Charlie Vein reflects on his career, impact of regional engineering firm he co-founded

Based in Grand Forks, AE2S employs about 300 people in 23 offices throughout eight states

Charlie Vein, president and co-founder of AE2S, is retiring after a 30-year career with the company. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

From a small one-room office in the basement of the old depot in downtown Grand Forks, the AE2S engineering firm has grown far beyond what Charlie Vein could have imagined about 30 years ago.

When he and co-founder Steve Burian launched the company in October 1991, “we started from scratch,” said Vein, who is retiring this month.

“We basically had a drafting table, a borrowed computer, a desk and business cards, and that’s all we had,” he said, adding, “with a 1-year-old, a 3-year old and a 5-year-old at home.”

Today, AE2S – short for Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services, LLC – specializes in water-related engineering projects. It employs about 300 people in 23 offices serving the Dakotas, Minnesota, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Wisconsin.

Vein has dedicated much of his 45-year engineering career to improving drinking water quantity and quality for residents of the Upper Midwest. He has been heavily involved in the development of AE2S offices in Grand Forks and Williston, N.D.; Maple Grove, Minn.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Lehi, Utah.


Among the many highlights of his career is his role in serving as project manager for the modernization of the city of Grand Forks Water Treatment Plant in 1984, when he was employed by KBM engineering firm, he said.

Prior to starting AE2S, he was employed for about 15 years at KBM, where he worked on a variety of projects.

“I realized that the water treatment area required your complete attention to stay on top of requirements, technologies and equipment and those kinds of things,” he said. “I was given the unique opportunity at KBM to move into the drinking water engineering side of their business, so I was able to concentrate on that. … By far, my personal major project was, I basically redesigned the Grand Forks water plant.

“We modified the existing processes and added new processes, and it’s been fun to see that plant operate until this year, when it got replaced with the new plant,” he said.

“That got me into the water world. It specifically got me into the surface water world, which is even more defined and, regulatory-wise, there were some very specific, new requirements that all of the surface water plants had to meet. And that was the thing that got me to look at starting a company that did drinking water.”


The AE2S co-founders Vein and Burian carved an unusual spot in the engineering industry.

“We weren’t like any of our competition,” Vein said, “because most engineering firms are what I would call generalists; they do this (water-related work), but they do a lot of things. I found in my experience that I couldn’t be designing streets and roads one day and a complex water plant the next day. It required complete concentration.

“We started very much of a niche firm, specifically in drinking water,” he said.


Vein and his AE2S colleagues have also been at the forefront of other important water-related projects here and throughout the region.

He led the effort to rebuild the Grand Forks water treatment system after the historic Flood of 1997, as well as the city’s subsequent recovery efforts. He had the unique advantage of complete knowledge and understanding of the system because he had designed it 13 years earlier.

During the height of the oil boom in western North Dakota, Vein invested considerable time working to find solutions to the problem of insufficient water supplies for an area that was growing rapidly.

He helped coordinate the infrastructure needs for Williston, which more than doubled in population between 2010 and 2020. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Western Area Water Supply Authority through legislation in 2011.

As he approaches a new chapter in his life, Vein reflects on the pillars that have made the firm so successful.

“Trust is huge,” he said. “If someone is going to trust us to design a $100 million water plant, they better have faith that you’re going to be able to do the job.”

The AE2S employees work on projects that range in cost from the millions to over $1 billion.

Fordville farm roots

Vein, who grew up in the Fordville, N.D., area, attended school in Fordville, before his family moved to Grand Forks when he entered ninth grade. He graduated from Grand Forks Central High School in 1972 and earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from UND in 1976.


He credits teachers and coaches, including Pat Sullivan at Central and Frank Zazula at UND, for their positive influence.

“The relationships I developed with my coaches were extremely meaningful in my life,” he said.

Sullivan and Zazula were “huge impacts in my life.”

Over the years, Vein has received numerous awards and accolades from industry organizations, including the 1997 Environmental Achievement Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the 2006 Kenneth J. Miller Founders Award and the 2007 George Warren Fuller Award, both from the American Water Works Association.

But he is emphatic that the recognition belongs to the people who work at AE2S and the relationships they’ve built with clients that have led to successful projects.

“Relationships are first and foremost for Charlie,” said Grant Meyer, AE2S CEO. “Yeah, it’s a business, but Charlie’s always focused on the people part of it above everything else. You take good care of the clients, you take good care of your staff, and the business side of things will more or less take care of itself.”

Vein has mastered the art of developing close professional and, sometimes, personal relationships with clients and staff members, leaders of state and federal agencies, legislators and local politicians, Meyer said. Those connections have been key to building a level of trust that ultimately leads to successful water-related projects across the region.

Vein recognizes that “it’s the people that make the company,” Meyer said. That approach has been an important factor in building a company that enjoys “incredibly high repeat business. I will frequently talk about (how) we don’t chase projects; we want to develop relationships with clients and, over time, those clients will have projects.”


‘Core values’

Meyer, who began working at AE2S as a UND graduate in spring 1997, said, “The core values of AE2S, as long as I’ve been here, have gone back to the same six words: attitude, vision, integrity, passion, relationships and value.”

“The values AE2S promotes as a firm are the values that Charlie lives every day,” Meyer said.

“The legacy he leaves at AE2S is truly awe-inspiring. Charlie’s legacy is a foundation of core values, relationships and commitment to client success that will continue to guide the leadership of AE2S for the next generation.”

“Charlie is a wonderful mentor who went into the engineering field to improve people’s lives by improving their drinking water,” Meyer said. “I can say without a doubt, Charlie made a difference in the lives of thousands and thousands of people – from the residents of large and small communities across the eight states where AE2S has offices to the people he’s helped through his charitable work.”

Soft-spoken and modest, Vein prefers to take a broader view of the company.

“I feel totally blessed to be part of this company,” he said. “This isn’t about me; this company is not about me. It’s about a great team that has come together to do great things.”

In recent weeks, he’s driven hundreds of miles to various AE2S offices, a "thank you tour," visiting with staff and clients, he said. “It’s been a fun time of reflecting.”

Vein doesn’t think of this change as retirement, but rather as another stage of life – when he will be able to spend more time with his wife, Leeza, and their three daughters and grandchildren.


“I still want to do some significant things,” he said, which will include engaging with and supporting a number of Christian ministries.

Since his retirement was announced, Vein seems genuinely surprised by the responses.

“The comments I’ve received from staff and clients have blown me away,” he said.

“I’m just an ordinary engineer doing my work. I’ll go away thinking more about the people than the projects.”

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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