Small business: More than a pretty billboard site

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 25, 2008 - 11:42 PM

A small engineering firm's expertise in municipal water projects helps keep it afloat in a down economy. Light-rail utility work also is a key to future growth.

Keeping millions of gallons of water aloft is a specialty for Progressive Consulting Engineers, a small Twin Cities firm that designed this structure that towers over Hibbing, Minn.

Photo: Progressive Consulting Engineers

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Water towers, eye-catching landmarks to most of us, are all part of a day's work for Naeem Qureshi of Progressive Consulting Engineers.

Designing a tower that can hold millions of gallons of water -- and serve as a canvas for a community logo -- is fairly routine for Qureshi, a civil engineer with four decades of experience in water-supply projects.

A greater challenge can be running a small engineering firm that can tackle such massive undertakings. For Qureshi and other small-business owners, the economic slowdown and the prospect of competition from larger firms only add to the complications.

"The business side is the one that most entrepreneurs need a lot of help on," Qureshi said. "They know their products, they know their services, but putting things together and trying to make it work from a business standpoint is where most entrepreneurs like myself lack experience. They didn't teach that in school. They taught engineering."

To add to his business expertise and help shape his company's strategy, Qureshi has turned frequently to MEDA, the Metropolitan Economic Development Association. The Minneapolis nonprofit agency provides business development assistance and other services to minority-owned and managed companies.

Qureshi, who first went to MEDA after making his part-time company into a full-time endeavor in 1985, is working with the agency again as he sets out to boost annual revenue to $2 million; this year's is expected to reach $1.5 million.

This time, Qureshi, his wife, Nuzhat, and another employee are taking part in the MEDA Entrepreneurial Leadership Program. The new three-year program provides personal leadership assessment, executive coaching and business-plan development.

Clients get advisory councils

It also establishes an external, professional advisory council for each client company, to support business and leadership development. MEDA has chosen MDA Leadership Consulting in Minneapolis and Consulting Solutions in Alexandria, Minn., to develop the program, financed in part by a grant from the Bush Foundation as well as support from Jostens Inc. and Travelers Companies Inc.

"This is going to help us work much more effectively, and develop plans that can grow the company much faster," Qureshi said.

The plan in part involves adding a couple of people to the company's staff of 12, Qureshi said. "They have to be well-rounded people and understand the mission of the company and move that forward," he said.

Making those hires may not be easy, because of what Qureshi said is a dearth of civil engineers locally and the better salaries and benefits big firms offer. His hope is to find engineers who happen to be relocating to the metro area because of a spouse's work-related move.

He hopes to train employees to take over management of the firm so he can concentrate on the project work he enjoys. Qureshi has no immediate retirement plans but has begun giving company shares to employees based on their performance. This method of progressively transferring ownership to employees is part of his exit strategy.

Qureshi credits MEDA with helping him narrow the company's focus and concentrate on water-related engineering work. That insight came during an executive training program sponsored by the University of St. Thomas.

'Focusing on water'

"When I started out, I had to keep food on my table, so I would do anything for anybody," Qureshi said. "They said, 'You've got to do the things you're best at.' From that point on, I'm focusing on water."

Qureshi, a native of Pakistan, came to Minnesota in 1973 to pursue his education, eventually earning a master's degree in engineering from the University of Minnesota.

He got a taste of entrepreneurial difficulties early on. The engineering firm he had worked with for a short time lost a major client and began downsizing.

Instead of waiting to lose his job, he left to start finding his own projects. "I enjoyed this aspect of meeting people and getting work, so that's what I did," Qureshi said.

But that led to 80-hour workweeks that were not good for him or his family. By the mid-1970s, he found a job with the city of Minneapolis Water Works Department, where he spent nine years on water supply, treatment and distribution projects.

In 1980, he began doing small engineering projects in his spare time. Five years later, he left the city job and used his $25,000 retirement fund to take his side business full-time as Progressive Consulting Engineers.

The company has designed water treatment plants, water towers and distribution systems in a number of metro-area suburbs and outstate cities. The housing slump has slowed demand for new projects, but rehabilitating water plants, some dating to the early 1960s, provides steady business.

To stay competitive, Qureshi said he concentrates on providing better service. "Our big focus is responsiveness, quality of work and understanding the client's needs," Qureshi said.

Those qualities have turned several clients into repeat customers, including St. Louis Park, where the company has completed one water plant rehabilitation project and is working on another.

"What impressed me was the upfront work in the process," said Scott Anderson, the city's utilities superintendent. "We actually had very few changes. The key factor to me is they give us personal attention, spend time upfront, make us feel important and excel on communication, any little thing that comes up."

The company also has developed an expertise in figuring out how to relocate utility lines to make way for light-rail transit projects, Qureshi said. Progressive helped plot the relocation of more than 550 utility lines for the Hiawatha light-rail project; it now has four employees working on the Central Corridor development.

The expert says: Jim Faricy, a MEDA business consultant who has worked with Qureshi for about a decade, said competition from larger companies is a potential concern for Progressive Consulting Engineers.

The economic slowdown has some big firms pursuing jobs that normally would be below their sights, although he said Progressive's water and utilities niches may be relatively safe. Qureshi's track record also should keep the company busy.

Qureshi's choice to focus on water supply projects has positioned the company well for the long term, Faricy said.

"The country is woefully behind on upgrading water systems," he said. "It should be a good area going into the future."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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