Local firm is temporary landlord at ground zero

Williams Scotsman's mobile offices deal with terror cleanup

October 09, 2001|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Within 24 hours after the World Trade Center's twin towers collapsed, Williams Scotsman Inc., a White Marsh company that leases mobile offices nationwide, was rushing units to New York.

A long list of agencies suddenly needed space to conduct their operations, from search-and-rescue efforts and utility repairs to emergency management and criminal investigations. The FBI and the Secret Service were among its first clients.

For Williams Scotsman, as for many companies involved in the rescue and cleanup, the disaster was a gigantic undertaking.

In the past, the company dispatched its portable units in the aftermath of earthquakes and hurricanes. But none had demanded the variety of units or involved the range of clients as the Manhattan catastrophe.

"Nobody ever could have planned for something this extreme," said Gerry E. Holthaus, Williams Scotsman's president, chief executive and chairman. "But our company has a history of knowing how to respond to natural disasters. Knowing what capabilities we have, we don't wait for the phone to ring."

Today, Williams Scotsman has about 85 units in and around Lower Manhattan, including 46 within a two-block radius of ground zero.

The company's 93,000 temporary office structures are typically made of steel, wood frames and drywall, and can be equipped with office furniture, heating and cooling systems, and bathrooms.

The mobile office spaces range from trailers used at construction sites to portable school classrooms.

The company's modular office space is ideal for clients looking to add space quickly and cheaply. Using a fleet of trucks, the company in many cases is able to tow these portable units where they're needed, pop off the wheels and have them ready for use in a half-hour.

IT Corp. was among Williams Scotsman's clients that needed a quick turnaround. The hazardous-waste cleanup firm was tapped to provide facilities for law enforcement personnel sifting through the rubble carted to the reopened Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, N.Y.

"Williams did come through in the clutch in providing about four trailers ... which joined together to form about a 40-by-28-foot unit," said John Eckstein, an estimator for IT who worked with Williams Scotsman on the order.

"They were the ones who responded at a moment's notice," he said.

Williams Scotsman also provided utility trailers for workers at Verizon and Consolidated Edison. Its units also became grief counseling centers in New Jersey for the families of victims.

Some units used in the New York area were brought from as far away as South Carolina and Tennessee. Most were delivered from a branch office in northern New Jersey, company officials said.

Holthaus said the company is supplying units to government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and New York's Office of Emergency Management. Other clients are the city's police and fire departments, the American Red Cross, and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

In all, Williams Scotsman has booked $300,000 in revenue since Sept. 12, based on short-term leases signed with public agencies and companies, Holthaus said.

"This immediate response will last 6 months to 1 1/2 years," said Eric Anderson, Williams Scotsman's area manager for metropolitan New York and Philadelphia.

About 30 Williams Scotsman employees are working on disaster-related work. Some have worked around-the-clock to deliver and set up the units, spending their nights resting at American Red Cross facilities.

After the World Trade Center site is cleared, the next phase will be rebuilding, and Williams Scotsman expects to be there. "I think once we get out of that, then we're going to be in some reconstruction, and that could last for years to come," Anderson said.

Williams Scotsman is one of several companies providing mobile offices in the New York area. The average unit costs about $15,000 to build, Holthaus said.

Williams Scotsman and GE Capital Services, a financing and leasing division of General Electric Co., are considered the heavyweights in the nation's modular and mobile-office market.

Williams Scotsman had sales of $432 million last year and expects $500 million this year, said Bill LeBuhn, vice president of human resources and marketing.

The privately held company is owned by Cypress Group and Keystone Inc., two private investment groups, and has 1,200 employees in the United States and Canada in more than 90 locations, including about 250 workers in White Marsh.

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