2009," he said.
In 2008, Sun posted revenue of $211.5 million. That was followed by $194.6 million in 2009 and $124.7 million in 2010.
Rettew Flowback Inc., a subsidiary of Rettew Associates Inc., uses proprietary technology to recycle water at Marcellus wellheads, cutting down on hydrofracking’s intensive demand for fresh water, which runs into the millions of gallons for each well.
“We think that gives us a big advantage,” Rettew President Mark Lauriello said. “It makes our services to the industry much more comprehensive.”
The system can process 126,000 gallons of water a day.
“I think we’re the only ones doing the whole cycle,” he said, meaning finding water to transport to well sites and then treating it. “Just being a full cycle (operation) provides us with a significant advantage.”
Rettew has been using the technology for about two years. The treatment system has processed more than 10 million gallons, Lauriello said.
Each system cost about $500,000 to build. Rettew currently has just the one, but plans call for more units, he said.
The system is now operational in Ohio.