With a little help from his friends, young professional carries second-generation business to next level.
Photo by Jeff Silker
In the mid-’70s, young Chad Surprenant’s chin is barely above the kitchen table and almost every evening at dinner he’s engaged in conversational repartee with his parents and three older siblings. They discuss and debate politics, current events, and aspects of their family business. Quite an introduction to the world of ideas. Chad grows up being heard and treated as an equal at home though he’s the baby, eight years younger than his closest sibling. In other words, he is being nurtured by a rock-solid phalanx of maturity.
Today, Surprenant is trying to recreate at I&S Engineers & Architects this same “kitchen table” atmosphere. To a great extent he’s succeeding.
The seed for I&S Engineers & Architects was planted in the early ‘60s on the prairie sod of Currie, Minn., after town bankers believed Chad’s father Ken Surprenant too much of a loan risk. In time, the whole family would prove them wrong.
“My parents were dirt poor then,” said Chad, 34, from his Mankato office on North Riverfront Drive. “They tried in 1963 getting more banking support to purchase farming equipment. When failing, they ended up selling everything and one of them went back to college.”
Like every decision taken by Ken and Mary Jo Surprenant, this matter of college and who would attend was discussed openly and honestly. In time the couple decided that Ken was most marketable of the two because society wasn’t quite ready for a woman receiving an education and then working and her husband being the homemaker. So Mary Jo worked nights while Ken attended Iowa State and filled in caring for the children. They worked together as a team, as equals.
Said Chad, “They went down there $600 in the hole and came out of Iowa State in 1966 $400 ahead.”
Ken’s first job post-college came as assistant city engineer for the City of Mankato. He was a mature 32, but fresh out of college and no work experience except farming. “Almost immediately the city engineer in Mankato resigned and Ken was named acting city engineer,” said Chad of his father’s first big break in his profession. “But to be a licensed engineer you have to be under the supervision of a professional engineer four years before taking the professional exam. When the city engineer resigned, Ken no longer had anyone supervising him. He did stay in Mankato for two years and it was an eye-opening experience—much more of a political world than he thought. Mainly, he left the City of Mankato because of his licensure situation, of wanting to progress in his profession.”
In 1969, Ken took a position as assistant city engineer in New Ulm, where he would work for two years under its city engineer. The next year Chad was born. That two-year stint in New Ulm went well, but the community was smaller than Mankato and the elder Surprenant desired a more challenging work environment. So from 1971-73, he worked as a civil engineer for Bolton & Menk, eventually earning his professional engineer designation there.
In 1973, Ken met and befriended Gene Isakson, a professional engineer and concrete pipe salesman. Isakson persuaded Ken to leave Bolton & Menk and begin I&S Engineers (short for Isakson and Surprenant). Isakson’s parents financed a portion. A year in, Isakson asked to be bought out and somehow the Surprenants, with four hungry children and not far distant from being dirt-poor, scratched out a buyout package. The company already was hampered by Ken’s no-compete clause from Bolton & Menk forbidding involvement in any civil engineering work, which limited the firm to structural and mechanical engineering, and industrial facility design.
From there, I&S Engineers plugged along through the ‘80s on whatever business walked in off the street, literally, because Ken and Mary Jo’s personalities weren’t sales-and marketing-oriented. In time, government regulations forced a few changes at the business, such as requiring architect and engineer signatures on finished building plans, but overall the culture and size—about ten employees—remained stable through 1993.
Then Chad graduated from college at age 23. “If there’s anything I’ve done for this company,” he said, “it was probably then. I was able to infuse a different approach, to help everyone step back and look at the bigger picture.”
Why did the elder Surprenants listen to their young son?
“When the company started, I was 3 and literally crawling around underneath the drafting tables,” said Chad. “It started in our basement. I was there all the time. At supper we always had very open conversations. My parents are very much equal partners. Our kitchen conversations were about business, politics—you could discuss anything and everything. The children in our family were 100 percent equals. Why would my parents listen to me at 23? They listened because they had been listening since I was 3. We had four children in our family. There were six votes. There were times, certainly, when the ‘president,’ either Ken or Mary Jo, had veto power. But for the most part it was a family of equals.”
So they listened. And young Chad helped raise the company to the next level.
“I had worked here at I&S during summers in college,” he said. “I think my father saw me as the partner he’d always wanted. From the beginning in 1993 he and I dreamed and would take our dreams to Mary Jo and she would say we couldn’t afford them. This was the way it went then. Officially, I don’t know when I was named president, maybe two or three years ago, maybe 2001. But in truth, by the mid-‘90s, I was performing most of the ‘presidential’ and managerial duties.”
Ken’s strengths are more analytical. He was the oldest boy of 13 children on a post-depression farm, learning to fix every piece of farm equipment in sight. “He’s good at reading people, but not quite as good mixing with them,” said Chad of 69-year-old Ken, still very much active in the business. “In a sense his personality colors our company. We have been very low profile. But my father is also artistic and a dreamer, too. In a perfect world, his day would involve puttering around at home, fixing equipment, playing with tractors, and writing poetry at night.”
He described his mother. “Her gift is handling the finances. She isn’t a dreamer or planner. She wants to make sure at the end of the day everything balances. She is more comfortable than Ken around people, though she doesn’t recognize it. They make an interesting team. They have always worked well and have mutual respect for each other.”
Chad is the only younger Surprenant at I&S Engineers and Architects. An older brother is a technical writer for Cokato software firm Paisley Consulting and a sister designs credit card programs for Target Corp. Another sister helps place University of Minnesota business graduates in jobs.
As a “Surprenant,” marketing doesn’t come easily for Chad, but he compensates for his natural deficiency by inviting competent marketing people to the “kitchen table” and by trying harder himself. In today’s business climate, he said, marketing is necessary for survival. For example, take the recent Victory Drive project linking Highway 14 to Mankato’s Madison Ave. in which I&S designed water and sewage improvements. Funding came from various governments and required intensive lobbying by Blue Earth County Engineer Al Forsberg. “You sometimes literally have to walk into these legislators’ offices pushing for these projects, and Al does a great job of it,” he said.
How does he overcome his lack of natural marketing ability? “I don’t necessarily like public speaking,” he said, “and I don’t like selling. But I find them an interesting challenge. I don’t mind having my boundaries pushed. I like going in front of a group where I feel uncomfortable because of the feeling of satisfaction I get afterwards. I might be tied up in a knot going in, though. That’s a lot of what business is about. They didn’t teach us those things in civil engineering school. A lot of business is ‘learn as you go.’”
And it is here where Chad Surprenant especially deserves recognition as Connect Business Magazine Business Person of the Year. He’s a person that understands—and doesn’t fear facing up to—his personal limitations. He said, “Mr. Niemi was my humanities teacher at Mankato East. One thing I remember from his class was a line from Plato: ‘I know that I do not know, therefore I am wise.’ I think I’m fairly good at knowing what I don’t know. Yet I don’t want too many limitations. I want to be able to accomplish a lot. I’m very proud of what our company does.”
Surprenant attributed most of the company’s growth—from ten employees in 1993 to 60 in two offices today—to the many competent people he has brought to the “kitchen table.” Each was added to compensate for his personal and family limitations.
Here began a litany of success.
First, the company physically enlarged the “kitchen table” by relocating in March 1998 to a facility on North Riverfront Drive, one that could accommodate growth.
Second, he befriended Blue Earth County Commissioner Al Bennett in 1997, who, over time, would objectively evaluate Chad’s business and personal strengths and weaknesses. The relationship began when Bennett called to offer support following Surprenant’s divorce. After months of soul-searching, I&S and Surprenant hired Bennett in 2004 and the former commissioner now acts in large measure as Chad’s and the company’s “personal coach.”
Third, Surprenant remarried in 2000 and “has support at home,” he said. “It’s not like my parents’ relationship, where they are immersed in the same business. My wife is level-headed, someone who can ride out the highs and lows of life.”
Fourth is his continuing relationship with his parents, the ones who first brought him to the kitchen table. Said Chad, “They didn’t give me full rein, but pretty darn close to it. I don’t know if I could turn this company over to a child of mine the way they did. They still work here.”
Fifth: I&S recently brought on “non-Surprenant” partners. “This was a critical component to our future success, something we had to do,” said Chad. “We were fortunate enough to bring on two people already here: Jason Hoehn, a structural engineer, and Corey Brunton, an architect. We will bring on other owners in time.” Chad tries also recreating “owner” meetings in the image of past kitchen table discussions, saying, “I don’t care what percentage each person has. I’m more interested where they see business going. It’s very deliberate that the new owners are a structural engineer and an architect.”
Sixth: Another table member is Beth Colway, ex-Breiter Media Group, who has compensated well for the lack of Surprenant marketing genes.
Seventh: The young Turks needed challenges. To accommodate these younger, high-octane employees, the company opened a Faribault office and gave them the family car keys. Today that office alone employs ten. “We didn’t want to lose them,” Chad admitted. “So we had to find a market to keep them on board. Also, they were my friends and I want to see them grow as people and take on challenges the way my parents and I have.” The “family-like” atmosphere at I&S translates to low turnover, with only one person voluntarily leaving each of the last four years.
Finally, Chad recently brought on an employee to handle accounts receivable, a function Mary Jo Surprenant alone had since 1973. “We’re growing and adding so many,” he said. “The only area where we haven’t grown much is my mother’s job. Though doubling in size every three years, we still funnel nearly everything through this gray-haired, 66-year-old lady. In a sense everyone’s job is easier because we’ve hired so many. But hers is harder at a time in her life when it shouldn’t be that way.”
In retrospect, I&S Engineers & Architects has succeeded primarily because of an ownership group honestly able to evaluate its weaknesses and in those areas trust others more competent. Not a bad lesson learned by an 8-year-old boy resting his chin on the table’s edge, listening to family members discuss the ins and outs of creating a successful business.
What Is Civil Engineering?
It’s the granddaddy of all engineering professions. It’s the distribution of water, the collection and treatment of sewage, surveying, and building roads and highways. As societies have become more technologically advanced, other disciplines have developed around civil engineering, such as mechanical engineering, which in our company involves designing heating ventilation and air conditioning systems. Electrical engineering was a spin-off when electricity became available. The same happened with computer engineering. —Chad Surprenant.
You Name It
Company partner Gene Isakson sold his shares of I&S Engineers in 1974 to the Surprenants, so why would they keep the “I” in its name so many years?
Said Chad Surprenant, president, “I work here and never think of it as Isakson and Surprenant. I&S is just a name. The last thing they wanted to do back in 1974 was change the name. They kept it for continuity with customers. We added “& Architects” to our name in 1994 because we felt saddled by the “Engineers” only name. We had architects on board then. Having just “Engineers” didn’t reflect all we were doing. It’s a long name now and there has been discussion about changing it again.”
The Answer, My Friends, Is Bob.
I know a lot about Bob Dylan. I have about 45 of his albums and countless books. Down at Iowa State my third year, some friends and me moved into a house. They partied and I was hoping to get a degree. One day I listened to a Bob Dylan CD and loved what I heard. I started buying more and more. That year I separated from my friends and Bob Dylan ended up being my friend that year I was studying. The love for his music just stuck. I’ve been a ‘Dylan head’ ever since.
My first wife’s mother went to Hibbing High School with Bob Dylan. I have copies of a page in her yearbook with his senior photo and a caption saying he wanted to be a member of’’Little Richard’s band.’ I also have several copies of a personal, full-page note from Dylan to her written into her yearbook. He talked about liking her, that she was cool to hang out with, and of wanting to give her a ride on his motorcycle. He also wrote, “It seems like every time I see you socially I’m dizzy.” Perhaps being dizzy meant he’d been drinking. Two years after that in 1961 he changed his name from Bob Zimmerman to Bob Dylan and was in New York City. —Chad Surprenant.
Civil Engineering, MSU Style
MSU’s engineering school dean, John Frey, asked Chad Surprenant in 1999 if outstate Minnesota needed a civil engineering school. Chad said yes, and immediately was recruited to an advisory board. Remarkably, MSU’s program began in 2001 and was accredited only three years later. Surprenant gave most of the credit to Jon Rippke of Bolton & Menk, who “really had a vision for this,” and to Ken Saffert, Mankato city engineer.
“At MSU we didn’t want a research- and theory-based civil engineering program. We wanted applied science. We looked at our company, and I’m sure Bolton and Menk at theirs, and saw a lot of good, young engineers that had come from somewhere other than Mankato. Most were from NDSU, Minnesota, SDSU and Iowa State.”
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