20-employee St. James design and construction firm keeping Americans safe through painstaking construction of bio-containment facilities and sanitary environments for food, beverage and pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Fresh from verdant Hawaii, blue crab Baltimore, oil-rich Oklahoma City, and with the possibility of visiting other potential construction projects in Denmark, 34-year-old Clint Brown of Industrial Construction Services (ICS) of St. James barely has time to change his socks before leaving home for yet another construction job elsewhere on the planet. He has become quite the frequent flyer the last thirteen years. Though able to spend only 100 days a year at home and having to work literally every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, July Fourth, Labor Day and Memorial Day ad infinitum, Brown nonetheless enjoys his frenetic life and lifestyle.
In just the last few years, the pace has quickened considerably, in great measure because of anthrax and avian flu fears.
“The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases put together a program for regional bio-containment laboratories and national bio-containment,” said Brown from his company conference room on South 15th Street in St. James, referring to four years ago. (He and wife Marjorie co-own ICS.) “Through some help from Arcoplast (our supplier of construction materials) and a great gentleman from Canada, Ghislain Beauregard, we became the choice material and contractor for the University of Pittsburgh regional bio-containment laboratory, Biosafety Level-3.”
That bio-containment job became the impetus for other ICS design and installation projects, including ones at The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Baltimore, and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
Bio-containment laboratories, clean rooms, and antimicrobial atmospheres for vaccine production, biomedical, and research applications, account for one-third of the company’s $3 million annual sales. That slice of the business has developed only in the last few years, almost as fast as anthrax growing in a Petri dish. Given immediate Department of Homeland Security and worldwide needs, the growth potential for constructing bio-containment laboratories is enormous.
The rest of ICS’ business, i.e., the relatively “ho-hum” construction of sanitary environments for food, beverage and pharmaceutical processing and manufacturing, has been the company’s bread and butter since 1994. These clients recognize the threat of food borne diseases, and include such food industry heavyweights as General Mills, ConAgra, Schwan’s, Safeway, M.G. Waldbaum, Nestle-Purina, Tony Downs Foods, Cargill, Hot Stuff Foods, Schweigert and Campbell Soup. The company has 20 full-time employees, but could easily use another ten, said Brown.
“I’m originally from Sanborn, Minn., a small town at the intersection of Highways 14 and 71,” said Brown of his early life. “My father was in the interiors business, selling floor tile, wall covering, wallpaper, and paint. He ended up in a three-way partnership with a gentleman from Sleepy Eye and the owner of Johnson Carpet in St. James. When Pete Johnson retired, my dad moved us to St. James and he took over the store when I was in seventh grade.” The store became Brown’s Floor and Decor.
As a boy, Brown and his brothers regularly worked for their father, often helping him load 12-foot carpet rolls into the company van. The boys also removed aging floors from hospitals, nursing homes, and church basements, and replaced floor covering in apartment buildings throughout the area.
Brown kept high marks at Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School outside of New Ulm, and for a while pondered becoming an attorney, even to the point of later considering Hamline School of Law. In 1989, during the summer before his senior year, he worked for a local masonry company and found he really enjoyed the work. After discussing his options with his parents and a St. James High advisor, Brown chose to transfer his senior year to St. James High so he could work in construction while attending high school. The 40-minute drive to and from New Ulm, and his MVL class load, would have crimped his work opportunities.
“My number of credits (from Minnesota Valley Lutheran) left me in such great shape that I actually was able to leave St. James High School every day at 11:30 am,” said Brown of his senior year. “I received credit for the rest of the day while working for a construction firm.”
After graduating in 1991, he worked for two construction companies. In 1992, he married Marjorie Linn, who he had dated at St. James High School. The couple literally moved the night of their marriage to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Brown had a position lined up to help with a massive construction project on a Sioux Falls air force base, where he spent the next six months.
The couple had chosen Sioux Falls after traveling back and forth on weekends to visit opportunities in Rochester, the Twin Cities, and Sioux Falls. They had wanted to see “more of the world” than St. James, Minnesota. Even though Brown’s father had owned a business, his grandparents a Dairy Queen, farm implement dealership and a soft water business, and his mother and older brother later would own two Laundromats, business ownership wasn’t Clint’s dream. All he wanted then was “to be the right-hand man at someone else’s company,” he said.
After returning home from Sioux Falls, Brown began working on projects for Tony Downs Foods, which had facilities in Butterfield, St. James and Madelia. Company owner Dick Downs, along with a semi-retired engineering consultant Downs had hired, Ken Uttecht, persuaded Brown over a six-month period to leave his employer for the opportunity to bid Tony Downs Foods projects on his own. They liked his work ethic that much.
“We had one son then, and our middle son was on the way,” said Clint of his family. He was also attending classes part-time at Minnesota State University. “It took a lot of persuading. My wife and I sat up late a lot of evenings deciding on whether the investment would be worth the risk. It wasn’t like I would get all the (Tony Downs) work without having to bid it. But I would get an opportunity like anyone else.”
He started the business on a shoestring budget. The first several months he worked out of his own garage and had to borrow only about $12,000 from Pioneer Bank’s David Krause, his mother’s cousin.
The type of construction work Brown chose required an affinity for fine detail. It’s an excruciatingly demanding business that relies heavily on to-the-minute scheduling, efficiency, and not cutting corners. Food, beverage and pharmaceutical plants usually require contractors to complete their work over holidays, when plant lines are shut down and employees home. Details are important because food manufacturers, in particular, always run the risk of passing bacteria on to consumers in grocery stores and restaurants. For example, an outbreak of E. coli caused by unsanitary plant conditions could lead to deaths, a ruined company reputation, lawsuits, and closure.
Said Brown, “So what we end up doing in the food industry is concentrating most on the important rooms, where the risk factor is highest, such as the processing and packaging areas. We will make those areas extremely sanitary, cleanable, and washable.”
A simple mistake while constructing these types of clean food manufacturing rooms could quickly lead to a company’s demise. And with Brown, it nearly did, right from the beginning.
The “mistake” Brown made really wasn’t his directly, but his in unknowingly choosing a particular type of construction material that didn’t hold up to its stated claim of performance. “When I started this firm, my first several projects were with the Downs Company in Madelia and Butterfield,” he said. “We used special panels that came in 4’ wide sheets. It was one-eighth inch fiberglass product that you see in a lot of restrooms and commercial kitchens, and we installed it per the manufacturer’s specifications. It was all I knew was available at the time. It wasn’t a high-performing product, but to my knowledge was what most people used in the industry.”
Brown installed the product on three Tony Downs Foods’ plant projects his first four months in business. The product quickly “delaminated from the wall, it buckled, it rolled up. We had to make this right with Tony Downs because they had paid us for the work.”
He ended up taking the manufacturer, and an adhesive company and distributor to court. Even though the three ended up paying for the job, attorney fees gobbled up the majority of the settlement. “I had purchased the product assuming it would perform to its claims and it didn’t,” Brown said. “It was a pretty touchy time for all of us here. The biggest thing was taking care of the Tony Downs Company and it was a matter of covering the expense of doing it.”
To get him through tough times, Brown’s grandfather loaned him cash on short terms.
Like with so many other business owners, Brown’s tribulations turned into opportunity. Soon, engineer Ken Uttecht pointed him toward another company making construction material, Arcoplast. By January 1995, Brown was onsite at an Arcoplast installation of a pet food factory in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Using Arcoplast as a supplier, ICS soon completed projects over various holidays at Novartis Nutrition in St. Louis Park, ConAgra Foods in St. James, and the next year at Frito-Lay in Georgia, installing new fiberglass panels on walls, floors, ceilings, doors, and dock equipment, and also stainless steel drains.
“At Frito-Lay, we were able to contain the air space around where the Doritos shake down the conveyors right before being bagged. It’s so humid in Georgia. So the less humidity they put into a bag the longer the product shelf life. It was a big deal for them.”
From there, the company made word-of-mouth connections throughout Minnesota and Iowa. Arcoplast began feeding ICS business, greatly appreciated its work, and in 2003 made the company its “preferred” distributor and installer for all North America. ICS and Arcoplast have jointly worked trade shows in Las Vegas, Chicago, Boston and Atlanta.
“We’ve built up a good relationship with Arcoplast by paying attention to the details,” said Brown. “The owner of Arcoplast, Ghislain Beauregard, has become a close personal friend of ours. He has been another great mentor of mine, along with Dick Downs and Ken Uttecht. They all invested a lot of time in me.”
The newest Arcoplast fiberglass panels, invented in 2002, have an anti-microbial surface containing silver ions mixed in with the wet resin and gel coat. Brown claimed that silver has been a recognized anti-microbial agent for hundreds of years. The fiberglass panels, which are manufactured in sizes up to 10×50 to reduce the number joints that could foster bacteria growth, are smooth and impervious to water. Before 2002, Arcoplast panels were marketed simply as “high-gloss, minimal joint, and easily washable,” he said.
Besides meeting with engineers of companies seeking their services, ICS has its own design team using the latest computer software. Many times, ICS receives drawings from large architectural and engineering firms specifying Arcoplast product—and since ICS is Arcoplast’s preferred distributor, it usually receives the job.
“I didn’t see 9/11 coming, and I don’t believe the owner of Arcoplast saw it coming, either,” said Brown of the increased demand for bio-containment facilities. “It wasn’t just 9/11, but the threat of biowarfare, the anthrax scare in the mail system, the avian flu, and flu like it. All that really created a drive inside the U.S. and Canadian governments.”
In due time nearly every country in the world should have a Biosafety Level-3 or Level-4 facility in case of an outbreak in order to test animal and human cadavers and contain the diseases. Many impoverished countries either don’t have the appropriate building materials or the funding to construct such labs. Some companies are modifying trailers and shipping containers; turning them into mobile laboratories that can be dropped into countries via ships and military planes. These labs could stop a worldwide pandemic.
Besides BioSafety Level-3 projects for Albert Einstein College and the University of Pittsburgh, ICS is seeking contracts to construct Biosafety Level-4 projects for the U.S. military. Brown said that the world as a whole has a “great deal of interest” in Biosafety Level-3 and -4 labs at the moment, especially in Asia and Europe. And Arcoplast doesn’t have that much competition in the industry: it has a competitor in Germany, for instance, using stainless steel panels with joints every three-foot.
What makes ICS different from most small businesses in southern Minnesota is the amount of travel required. “It really doesn’t matter where we’re located because we would have to travel a great deal anyway,” said Brown. “But we’ve been fortunate to have Tony Downs Foods, ConAgra, Smithfield, Butterfield Foods, Hormel, and others nearby. We continue to do business with them yearly.”
Brown splits the managerial duties on company projects “fifty- fifty” with his younger brother Josh, who works with a separate group of clients and is responsible, for example, for all Land O’ Lakes projects in Wisconsin and all ConAgra projects in Minnesota.
He said his greatest challenge is in finding technicians willing to travel away from Minnesota for long periods. In 2003, Brown and most of his technicians worked on a Downs Food Group project, Double D Foods, in Oklahoma City for ten months. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory project in Columbia, Maryland, lasted six months, during which Brown’s wife Marjorie and children visited several times. He said, “If we can’t get our people home for visits (during long stretches), we try to get their families to visit them on the road.”
Maintaining a long-distance relationship with family members can be a strain, he said, “but with the Internet you can have video conferencing on the laptop, at least, and can see each other, which helps, and is better than just talking over the telephone.” He said everyone at the business does their absolute best putting up with the short notices, hectic travel plans, airport layovers, and being away from family, friends and relatives during holidays. It is financially rewarding for everyone, but it does strain relationships.
Marjorie serves as vice president, and is assisted by Lorna Henderson in bookkeeping. Marjorie’s sister, Sarah Fast, an MSU-educated accountant, works for ICS along with Kathy Hoffman. The company has separate vendor lists in each state worked in, and must pay payroll and income taxes in each. Not an easy bookkeeping job.
As for having grown so much, particularly the last four years, Brown said none of it would have transpired had not Dick Downs and Ken Uttecht pushed him into starting. “I just wanted to be second-in-command of someone else’s company,” he said again, almost apologetically.
[Free-lance writer/editor Daniel J. Vance lives in Vernon Center.]
ICS has constructed laboratories up to Level-3, and is pursuing Level-4. Here are descriptions of all four Biosafety levels. (The following is an edited excerpt from wikipedia.org.)
Biosafety Level-1 is suitable for work involving well-characterized agents not known to consistently cause disease in healthy adult humans, and of minimal potential hazard to laboratory personnel and the environment.
Biosafety Level-2 is similar to Biosafety Level 1 and is suitable for work involving agents of moderate potential hazard to personnel and environment. Includes hepatitis A, B, and C, influenza A, Lyme disease, salmonella, mumps, measles, HIV, and scrapie.
Biosafety Level-3 is applicable to clinical, diagnostic, teaching, research, or production facilities in which work is done with indigenous or exotic agents that may cause serious or potentially lethal disease as a result of exposure by the inhalation route. Includes anthrax, West Nile virus, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, SARS, smallpox, tuberculosis, typhus, Rift Valley fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and yellow fever.
Biosafety Level-4 is required for work with dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections, agents which cause severe to fatal disease in humans for which vaccines or other treatments aren’t available, such as Bolivian and Argentine hemorrhagic fevers, dengue fever, Marburg virus, Ebola virus, hantaviruses, Lassa fever, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, and other various hemorrhagic diseases.
I’m a real details person. I also believe in doing business openly—I mean extremely openly. Using the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory job, for example, when submitting our pricing for that project, we submitted it per room, in spreadsheet format. The pricing included every screw it would take to build the room, every tube of sealant, every foot of panel we would use, and how much time and money each work task would take. Johns Hopkins had probably 15 rooms in its project. Our detailed quotes made it easy for them because if they asked what would happen if we didn’t do a particular room, we could just take the costs of that room out, easily. The specific cost of each room was there. Originally, I thought clients would be overwhelmed by our detailed quotes. But most seem to embrace the openness of it, much more than we had anticipated. The majority of contractors just quote a lump sum number. —Clint Brown, President.
Co-owner Clint Brown of ICS said he walks into some food, beverage, and pharmaceutical factories that need lots of work. One common scenario is the factory that has been repainting walls and ceilings for years and the paint is peeling away, revealing wood, plaster or course concrete.
Nearly all food processors employ a wet sanitation wash down, usually on third shift, to clean the production line. Humid conditions eventually will cause wood to rot and paint to curl.
He said, “We’ve taken walls down in more facilities than I can count where there are bugs and insects inside. I’ve even seen people putting USDA-approved paint over wood paneling just to buy time. Lumber and paint don’t belong in food facilities.”
Most building materials come in four-foot widths, which means a joint every four-foot. During sanitation wash downs in factories using chemicals, water pressures usually reach 1,800 per square inch, which can cause joints and epoxy paints to degrade. Brown said he never found a sanitary wall and ceiling system that was watertight until coming across Arcoplast. “We build rooms that contain anthrax, so we are building rooms that are really airtight,” he said.
Fiberglass and stainless steel are the materials of choice for food processing environments. As for walls and ceilings, the choice is almost always fiberglass. “Because if you build a wall of stainless steel it has many joints, and it makes a room challenging, visually. It looks like you’re inside a can of SPAM,” he laughed.