Roll Out The Barrels

Posted on Oct 1, 2009 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

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Ramlet could be one of the few souls in Wisconsin who loves the sight of orange construction barrels. Whenever he sees them, Ramlet knows that people are working – hopefully in one of the state’s neglected infrastructure needs. It’s also a good bet that some of the folks involved in those projects work for OMNNI Associates, the Fox Valley-based engineering firm that Ramlet guides as president and chief executive officer. For Ramlet, orange construction barrels are an opportunity, not an irritant. “I really do like the sight of those orange construction barrels,” says Ramlet, who has worked with OMNNI for more than 20 years. “I sometimes have a hard time convincing my friends that those barrels are a good sign.”

There seemed to be plenty of good signs around Northeast Wisconsin, as the state’s road construction season hit its peak this summer. Not all of the projects have a connection to OMNNI, but in many of the high profile jobs, the company has been a key player.

In the Fox Cities, perhaps the most high profile project right now is the reconstruction of the College Avenue bridge across the Fox River. The old two-lane bridge was demolished in 2008, and a four-lane bridge has steadily grown in its place during the past several months. Engineers from OMNNI designed the new bridge and the company continues to provide administrative services for the project.

As one of Appleton’s primary crossings of the Fox River, the pace of the project has been closely monitored by both builders and commuters. The bridge is expected to be open for traffic this November. So far, there have been no major complications associated with the project and the work is generally running ahead of schedule.

With plenty of experience to back him up, Ramlet notes there is a difference between a project that looks complete and one that’s actually done.

“The last 10 percent of a project like that is always tricky,” Ramlet says. “The project will look like it’s done, but there is still critical work going on.”

Roads and bridges may be the most noticeable of the many facets of OMNNI’s work, but they are certainly not the extent of what the company does. If you look up the meaning of “omni” in a dictionary – without the extra n, of course – you will find it is a Latin word meaning all or universally. That is an apt description of the myriad of engineering-related services the company provides. (Ramlet will tell you that OMNNI is actually a compilation of the initials of the company’s founders: Robert Orth, Larry Miller, Dennis Nodolf and Frank Ness. The “I” is for Incorporated.)

Whether it’s architecture or planning, structural engineering or environmental testing and cleanup, OMNNI has someone who can take on the work. Whether it’s drafting plans for a traffic roundabout, a new sports stadium or an entire planned development, OMNNI can do it. A look at the current project listing on the company’s website, www.omnni.com, shows they are keeping quite busy.

The company itself was founded in 1968, and in 1984, founding member Robert Orth became the primary owner and operator of the company, which is headquartered in Appleton. In 2007, a team of senior managers completed their purchase of the company from Orth, who after more than 40 years still spends time consulting for OMNNI.

The senior management team has been working with Orth over a period of years to make the transition a gradual one. While the company made a formal announcement in 2007, for most employees and clients, the transition was so seamless that it was hardly noticed.

“I’m not sure that I knew it took place,” says Keld B. Lauridsen, a hydrologist with the Wisconsin DNR who has worked with OMNNI on several projects. “I’m sure I heard at the time, but nothing really changed for me.”
That’s just what the new management team wanted.

“It was really a friendly transaction, says Christine Schulz, OMNNI’s chief financial officer. “There was a lot of planning involved and for several years prior, we brought new shareholders in and established a plan for that transition. When we finally did the buyout, it was a very fair deal for the new management and the retiring shareholder.”

Schulz is the the only non engineer in the management team.

“I just get to see the numbers,” she says, though she enjoys driving around Northeast Wisconsin and seeing the fruits of the many other professionals who work for the company.

Despite the recent economic downturn, those numbers have still been pretty good, Schulz says.

In a recent letter to clients and employees, Ramlet wrote that despite the tumult of 2009, OMNNI expects to see increased revenues and staffing for the year and anticipates being able to do the same in 2010. He remains confident in the words he wrote, a confidence that is bolstered by the need for infrastructure improvements in Northeast Wisconsin and the state as a whole.

“That’s a big part of what our business is all about,” Ramlet says. “As the Fox Cities grew rapidly in the 1990s, it created a need for new infrastructure. There are a number of large projects out there.”

Ramlet points out that every $1 billion spent on infrastructure equals approximately 35,000 jobs. He says that is not a pitch for the federal stimulus package signed by President Obama earlier this year; one of the primary components of the stimulus package was infrastructure construction, though the money for many of the projects is months – if not years – from being spent.

Still, passage of the stimulus has allowed companies such as OMNNI to avoid downsizing while other sectors of the economy have slowed tremendously.

“What it did was protect and even accelerate some projects,” says Schulz. “Fortunately, we have not seen a downturn.”

Ramlet says the company’s diversification is what has enabled it to maintain itself and even grow in certain areas as the recession has changed the demand for particular services. Subdivision planning has become more compact he says, and the pace has slowed a bit. Yet, there is more interest in urban infill projects and smart growth planning, he says.

The staff wins high praise from clients for their professional and prompt response.

“They always respond quickly,” says Outagamie County Regional Airport Director Martin Lenss. “It’s pretty nice having a company with that kind of aviation experience less than a mile away.”

OMNNI recently wrapped up a project that included the reconstruction of the airport’s parking lots, access roads, entrances and exits. The challenge was to do the work without disrupting the operations of the airport.

“It’s not like you can just shut down a lane of the runway,” Lenss says. “It’s their ability to think outside the box – to keep our aviation users safe but keep the project going.”

While demand from the private sector side has slowed, demand from public entities, particularly for infrastructure needs, has increased, Ramlet says.

“We try to tailor our services and people to what people are buying,” Ramlet says. “Right now, things like schools and private projects are down, but what is really popular is infrastructure.”

That just happens to be an area of particular interest to Ramlet, who is finishing up a term as president of the Transportation Development Association, a trade group representing more than 400 members in the state of Wisconsin. When Ramlet thinks of infrastructure, he likes to think big picture. There is no bigger picture out there right now than the recently released Wisconsin Department of Transportation Connection 2030 report, which outlines potential highway and other infrastructure improvements for the next 20 years.

Ramlet has plenty of ideas on how Wisconsin – and particularly the New North region – can improve its ability to move people, products and materials. He’s not necessarily a champion of building more roads and highways, but building better ones.

“I think what we have to look at here is how will we connect all of this infrastructure,” Ramlet says. “There is discussion of the ‘intelligence corridor’ from Minneapolis to Chicago. We need to think about how in Wisconsin that corridor gets built, and how do we make sure we are connected to it.”

Ramlet says high speed rail can certainly play a part, and points out Northeast Wisconsin is well served by two airports. Perhaps the least thought about asset in the region is the Port of Green Bay, which Ramlet sees as an unpolished gem in a broader transportation network for the region and the state.

“If you look at the economics of shipping, particularly fuel costs, the potential of that port is huge,” Ramlet says. “It has the advantage of connections to multiple highways, including 29 going west and 151 going south. The Chicago area is so clogged that it is difficult to get through that area.”

All of that could benefit the New North if the infrastructure is planned right. Being planned right means a highway, rail link or air link actually gets people to the other end of their journey. He is not enthusiastic about some recent proposals for high speed rail that would drop passengers at a remote location, forcing them to spend more time and resources to complete the journey.

“It has to be about what I do when I get to the other end,” Ramlet says.

As much as Ramlet likes to talk transportation, he is also particularly proud of OMNNI’s accomplishments in the area of environmental engineering and green business practices. Those practices range from the company’s award-winning environmental projects to its brownfield reclamation projects to its support of an environmental charter school.

Support of Fox River Academy, a charter school in the Appleton Area School District, is a spot of pride for the team at OMNNI. The support has been financial, technical and personal. Brian Wayner, an environmental engineer with OMNNI, has helped the school with the development of its green learning building, the renovation of an old building behind Jefferson Elementary School.

“He has just been an amazing person for us to work with,” says Sandra Vander Velden, a co-founder and lead teacher at the school. “They have provided us with so much infrastructure. From the rain garden to helping with the soils to volunteering their time to cut the grass.”

OMNNI recently donated $1,000 to the fundraising campaign to install solar panels on the school.

Support for the school is just one part of OMNNI’s green practice lineage that can be traced back to 1985, when the company located to its current building. Rather than build new, OMNNI opted to reuse the former Valley Bank building. Reuse, whether it is materials or old building sites, has become a familiar theme across many industries, and OMNNI is no exception.

It takes many forms, from recycling old concrete to repaving the runways at Outagamie Regional Airport, to helping the city of Appleton reclaim an abandoned industrial site with the creation of Trolley Square.

“It’s just good business and good economics,” Ramlet says. “People get excited when they see that development happen.”

Some of OMNNI’S environmental projects are not quite as noticeable, but have still been recognized.

In May of 2009, OMNNI was honored with an Innovation in Urban Forestry Award from the Wisconsin Urban Forestry Council for an environmental remediation project that uses trees to leach the contaminants out of the soil. While it’s a long-term approach to resolving the contamination at the former American Quality Fibers site in Menasha, it’s something state regulators are seeing more of.

“We asked for proposals when we brought OMNNI in and that was one of the ideas they brought back,” says the DNR’s Lauridsen. “OMNNI has been doing a lot of good things with environmental projects. They are one of the companies doing a lot of work in this area, and they can draw on a lot of other expertise at the company, which helps.”

In addition to helping with contaminants in the soil, the trees provide additional green to the Menasha cityscape.

Not all trends Ramlet sees are as positive. He recently attended a graduation ceremony at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and noticed that nearly 80 percent of the graduating class of engineering students were foreign students here on student visas. His concern is what that will mean to engineering in the United States when more engineers graduating don’t work here.

“We don’t have enough engineers here. We as a profession need to find a way to encourage more students to pursue engineering,” he says.

Another trend is a more positive one from Ramlet’s point of view, and that is the nature of how engineers present their plans. It’s become a much more public process, particularly with infrastructure work, and features more community outreach to explain the what’s and how’s of a project. He notes the public process for the College Avenue bridge reconstruction as an example of how the outreach can help ease the inconvenience of a project.

Those are the kinds of solutions that will keep Ramlet coming into the office each day, something he plans to do for the foreseeable future.

“I’m not a good golfer and I’m not a good carpenter,” he says. “This is what I do. I like working and I can’t envision doing anything else.”