The Art of Managing Growth

The work Chad Surprenant, P. E., does these days gives added dimension to the definition of engineering. For sure, he is still involved in such fundamentals as project design and specifications but focus also centers on human resources, finances and business development.

“I am still am engineer,” explains the 47-year-old Iowa State University civil engineering graduate by way of Mankato East High School. “My engineering responsibilities have expanded but I am still solving problems . . . and that is what an engineer does.”

He is president and CEO of ISG, the Mankato-based firm father Ken Surprenant, P. E., formed in 1973 with Gene Isakson, P. E., as I+S Engineering. The 45-year-old consulting firm has exploded to become one of the fast-growing in the country. According to the 2017 Engineering News-Record magazine revenue survey, ISG is the third fastest-growing firm in the country. ISG, which also provides architectural, environmental and planning services, leaped from 452 to 349 in size ranking during the past year among the magazine’s Top 500 Design Firms. The increase far outdistanced any Minnesota firm. Firms are ranked according to amount of annual revenue.

Growth has been fueled by combined factors. ISG recently announced acquisition of Waterloo, Iowa-based StruXture Architects. With offices in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, ISG is in the process of opening a Sioux Falls office, which will be staffed by four people from the Mankato office. The firm has over 260 employees. In addition to its long-standing Mankato presence, ISG has offices in Bloomington and Faribault. Wisconsin locations are in Green Bay and LaCrosse. Iowa offices are in Des Moines, Storm Lake and Waterloo.

The focus on growth is consistent with a long-held Surprenant belief that maintains, “If you are not growing, you are dying.” Growth has come primarily from within. “About 25 percent of the
increase is the result of acquisitions,” Surprenant noted. About ten years ago, the firm had 60 employees and generated $5 million in annual revenue. A decade later those figures have more than quadrupled.

Suprenant noted a seminal moment relating to growth happened when he realized the firm had to take one of two approaches. One choice was to remain geographic-oriented and “chase after” some of around 20 projects available to firms in the Mankato area or become more client-focused and connect with companies who might need engineering services for projects spread through a far-ranging area. Suprenant opted for the second alternative in the early 2000s. That decision was facilitated by the addition of Wisconsin-based Kohl’s Department Stores to the ISG client list. The firm did work for Kohl stores in Mankato and Owatonna. The Fortune 500 company was a good match and significantly changed the future of ISG. It was a substantial client for several years. About the same time, Suprenant directed the firm to change its marketing approach. The firm his father and Isakson started 35 years certainly had been successful. (Isakson left within a couple of years for a future than included working as sales manager for Wheeler Lumber & Bridge Company from his Mankato home.) Ken and his wife Mary maintained ownership. The firm is now 100-percent employee owned.

Ken Suprenant was a fellow with a wide variety of interests. Chad, youngest of four children, developed a close relationship with his multi-talented father. Dad was an excellent baseball pitcher for the local town team as well as a capable musician. “He was pretty good at whatever he did,” his son recalls. Ken studied electrical and mechanical engineering at Mankato State College and the University of Minnesota before eventually winding up at Iowa State where he earned a civil engineering degree. He worked as an assistant city engineer for Mankato and New Ulm as well as with Mankato-based consulting firm Bolton & Menk before starting I+S.

Suprenant observed another factor in the firm’s success involved altering its sales philosophy. “At one time, we were like most firms,” he said, “our focus was on promoting how capable and talented we were in various areas. While that sounded nice the key to our success has been the ability to show clients how hiring us  can be beneficial to them. We started pointing out how our skills enable them to become more successful. It has been a very good formula.”

Surprenant is not adverse to stealing a familiar line from a Clint Eastwood “Dirty Harry” movie of years past, which advises, “A man has to know his limitations.” The younger Suprenant took that advisory seriously and readily acknowledges he is not the best person to close a business deal. “I am just not a salesman or a closer,” he acknowledges. Fortunately, he notes, ISG has capable people to play that role.

For certain, with his family background it is no surprise Suprenant became an engineer. He remembers playing around drafting tables at his father’s firm. That presence led to being drafted into performing a variety of engineering-related functions. The teenage Suprenant delivered blueprints and worked on a survey crew. Following graduation from East Mankato High School, he gave some consideration to studying chemistry and becoming a chemical engineer but dropped that idea when he realized, “I didn’t like chemistry.” Instead, he opted for dad’s alma mater and attended Iowa State University to study civil engineering, graduating in 1993.

Suprenant recalls his goal in those days was to get a college degree, play baseball and have a great social life but not necessarily in that order. A standout pitcher at Mankato East, he soon learned
obtaining an engineering degree is not compatible with time and dedication needed to play baseball at a major college. After considering joining other consulting firms following graduation, Suprenant ultimately decided to stay in the family business. Ken Surprenant was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and died in 2011.

Surprenant maintains a strong interest in his home town and remains very loyal to his old high school. He still remembers rejecting pleas from students at rival Mankato West to switch schools so he could play baseball there. The Suprenant family, in days long before open enrollment in the state was even a glimmer in anyone’s eye, lived in the East Mankato school district. In those days, dad would have had to move the entire family to the Mankato West school district.

And Surprenant’s school loyalty is backed by demonstrated generosity. One year ago he donated $100,000 to Mankato East with the funding used to support athletic and arts-related programs. A prime motivation was negative news stories about his alma mater. He said he hoped the gift would inspire his three children and others to promote positive change.

Surprenant also acknowledged the substantial gift likely surprised all teachers who may have taught him three decades earlier. “I was never considered the best student in any class,” he admits. “I
suspect any remaining teachers from those days were very baffled and perplexed after learning the former student making that type of donation was a fellow named Chad Surpenant.”

Article originally featured as the cover story of Engineering Minnesota Vol. 53 No. 1.

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