Apex Engineering Group:
The Entrepreneurial Mindset Making Traffic, Water And Revenue Flow In Fargo
The following article was published on February 26, 2019, in FargoINC 2019 (www.fargoinc.com). It was reprinted with permission from the author, Mark Puppe (Phi/North Dakota State 1996). The article features Mike Berg (Phi/North Dakota State 1993).
Next time you use the sink or turn around to flush, take a moment to ponder where that water goes and another to celebrate its departure. The government probably pays to maintain and operate the system, but independent business probably designed it, coordinated its implementation and continues advising its utility.
Civil engineers, we salute you! Absent their expertise, structures would tumble and the systems enabling water and traffic to flow could not exist. Nonetheless, consumers still deserve confidence in these engineering firms’ entrepreneurial character, business aptitude and loyalty to clients’ interests.
Do you ever use water in Moorhead, send it down a north Fargo drain or travel on 13th Avenue South from West Acres and into West Fargo? Maybe you recognize the Essentia vicinity on 32nd Avenue South. If yes, Apex Engineering Group and its partners streamline your day. There are many other examples, but the scale is set.
When Apex has engineering responsibility for so many high-profile, influential and vital projects in our own area, the company is obviously most qualified to discuss how water and traffic infrastructures and the engineering profession impact our ecosystem, personal pocketbooks and intimate wellbeing.
We quickly forget those annoying orange traffic barrels and mergers but rarely even consider the waterlines installed. “That’s the best PR we could have,” said Apex principal Tom Welle. “It means there haven’t been any problems and we’re doing our job well.”
Hold it. We all appreciate problem-free projects, but that paradoxical PR perspective triggers questions about Apex itself. Businesses aren’t supposed to think that way.
Plus, if Apex aspires for silence, who holds it accountable? Especially when its projects financially and logistically influence so many people? What business decisions enable it to grow – and grow without advertising, talking on television or thousands of Facebook friends? Where did this mega-trusted engineering firm come from?
Every entrepreneur knows, there comes a time when you just need to take the plunge. For those who founded Apex, it was November 2010. Twenty impassioned engineers were frustrated by schemes that restricted their potential and breached the business values they shared with each other and myriad engineering clientele.
Rather than allowing opportunity to drain and frustration to perpetuate, they locked arms to launch Apex, staffing offices in Bismarck and Fargo and enlisting a director to manage an influx of business.
Today, Apex employs 70 employees in four cities and has acquired, completed and continually manages a large enough scope and scale of projects to rightfully say that almost everyone in our area, knowingly or unknowingly, trusts them with work that we cannot take for granted.
All, and I mean all, engineers deserve big-time gratitude. However, clearly more than engineering aptitude, credentials and association memberships emboldens Apex. It’s taken less than eight years to do this, and it’s happening right in front of us, but without us knowing Apex as a name. What’s going on? I don’t want to talk engineering anyway.
“We don’t settle for ‘This is how we’ve always done it,’” says Apex Principal Dain Miller.
I remind Mr. Miller that eight years is a pretty short “always,” but am politely reminded that Apex founders were experienced engineers in 2010 who saw a need for things to be done differently, and they consider Apex their collective call to fulfill it.
Welle adds, “Apex has reengineered engineering, so we behave accordingly. This is not how typical businesses do things. Good thing we’re not a typical business.”
Interesting. Rather than purport perfection or rattle off awards I’d never remember, Welle and Miller introduce Apex as a business performing to elevated professional standards that align with its own values. That’s a confident identity, and it’s not typical.
However, we scheduled our draw a week ago, so they were ready to say something stunning. I will not easily be swept off my feet. I will dig.
Talking business with Apex revealed that the firm does not revel in silence. Instead, it has minimal need to talk. Accordingly, this column became Apex’s chance to profess its merit, and by doing so, Apex shared insights that just might help bolster more businesses’ bottom lines and consumers’ appreciation of the water none can live without.
Qualified employees are a hot commodity. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fargo’s unemployment was 1.9 percent in Dec. 2018. On top of that, doors everywhere are open wide to science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates, so keeping them here is challenging.
However, Apex grew from 20 to 70 full-time employees in less than eight years. What employment strategies can fellow employers consider? Cultivate the field.
“We appear as guest lecturers on campus and participate in career-oriented student organizations. Plus, we’ve been accepting interns since we started,” says Apex Associate Tim Paustian. “Students recognize us as not only accessible professionals, but as the people we are.”
A lot can be said for instructors who personify textbooks and professions. Business owners can appreciate and embrace area colleges and technical schools that recognize the functional credibility guest lecturers and internships add to academia.
However, that’s a classroom and new hires. Don’t employees bolt first chance they get? Turnover is a constant and expensive threat.
Environmental engineer Michael Quamme says, “Apex offers opportunities to work alongside and learn from a group of established leaders in the engineering industry. As a young engineer, this combination is difficult to come by and would be difficult to achieve without the opportunities Apex provides.”
Quamme launched his career while interning at Apex and has since contributed six consecutive years of professional achievements and identity to the firm. He’s never sensed a gap between himself, the veterans or decision-makers at Apex. That synergy hurts nothing except the competition.
Prairie Business affirms that synergy by having listed Apex among the 50 Best Places to Work the past two years. Apex graciously accepts the honor and displays it around the office (printed on coasters) yet considers it a pat on the back rather than cause to build a display case.
Respect and opportunities instill enthusiasm among Apex employees, the professionals whom customers, just like the students, recognize as accessible and credible. We look up and see the business standing upon values rather than teetering on tactics.
So, who leads Apex? The leadership composite at ApexEngGroup.com identifies Mike Berg as the third and final principal for me to accost. He echoes the others by discussing values all customers share and concepts every employer, regardless of industry, might want to consider.
Berg says, “There’s very little hierarchy at Apex; things are flat, so-to-speak. Everyone is impassioned about the profession and unwilling to compromise it for the sake of getting a project. We don’t sacrifice results for convenience or customers’ interests for ours.”
“We’re out helping clients meet their goals. If there’s a way to minimize their cost, we do it,” he added. “If there’s an issue, we solve it, but problem prevention is paramount and we’re proud that clients talk about our ability to provide it.”
Berg explained that Apex considers every customer relationship a professional endorsement and more marketable than industry evaluations. He’s right. Customers keep businesses afloat and write the reviews people read. Competitors attend the same conventions and advertise against you.
“Everyone at Apex is an entrepreneur every day,” says Berg. This value-inspired, project-based growth strategy generates 75 percent of the firm’s business activity.
What about the other 25 percent and rate of increase to accommodate the rapid growth? Can Apex thank the oil boom for that? That helped, but Apex also knew 100-dollar oil would not last forever. “Focusing on the here-and-now keeps our growth reasonable, cost-effective and based on our business rather than external forces beyond our control,” said Associate Karla Olson in Fargo.
Speaking of growth, Apex is primary in Fargo’s ability to monetize treated wastewater. Fargo sells treated wastewater to the Casselton ethanol plant, and Dickinson, another Apex client, sells its own treated wastewater to an oil refinery. Of course, these are not the most glamorous projects, but they will continue generating non-tax revenue for cities like ours.
Let’s connect some dots: telling employees to pay their dues or restrict aspirations to a job description inspires them to pursue and often begin another business where they will be valued, enabled to collaborate alongside or be leaders who relish aggregate success because hierarchy and status quo barely exist.
This business likely thrives by holding itself accountable to the business values the founders share, professional standards transcending industry norms and stalwart commitment to providing customers an experience positive beyond expectation. The customer relationships and project results then market themselves and enable the business to grow based upon qualifications rather than proclamation.
Judging from what Apex has accomplished in less than last eight years and where it’s positioned to go next, there’s a lot of wisdom in its PR perspective.