Steen Engineering seeks sustainable growth as next-generation leadership steps up

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2014 - 2:00 PM

After 20 years, Steen Engineering of Crystal is remaking its business plan to continue growing through a leadership transition and beyond.

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Mark Brengman, center, is president of Steen Engineering, which was founded 20 years ago by Steve Youngs, left, and Gene Striefel.

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com,

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Steen Engineering, a specialist in designing heating and cooling systems for senior housing, is coming off its best “non-construction” season in recent memory thanks to a simple idea: getting more employees to bring in work.

For years, only principals at the Crystal-based company focused on finding projects and developing clients. Now, the entire staff is encouraged to make connections with clients and partners at other building firms.

“We are seeing probably an average of 35 percent of new projects that come in monthly being brought in from our staff,” said Teri Spurling, the ­company’s director of business administration and finance.

It’s a critical change for a company that celebrated its 20th anniversary last month and seeks to maintain sustainable growth while also planning for a different future.

Finding new leaders

“In the next two to five years when we have to find new leaders, it’s a way to train them and get them thinking about not only the one project they’re working on but what they’re doing to keep busy and keep their job next month and six months from now,” said Mark Brengman, the company’s president.

Brengman is projecting growth of 15 to 20 percent on last year’s revenue of $3 million, with an aging population likely to continue driving demand for senior housing.

The firm has 21 employees, down from a prerecession total of 33. After laying off more than half its staff in the recession, the firm reduced wages to keep together a core group of employees. It has since lifted wages back up.

Steen Engineering offers mechanical and electrical engineering and heating, ventilation and air conditioning design services, among others. It specializes in senior living, from multi­family developments to assisted living and long-term care facilities, plus medical facilities and geothermal heating and cooling projects. The firm works in markets including commercial, governmental, educational, hospitality and retail.

Brengman, a licensed mechanical engineer, joined the firm just a couple of years after founding partners Steve Youngs and Gene Striefel, who combined their first names to give Steen Engineering its name, launched the company in a basement office with a pool table doubling as a drafting table.

Youngs, a licensed electrical engineer, and Striefel, a master electrician with broad experience in mechanical and electrical construction management, are still active but they and the firm are preparing for their exits. Spurling, Striefel’s daughter, has been with the firm since its early days.

Brengman is working to develop leaders among the current staff. With electrical engineers difficult to find, Brengman may consider merging with another firm to replace Youngs’ expertise when he departs in five or six years. Striefel is expected to leave at the end of 2014.

Steen Engineering’s experience in senior living and geothermal heating and cooling came together in its work at Carondelet Village, a senior living community that opened on Fairview Avenue in St. Paul in 2011.

The firm worked as a subconsultant to InSite Architects on the project of independent, assisted-living and memory-care apartments and skilled-care units. They built a geothermal system and worked around both an existing building and protected wetlands and trees.

“Senior living, they have a real understanding of that,” said Kirk Velett of InSite Architects, a St. Paul firm that specializes in senior and affordable housing. “They work a lot with us and the owner in helping us understand both first costs as well as life-cycle costs. They’re a great resource. We’ve enjoyed working with them for the last 20 years.”

Planning tool tracks actions

Steen Engineering is halfway through its second year of using a consulting firm’s online tool to set goals and track progress in each department, Brengman said.

The Tracking Action tool helps companies with strategic, transition and succession plans, said Ted Capistrant, who developed it with Andy Wondra, a colleague at the Profit Builder Network consulting firm.

  • Steen Engineering

    Business: Mechanical and electrical engineering firm with expertise in designing geothermal and senior living projects, including multifamily developments, assisted-living and long-term care facilities plus medical facilities.

    Founded: 1993

    Headquarters: Crystal

    Website: www.steeneng.com

    Employees: 21

    Executives: Mark Brengman, president and principal; Steve Youngs, vice president and principal; Gene Striefel, secretary/treasurer and principal; Teri Spurling, director of business administration and finance

    2013 revenue: $3 million

    Strategy: Move forward with succession plan and developing leaders internally while using Tracking Action platform to make strategic plans, track progress and make improvements.

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