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Infrastructure Alternatives Tries Some Innovations
GRAND RAPIDS — Infrastructure Alternatives says it takes the “total” approach to water and wastewater system services, by providing them all and then some.
The company offers a complete package of vertically integrated services, including design/build, construction management, system installation, repair and rehabilitation, facility start-up and contract operations and maintenance.
And if that’s not enough, it will even help clients with public relations, troubleshooting, training, staffing, financial planning, funding and consulting assistance.
Infrastructure Alternatives serves municipalities, county, state and federal agencies, industries, private developers, consulting engineers and construction firms. At this time, the majority of its clients are municipalities.
But as the company name becomes known, it’s getting a greater variety and volume of calls and the momentum is building, said Teri Kuhlman, director of business administration.
She said the company is currently focusing on the small to medium contracts. Those are the systems with capacities in the five million gallons per day range that are “small” in terms of the operation and “medium” in terms of the dredging contracts, which tend to be larger in revenue volume.
The company has strategic alliances with other engineering firms for additional hours of engineering support as might be needed, noted Dana Trierweiler, executive vice president. It subcontracts with local firms to do the sludge hauling and landfill disposal.
“We have a number of different leads and hopes for a number of different projects getting up and running yet this year,” he remarked. “We’re very active right now in marketing our lagoon rehabilitation services so, consequently, we’re getting a lot of feedback on those efforts.”
It’s a business William Cretens, the company’s founder and president, believes is poised for a lot of growth.
The market as whole — small, medium and large systems across the country — is probably only about 10 percent penetrated at this time. With all the systems that are out there, “it’s a huge, huge infrastructure” that must be operated and maintained, he said.
He said he agrees with a lot of the industry experts who predict that in the next 20 years most of the capital spending in this area is going to be directed towards systems repair, rehab, expansions and operations of existing infrastructure, as opposed to the building of new facilities.
“Most of the water and wastewater customers across the country actually reside in medium- to smaller-size cities,” Cretens observed. “We feel that segment of the market, in particular, has a lot of needs. We feel those needs can be adequately fulfilled by a company that can bring the services to bear that we want to bring.”
Infrastructure Alternatives’ strong focus on that particular market isn’t the only thing that differentiates it from others in the industry.
The company has identified and is bringing to the regional market a special process for handling bio-solids — the sludge or residual that occurs in the wastewater process. The process combines dredging capabilities with a tube-shaped holding and de-watering vessel constructed of high-tech, synthetic geo-textile.
The “geo-tube” is a new approach to dewatering bio-solids that the company is applying to wastewater system and lagoon-cleaning projects. It’s the first firm in Michigan to successfully use the technology for bio-solid applications, Cretens noted.
“One of the beauties of the process is that it provides a variety of options for end use," he said.
"In most cases we actually utilize the sludge for agricultural purposes, as a soil conditioner and a low-grade fertilizer. When we do, on a rare occasion, find a sludge that has elevated levels of certain contaminants that would prohibit the application of the sludge on farm fields, then we can very easily dispose of it in a landfill because it’s already dewatered. That’s part of the flexibility of our whole process."
His company likes to refer to bio-solids as “resources that are out of place.”
They don’t sell it, although there are companies that market the end product, he said. The best known is Milorganite lawn fertilizer from Milwaukee.
Cretens has 30 years experience in the industry as a water and wastewater treatment plant operator and utility manager.
In the late 1970s, he founded W & W Operations Services, one of the first companies in Michigan to develop the concept of contract operations in the water and wastewater treatment industry.
Contract operations consolidates all services, including long-term operations and maintenance, into a total turnkey contract. Before W & W’s introduction of the concept, water and wastewater services tended to be offered in a fragmented, more or less à la carte manner throughout the state and general Great Lakes region.
About 10 to 20 percent of Infrastructure Alternatives’ clients currently have full operations and maintenance contracts to handle water and wastewater system problems.
“We were truly the first company in Michigan to really build this business,” Cretens said. “We very quickly established ourselves in the market and gained about a 90 percent market share at that time.”
W & W Operations Services grew into a $20 million company. In the late 1980s, Summit Environmental Group acquired W & W Operations Services, along with W & W Engineering and Science, and Cretens continued to oversee day-to-day operations.
The company grew, diversified and expanded throughout the Great Lakes and Mid- Atlantic regions. Earth Tech acquired Summit in the early 1990s.
Cretens guided the growth of that company until 18 months ago when he decided to strike out on his own. He founded Infrastructure Alternatives last July.
Although Infrastructure Alternatives is not a technology company per se, through the platform of contract operations, its goal is to bring to market new methods, new technologies and new processes as an integrated component of that service, Cretens said.
“That would provide not only competitive advantage for the firm, but also some fresh ideas and new approaches for the industry. The bio-solids process happens to be one of those.”
Over the next three years, Cretens plans to concentrate on the Michigan market and grow the company into a $20 to $25 million per year enterprise.
By the time the company’s fifth anniversary rolls around, he said he expects the company will begin to expand its focus to a regional level and increase annual revenues to the $30 to $50 million range through a combination of internal growth and acquisition.