30 years after its founding, AE2S still going strong
Vein retired from AE2S last May. Now, it is celebrating its 30th anniversary with 26 locations and satellite offices to show its progress.
Charlie Vein and Steve Burian started AE2S 30 years ago with a drafting table, a computer Vein borrowed from his brother, a single desk they shared and some business cards in a cramped office beneath a depot at 667 DeMers Ave.
“The first day we hit the road and started talking to people and started to build ourselves up," Vein said.
AE2S is a civil and environmental consulting engineering firm specializing in wastewater and water resources system consulting.
Vein retired from AE2S last May. Now, the company is celebrating its 30th anniversary with 26 locations and satellite offices to show its progress.
Did Vein have any idea how much he and Steve Burian's tiny basement company would grow over the next three decades?
"I'm asked that question quite often, and it's probably it's probably a poor answer. But no, I really didn't," Vein said.
The company consistently hired new employees as demand for AE2S rose over the years. It moved from location to location while opening new ones. Vein thought it would surely end at some point.
"There really was no thought of how big it would be," Vein said. "It was always amazing. ... I remember hiring our first person, you know, 'How are we going to hire that?' And then we'd get up to five and get up to 10 and go beyond, and every hire up was amazing."
Vein didn’t even want to help start the company at first. He had a wife and 1-, 3- and 5-year old daughters at home. His wife was a stay-at-home mom, and he said it definitely wasn’t an opportune time to step out and take a risk financially. They did it anyway.
“I knew in early ‘91 that I needed to make a change, and I looked at probably five different options,” Vein said. “My least favorite one was starting a firm, but the other doors closed, and that became the option. It was a time when I got to know Steve (Burian) pretty well through some work he had been doing in Grand Forks to say, ‘Hey, let’s start this firm.’ It was basically two weeks prior to Oct. 1 when we made that decision.”
A year later, AE2S had outgrown its humble abode thanks to an increase in revenue and a need for more employees to keep up with demand. It moved to 414 University Ave., where it soon began providing geomatic services. In 1996, it moved again to a location at 2016 S. Washington St. Later that year it began providing stormwater engineering services – that service later became its water resources practice.
When the 1997 flood decimated Grand Forks, the AE2S office moved to Northwood for a month. The company helped the city save its water treatment plant. Vein had prior experience with the plant as he had been responsible for expanding and redesigning it in 1984.
“I knew that plant inside and out,” Vein said. “In ‘97, I got a call at 3 o’clock in the morning saying the city was in huge trouble with the rising water coming faster than they thought, so we started helping the city fight the flood for one day, and then it was lost. So, then it was a matter of an effort of three different segments – how can we deal with our water supply and treatment, how can we deal with the distribution system and how can we find temporary water supply until we get the plant up and running?”
Fortunately, the water dropped faster than Vein thought it would. AE2S and the city were able to assess the damage and bring contractors in to fix the mostly electrical damage that was done and bring generators in because there was no power supply.
Three days later, it was running again.
“That was quite a feat,” Vein said. “We started refilling the distribution system and getting life back. We realized that life wasn’t going to happen in any type of recovery until we had water available. We had a lot of staff that got dispersed through that whole process.”
In late April 1997, the company hired its future CEO, Grant Meyer, as an intern. Vein said it was no accident Meyer ended up running the company two decades after he joined it.
“Grant worked for that,” Vein said. “He was literally crawling through sewer pipes when he started. I am amazed at him as a leader in this company and not only how he has impressed me, but how he has impressed clients across the company. I feel blessed that he is in that position.”
Despite being in high school when the company was founded, Meyer has been there for much of it. He worked his way up to operations manager in 2006, director of business development in 2014 and chief development officer in 2017. In January 2019, he was promoted to CEO of the company.
"At the time, we were in that office on South Washington,” Meyer said. “They didn't even have carpets back on the floors yet, and I think the drains at the lower level of the office building were still plugged. It was very much at the tail-end. I’m sure there were large parts of Grand Forks that weren’t even opened back up yet when I started working with the team and jumped in, no pun intended, pretty deep and pretty early on flood recovery with the City of Grand Forks.”
Meyer is proud of working in an industry that’s completely necessary for society to function in the 21st century.
“If you’re doing your job well, then chances are nobody cares,” Meyer said. “You open a faucet, and clean drinking water comes out. If you flush your toilet or you take a shower, then it all goes away. If we do our job right nobody notices.”
Meyer is proud of AE2S’s expansion efforts, but more than anything he is proud of the culture that has been created at the company. He takes pride in having employees that truly care about not only their work, but the company at large.
He worked professionally with one company from the ground all the way up to the top. As modest as he is about that feat, he still recognizes its significance. Yet he is quick to thank those who helped him on the way up and credit the work culture he hopes to maintain into the future as its CEO.
“Culturally, the company has always been incredibly supportive, and that has been very important to me as one of those foundational aspects that I’ve always appreciated,” Meyer said. “I think it’s imperative to continue providing that kind of opportunity for people in their careers.”
The growth of that culture culminated in 2018 when AE2S moved to an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, meaning its employees now have ownership interest in the company. More than anything, Meyer is excited for the future of the company – not because of its likelihood for more expansion, but because it will expand upon the legacy Vein and Burian, who is no longer with the company, began 30 years ago.
“I think that was a great move for the now employee-owners of AE2S,” Meyer said. “We’re a business. There's no doubt about that. But, we’re also a business of people and relationships. We’re professional service consultants. We don’t sell widgets, we sell experience, expertise and time, and that comes from the people that make up the company. AE2S as a company is really a function of the people that are a part of our organization. To incorporate that, to really demonstrate how important those people are to the success of the organization by bringing in an employee-ownership model, I think it really speaks to the culture of the firm and the recognition that we are nothing more than the people that make up our organization.”