Infrastructure Alternatives Storming The Market

April 17, 2002
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COMSTOCK PARK — Because the field is so technical and extensive, very few firms in the water and wastewater management industry do it all.

And even fewer experience growth in tough economic times. But Infrastructure Alternatives does everything and has grown.

In just the past year, Infrastructure Alternatives (IA) added 23 employees to bring its staff of engineers and technicians to 26. Over the same time frame, its clientele grew from a half-dozen to more than 50. When the firm opened its doors 18 months ago, all of IA’s clients were located in Michigan. Now the firm services customers throughout the Midwest.

For the most part, IA’s nearly instant success is largely due to one reason. IA President and CEO Bill Cretens and his partners filled a void in the field by not specializing in it, as they realized that a need existed for the vertically related services they offer.

“Much of the existing water and wastewater infrastructure in this country needs to be updated or replaced. Fortunately, the economy doesn’t really affect the need for solidly designed, installed and operated water systems,” said Cretens. “Water is a necessity and our company partners with clients to provide quality solutions.”

Time has taken its toll on aging municipal water and wastewater systems in the country. Cretens said many of the underground piping and sewage distribution systems have been operating for a half-century or longer. And unlike most other decisions that community leaders face, they really have no choice but to replace entire systems when it comes to water and sewage, regardless of the community’s fiscal condition.

“If you don’t have running water and pipes that carry sewage away, cities can’t exist and businesses can’t function,” said Cretens. “It really truly is a vital infrastructure.”

The necessity to have clean water flowing from running faucets also helps to protect the industry during rough economic times. No company or field is totally recession-proof, but the water and wastewater treatment industry probably comes as close as any to that status.

As for IA’s position in the field, it provides a lot of different services for clients — so many that Cretens couldn’t remember all the offerings. But it is probably sufficient to write that IA takes a total solutions approach to a problem, as it manages, designs, builds and operates systems. The firm also helps customers find capital for a project.

Prospective clients, however, don’t have to buy the whole IA package to become a customer, as Cretens said the firm offers each one separately as a stand-alone.

“But in most cases, most of those services are provided through a comprehensive operations and maintenance or design-build contract,” he said.

For instance, for the Menomonee municipal system, IA is doing the operating and maintenance and design and engineering services, along with much of the technical consulting. These offerings are all part of the management contract IA has with the city.

“Most of those services are provided in concert with others as part of a comprehensive management, operational, or design-build program.”

IA is in charge of the city’s wastewater treatment and collection system, water treatment facility, water distribution system and landfill treatment unit. The firm provides all the staff, pays all the operating expenses, and handles all the labor and regulatory issues.

“When components of those pieces of the infrastructure need to be upgraded or replaced, we would provide the up-front design and engineering. At the same time, we would also put together a long-range capital improvement plan, where they can guide capital investment over the long-run and prioritize the needs of the infrastructure,” said Cretens. “That’s almost like a showpiece project for us.”

IA opened for business in the summer of 2000, which makes it a very young firm. But to call the company a start-up would be somewhat of a misnomer because Cretens and his partners brought 75 years of experience with them to IA.

“We think that we have a business plan that really takes multiple resources and multiple capabilities and focuses these through a single service provider, which is us, and that has been a big part of the success that we’ve enjoyed,” said Cretens, who left Earth Tech in 1999 to start IA.

Normally within the water and wastewater industry, firms that do most everything in the field are large companies with offices located in major cities. But IA has only one location in Comstock Park and isn’t large, meaning the company has gone against the industry’s grain. So how did a small firm like IA come to decide it would act like a large one?

“We’ve always been the type of thinkers and visionaries that said, ‘How can we attack the market a little bit differently and bring value to service delivery methods, technology, or approaches that do just that – bring value — and at the same time, differentiate ourselves from the competition.’

“We’ve been able to observe the trends within the industry, because of how long we’ve been in the industry and looked at it from what the service providers were doing and what the buyers of the service were expecting,” added Cretens. “And we tried to be on the leading edge of that.”

Cretens said consolidation throughout the industry created openings for regional firms like IA, which can provide the expertise normally associated with larger companies, along with the customer service that smaller ones are usually noted for.

“If you can picture a smaller organization, but one that is staffed with people who have seen it all, after working in senior positions with some of the largest companies around, that’s where a lot of the special elements of our organization shines through,” he said.

“Our organization, as an entity, has been in existence for about two years now. But as people evaluate us to handle their problems, they are really not looking at the age of our corporation, but at the collective individual experience of the people that make up our organization,’ he added. “It’s that expertise and experience that they are buying.”

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