Local talent, big projects: Bemidji surveying company keeps growing
BEMIDJI -- Inside an office room at Northwestern Surveying & Engineering, a wall is covered with taped up black and white maps.
The maps show Enbridge's Sandpiper project route from North Dakota down through Park Rapids and beyond, a surveying project the company has worked on for the past year.
Tackling such a large project shows just how far Northwestern Surveying & Engineering has come since opening in 1997. The company is owned by John Peterson and Mike Stang.
"I started this company in '97, with Art Larson. It was in about 1999 to 2000, Mike worked for Art and I. Then he went to the Twin Cities to get an engineering degree from the University of Minnesota and worked for a company I used to work for down there," Peterson said.
Peterson said he helped in a funny way with helping Stang get that Twin Cities job.
"That's a funny story, because Mike and I were staking the Walmart...and he told me on the ride over there that he was going to go to the Cities to get his engineering degree. Well, while he was out setting the GPS, I called Jim Parker (at Advance Surveying) and before he got back to the car, he already had a job," Peterson said with a laugh.
"All I had to do was show up for the interview," Stang added.
Coming back to Bemidji
But in 2007, amid the housing crash -- much of the work done by Advance Surveying was residential -- the work dried up in the Twin Cities and Stang was laid off. Stang landed a job with the Interstate 35W bridge rebuild, but the work was tough, and he and his wife had just had their third child, he said. His hours were from 3 a.m. to 8 p.m.
"I missed out on nine months," Stang said.
He took a couple of jobs in Canada, but all along he told Peterson he'd someday come back to Bemidji. So, in June of last year, he did just that. He bought into the company and now he and Peterson have the controlling interest in Northwestern Surveying & Engineering.
Growth and Pipelines
The company has always enjoyed a steady business, but they've kept a low profile, Peterson said.
"If you look at Bemidji and the projects we've had here in the last few years, we did the DoubleTree, (orthopedic) expansion at the hospital, the new FedEx ground — we've had projects. We've done a lot of projects around town," Peterson said.
When the business first started, they focused on construction project surveying, including for the new Bemidji High School, Home Depot, Walmart and Westridge projects.
"And then I got into pipeline work when it was called Lakehead, before it was called Enbridge, when they did the capacity expansion in the late '90s when they rebuilt the Clearbrook terminal, that's when I got into knowing people in the pipeline business," Peterson said. "Once we had our own company, and things started to pick up in the pipeline business, then I really focused on that."
Peterson and Stang estimate 80 to 90 percent of their work now revolves around pipelines. "I'd consider us a pipeline surveying company at this point," Stang said.
But they are looking toward the future, too.
"What we're trying to do is — this is the work that's here and now— this laser scanning technology is going to be huge," Peterson said. "It hasn't really been embraced too much here by the architects, because they're afraid of having to buy new software and it's a new technology. But we are getting in on the ground floor on it. That is the direction our business is going."
Peterson said he anticipates pipelines will remain the focus for the next five years or so, but they are planning ahead, hiring BSU graduates with environmental science degrees.
"So, our focus is to broaden our services out, and add in environmental inspection and environmental consulting. And then build our laser scanning business," Peterson said.
Keeping it local
Northwestern Surveying and Engineering has five BSU graduates on staff, and they are looking to add another soon.
"Which is nice because we are drawing these guys back to Bemidji," Stang said. "So it's really nice to see these technical jobs coming back to Bemidji."
"That's one of the things we want to do. We've been a big supporter of Beaver Pride over the years, and as we get more of these young guys that will be the future of our business.," Peterson said. "They're here, buying houses now."
When he left for the Twin Cities in the late 90s, Stang said he noticed others were leaving, too. "It almost seems opposite now. Which is good, it seems like Bemidji is moving in the right direction," Stang said.
Northwestern has 16 employees but works with a subcontractor, Northwoods Surveying, who uses five additional employees.
Perfect for pipelines
Northwestern Surveying's knowledge of the area was a big asset in landing the Enbridge Sandpiper project. And they knew they could build the right team to meet the company's deadlines.
"That was our leg up, versus a lot bigger companies that just hadn't been surveying in northern Minnesota for 30 years like the people we knew had been. And that's the difference. And we've done a good job for Enbridge," Peterson said.
Another thing they do for Enbridge is provide services to maintain the integrity of pipelines. "What Enbridge has done here is they decided to spend the money it's going to take to run tools through the lines. And they're finding every anomaly in the lines, if there's corrosion or dents and cracks. And they're spending billions on this maintenance program. What we do is have crews that go out and mark the approved access in, mark all the pipelines...basically they do what we call a four-ways sweep," Peterson said.
Northwestern then makes maps showing the layout. It's become a big part of the business.
"And we have two crews full time on that and one crew part time. And things change a lot, and they work awful hard. We've sent our people to locating courses and taken online courses. We take it pretty seriously," Peterson said.