WSB & Associates
Engineering at its core is a service-based practice. This philosophy is at the heart of WSB & Associates, an innovative design and engineering firm based in Minneapolis and serving clientele across the U.S. Established in 1995 by five partners, WSB has built a reputation for high-quality transportation, municipal, energy and environmental engineering.
Bret Weiss, Pete Willenbring, Don Sterna, Ron Bray and Bernie Mittlesteadt worked together at a large engineering firm that was eventually purchased by a conglomerate. As time went on, the service aspect of the business appeared to fall by the wayside. When the parent company began to cut crucial assets — including personnel, the colleagues decided to move on. With the option to set out independently or ban together, they chose the latter — establishing WSB.
“When we started, there were a lot of changes happening within the industry and with technology,” explains Weiss, president of WSB since 2001. “Our competitors had been around for a long time — 50, even 70 years — and they had a perspective that they weren’t shifting. These companies were doing things the same way they always had. Fortunately, we were able to unshackle ourselves from that philosophy.”
The ability to take the industry from a new angle has been a huge asset, even 20 years later. “We set out to create a staff-friendly culture and we knew we had to be innovative to compete with those firms,” Weiss adds. “Our model had to be different — that was empowering. It was really a time of great growth and we hit a market that was really strong.”
Transportation and municipal work
WSB launched its services in the transportation and municipal markets — an aspect of the firm that remains strong today. These core tenets of the company are strongest within Minnesota and the team has completed many unique and challenging infrastructure projects throughout the state. Mike Reif, head of the company’s construction services division, recalls some memorable contracts.
“One project I’ll never forget is the new Trunks Highway I-35 West St. Anthony Falls Bridge in Minneapolis,” says Reif. “This was such an important project in Minnesota because of what happened. I remember where I was on 9/11 and I remember where I was when the old bridge collapsed. That’s something that doesn’t happen often in the U.S. It was old and there were no aspects of redundancy; some structural failure ultimately led to its collapse.”
On Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge, known officially as Bridge 9340, collapsed during the evening rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145. The collapse of the second busiest bridge in the state sent shockwaves through communities, including the construction industry. Local, state and federal agencies banded together on the rebuild of the infamous structure, driving forward aggressive design, testing and scheduling to win back public trust and get people back on the road.
“This was a controversial project,” Reif explains. “We ended up doing quality management for the contractor. What would normally be a three-, even four-year project was done in just over a year. We were on the project nine months straight and crews were going 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Minnesota winter. We were trying to pour concrete at 30-below and had to figure out how to keep it from freezing.”
WSB provided a wealth of expertise to the projects and consistently had two personnel on-site for the beginning of the project and then as many as eight toward the end. The bridge construction required engineering staff, senior bridge inspectors, Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute Level III-certified staff, quality assurance inspectors, underground utility inspectors, material quality assurance testers, grading and base inspectors and pavement inspectors. These experienced professionals were responsible for bridge inspection and testing services for the structures, soils, concrete and asphalt being placed on the project.
The new I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge was completed in 2008 and was recognized with several awards. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials awarded the project the 2009 Best in Transportation Grand Prize. The bridge was also an American Society of Civil Engineers 2009 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award Finalist. WSB achieved the American Council of Engineering Companies Minnesota 2009 Engineering Excellence Grand Award for the St. Anthony Falls Bridge project and Roads and Bridges Magazine recognized the project as the 2008 #1 Bridge of the Year.
Breaking new ground
While construction sector engineering is a large component of the company’s target market, WSB operates in a number of specialty sectors in Minneapolis and all over the United States. The company’s myriad expertise includes community planning, water and wastewater, environmental planning and protection, energy development, asset management and more.
“A fairly new market for us is water quality,” says Weiss. “One thing that not many firms are doing is carp removal. We have a couple specialists — one is a Ph.D., the other is tagging carp and studying them. The carp pool together and by having those tags, we can find where they are and hire fishermen to go fish them out. We perform a biomass calculation and assessment: there is a certain amount of fish that should be there — they eat off the bottom of the lake and clean the weeds out, but too many are not good for the quality of the water.”
Another unique water quality project has been with stormwater treatment plants, pulling phosphorous out of the water. “We started with a temporary system and now we have built three permanent models that over time clean the water and the lake,” adds Weiss. This is a big thing in Minnesota — I think there will be a huge market in the Midwest states around the Great Lakes and elsewhere. Water reuse is a big deal and that is a big market for us as well taking water out of ponds and treatment plants to use for irrigation. There are national implications for that, especially with what we’re seeing on the West Coast.”
Other growth areas include sustainable energy, such as solar and geothermal, as well as community planning. WSB has been involved in a number of renewable power projects in recent years as well as community and campus planning. The team continues to see growth in those sectors as technology advances.
While continuous education is crucial to all engineering firms, to Weiss’ knowledge, WSB is the only firm with an on-site university. WSB University hosts courses, programs, and events that help clients and staff refine their skills and learn from one another. The university opened in 2015 and has already hosted 50 classes and 13 industry events for over 1,000 guests.
“We are always looking for new ways to do things and trying to push the envelope with clients,” explains Weiss. “We started WSB University nine years ago to educate staff and clients.” Weiss believes that offering opportunities for professional growth is critical to keeping a cutting-edge and satisfied staff. “First-class education was the way to do that and we decided it was time to either put up or shut up, so we invested in WSB University.”
On the second floor of WSB’s Minneapolis office, the education space is 7,000 square feet. It includes a resource library, a space with seating for up to 130 people and amenities such as projectors, white boards and even a bar.
WSB University is attracting some of the industry‘s brightest talent, allowing the firm to offer unique programs to employees, colleagues and strategic partners. The company also hosts wsbpedia.com, an online resource where users can look up different infrastructure items. Weiss and his colleagues continue to prioritize education through new initiatives.
With education and innovation at the forefront of the operation, WSB & Associates remains a leader in civil engineering and diversified design in Minnesota and beyond.
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