John Haley, chief executive of Watermark Environmental Inc., borrows a popular business phrase to help explain his Lowell company’s success: “You’re either growing or you’re dying.”
That attitude helped the environmental and civil engineering firm become one of 10 Massachusetts companies to make the Inner City 100, an annual compilation of the nation’s fastest-growing urban businesses.
The list, scheduled to be released Wednesday, focuses on companies in economically distressed areas with high unemployment rates. It’s compiled by the Boston nonprofit Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and Fortune magazine, using five-year annual growth rates.
“This list is a recognition of the resilience and commitment these firms have to both their communities and their employees,” said Mary Kay Leonard, the initiative’s chief executive.
From more than 1,000 nominations, this year’s list features companies that grew the most between 2007 and 2011. Massachusetts doubled its presence for 2013, a boost Leonard said can be partly attributed to the state’s improving economy.
Steven Pedigo, the initiative’s vice president, said that while start-ups tend to attract a lot of attention, the listing serves as a reminder that established companies play a huge role in driving economic growth.
“There are very few lists or outlets out there that recognize the work established businesses are doing in our communities, day in and day out, but these are the job creators of our economy,” Pedigo said.
This is the 15th anniversary of the Inner City 100, and to mark that milestone more than 300 companies from across the United States are expected to participate in a two-day symposium sponsored by the initiative and Fortune that began Monday night. Events are being held at Harvard Business School and the Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers.
Watermark’s story is typical of the risks and commitment required of businesses that make the Inner City 100. When John Haley and Joseph Spangenberger founded Watermark in 2001, they had ambition, but not a lot of cash.
“It was scary, but if you’re not scared, you can get you complacent,” said Haley.
Today, Watermark has more than 80 employees and more than doubled its revenue between 2007 and 2011 to nearly $28 million. The company manages 100 to 120 projects at a time, doing design, construction, and operations for the federal government, state agencies, schools, hospitals, municipalities, and some Fortune 500 companies, including Nestlé Corp.
“I can have a great vision and a great idea,” said Haley, “but it’s the people you work with and their expertise that make you a stronger team.”
Over the next 10 years, Watermark hopes to reach $150 million to $250 million in annual revenue and add 70 to 120 new jobs.
Bill Bellissimo, the force behind CrunchTime Information Systems, was a successful businessman with a chain of 45 restaurants and corporate cafes throughout the Northeast called Epicurean Feast. But in 1995, he came up with an idea he thought could revolutionize the industry, so he sold the chain and refocused his energy.
“When I started, this was the ’90s, and I said it would be a great idea to put all of a restaurant’s business processes — from ordering, receiving, labor management, the supply chain — on the Internet,” Bellissimo said. “People thought I was certifiably crazy.”
Today, CrunchTime is used by more than 5,000 restaurants, including national chains such as The Cheesecake Factory and TGI Fridays, and local favorites like Joe’s Crab Shack and Abe and Louie’s. Bellissimo said about 60 percent of cruise ships also use CrunchTime.
The system “crunches” numbers such as sales forecasts, inventory, and typical rate of use to calculate when and how much of each product a restaurant should order.
The company recently moved from East Boston, where it was based for 14 years, to near North Station. CrunchTime expects to add 75 employees to the current workforce of 58 by the end of the year, according to Bellissimo.
Tantara Corp., another local company on this year’s list, is an environmental remediation and civil construction firm that does a lot of work with the Department of Defense, along with major utilities and industrial clients. For example, the Worcester company has developed a thermal treatment project for the Air Force that involves burning contaminated soil to capture pollutants on the Aleutian Islands. It is also repairing a fuel line for the Coast Guard at Boston Light, the country’s oldest lighthouse.
“I love what we do,” said Dawn Dearborn, chief executive of Tantara. “We’re very lucky to work on many interesting projects to improve contaminated properties.”
Many of the company’s projects are in the Northeast, but it hopes to expand globally. Founded in 2000, Tantara increased its revenue by about 30 percent between 2007 and 2011, to nearly $5 million.
“What I consider the reason for our success is we’re very prideful in our work and very appreciative of our clients, fellow employees, and vendors,” said Dearborn.
Other Massachusetts companies featured on the list include construction and environmental remediation company RM Technologies Inc. in Lawrence; travel shipping company Luggage Forward in Boston; Fennick McCredie Architecture in Boston; software company PepperDash Technology Corp. in Allston; project management firm Pinck & Co. in Roxbury; asset recovery company The Locator Services Group in Boston; and landscape architect firm Brown Richardson + Rowe Inc. in Boston.