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25 years young: a passion for innovative design still strong

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ViVO Digital

As SOTO Consulting Engineers celebrates its 25th anniversary, founder and owner Frank Soto reflects on the business’s origins and growth.

Frank Soto’s desk is covered in neat piles of design drawings. There are a few hand sketches and notes, and his computer screen shows a 3D model of a design project. It’s very much the desk and office of a senior engineer. Other than the generous size of the corner office, there’s little to indicate he’s also the business’s founder and owner.

Twenty-five years after Mr Soto first ventured out, SOTO Consulting Engineers has grown into a thriving, multi-disciplined engineering design consultancy, employing up to 55 engineers, draftspersons, and support staff. For his part, Mr Soto is still very much deep in the work of engineering design. 

“The vision when I first started the business was about doing innovative design engineering,” Mr Soto says. “Do that every day, and I’d be happy to come to work.”  In 2023, SOTO is celebrating its 25th anniversary.  It affords a moment to reflect on the growth of the business.  Asked about any lessons or insights into what makes a successful business, Mr Soto leaves the theory and the deceptively simple descriptions of business growth to the business textbooks. 

As business founders and owners know, business growth, like life itself, doesn’t happen in a neat linear fashion. Instead, it comes in waves and lumps and leaps forward and steps back.  The timeline of SOTO’s history shows the key milestones and paints a picture of a founder who clearly knew what he wanted to do with his career.

“I don’t think there’s a single proven method to grow a successful business,” Mr Soto says. “For me, it came down to doing something I was really passionate about, and you adapt and pivot as necessary.

“A lot of it comes down to your vision of what the business is about, what it means to you as a founder, what it means to the clients, and what service or product you’re trying to deliver. You must have clear in your mind where you position in the market, starting with being either a service-based or a product-based business, because that determines where you position yourself in the market.” 

Mr SOTO recalls the early days when he moved his fledgling consultancy into the design engineering field. He was involved in engineering projects, where a new piece of equipment would be fabricated for a process, installed, commissioned, and the job was done. The real source of curiosity for Mr Soto was wondering who designed the piece of equipment. 

How they went from the concept to preliminary engineering, feasibility engineering to execution – that seemed to be where the exciting work lived. That hunger to do the design work, starting with first principles, set the course for what is now SOTO. 

“Seeing an idea and a concept evolve to a final product or solution that’s very satisfying, very gratifying,” Mr Soto says. “Then working with a talented team that does that all day every day, producing results and then seeing these things being built is very satisfying.”

The path wasn’t always straightforward. Reflecting on what he might do differently in growing a business, Mr Soto’s response is only to wonder how it might have been achieved faster. The handbrake on growth is most often an appetite for risk, particularly how customers or partners perceive the risks to their business. 

“What was difficult in the earlier days was understanding what kind of limits are placed on you by others. You don’t put any limits on yourself, you know you can pretty much engineer anything from first principles. So why should that stop a bigger firm from giving me a fairly significant package of work? 

“What you don’t realise is that there’s the risk and who’s taking the risk. The risk on you, on your design, on your engineering. When it’s a big blue-chip company, they often want another big blue-chip engineering company, so they are more comfortable with the risk.”

Over the years, SOTO has turned that to its advantage. As its expertise has grown, so has its ability to produce work that other larger companies a reluctant to touch, carving out a niche as a team of creative engineers not afraid to work out solutions to complex design problems. In 2023, they are equally likely to be working with major resource producers or heavy manufacturers as much as green energy start-ups, testing and refining challenging design concepts.

“The fact that we build strong relationships and our brand reputation in innovative engineering means that we’re continuing to do some really amazing things. We’ve been involved in a lot of start-ups, a lot of innovative processes and new plant and equipment. These people will come to us and partner with us because they know our reputation and the limitations of the bigger firms.”

Asked about any particular achievements or moments that stand out in the company’s 25 years, Frank pauses to think. Being so busy in the work doesn’t leave much time for reflection. 

“It’s hard to pinpoint a single thing. There’s been a lot of achievements and satisfaction in the work we’ve done for clients. I am proud that we have probably put over 150 engineers and drafters through the business.

“We’ve been able to influence and expose a lot of engineers to a design environment in a design consultancy that does design from first principles. And we continue to train the next generation of design engineers using today’s tools and methods. It’s important to show the younger generation the opportunities in design engineering, which goes to the heart of another conversation about our ability as a nation to sustain a high-quality manufacturing industry.”

So, where next for SOTO and Frank Soto? Aside from the pile of drawings on his desk. 

“That’s where I find myself today. I haven’t been able to get myself out of the drawings and the design, and that’s probably because this business was small enough to allow me to do that. It afforded me the opportunity to do what I like to do and work with teams in detailed design engineering.”

For Frank Soto, his next ‘design’ project is one that involves eventually stepping away from the business. Where someone else with a vision for the business comes along to write its next chapter. Until then, he’ll be deep in the drawings. He is, after all, 

“The strategy going forward is to have a more layered management system. Now that we’re at a big enough size that allows that to happen. But I need to make that happen.”

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