Home-Grown Success: Witt Turns Expertise Into $40 Million Business

by Mark Carter  on Monday, May. 16, 2011 12:00 am  

James Lee Witt has successfully transitioned his model from FEMA to the private sector.

"We have a unique business," she said. "The other businesses that we might consider our competitors may do debris removal or emergency housing, but don't really do the same thing that we do. Nobody really does what we do, which is to be intimately involved in helping a business or community prepare for and respond to disasters, and especially their role with FEMA."

Perhaps nothing better captures the scope of the firm's expertise than an indirect reference in a 2010 news story about a dispute between the city of New Orleans and FEMA over post-Katrina damage assessment at Charity Hospital, which ended up before a federal arbitration panel. Hired by the state of Louisiana, Witt sent a group of about 250 workers to New Orleans.

"In their ruling, the judges noted that the [FEMA] agency's officials 'were less experienced and less credible' than the [Witt Associates] consultants hired by the state to assess damage at Charity,'" The New York Times reported on Jan. 28, 2010.

Arkansas Connections

Founded by Witt and partners Mark Merritt (a fellow Arkansan), Barry Scanlon and Pate Felts, the firm has 130 full-time employees and a cadre of 500 or so contract employees. It has never advertised, instead relying on word-of-mouth referrals to grow the business.

Based in Washington, D.C., it operates regional offices in Little Rock, Atlanta, Chicago, Sacramento and Jackson, N.J.

Witt said he always intended to maintain a local presence, and spends as much time as his schedule will allow at his 300-acre Mount George homestead in his native Yell County.

The Little Rock office is staffed by veteran Arkansas lobbyist Hal Hunnicutt; Bob Nash, former director of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority and USDA official; Ed Fry, longtime chief of staff to a succession of Arkansas 2nd District congressmen (Tommy Robinson, Ray Thornton and Vic Snyder); and Witt's son, Jimmy.

Little Rock served as a base of operations for the firm's post-Katrina work.

Witt Associates' contract with the city of Little Rock extends beyond emergency management. It is paid $45,000 per year to lobby and help procure federal funds for the city, Little Rock National Airport and the Little Rock Port Authority.

"Witt Associates helps make sure that our requests are in the proper form and filed in a timely manner," said Assistant City Manager Bryan Day. "Over the years, with their help, we've been successful in securing funding for emergency communications upgrades, the River Trail, the Ninth Street extension, the I-430/630 interchange and the Fourche Creek wetlands."

The firm helped the airport secure partial reimbursement for federally mandated expenditures and is working to secure more funding for airport land development.  Also, Witt worked with the Port Authority to get funding for recertification of the levees along the Arkansas River.



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