Combining Engineering Expertise With Business Acumen to Improve our Infrastructure
At first glance, R.W. Beck looks like a typical mid-size engineering firm. They offer the usual civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering disciplines related to infrastructure, energy, water, and solid waste.
But as Ed Wetzel, vice president of the firm’s water and waste resources sector, reveals, their business goes much further. “We’re an engineering-based management consulting firm. We bring to the table a combination of technical expertise and business acumen. We’re about helping our client with their business issues as opposed to just doing a lot of design.”
That means out-of-the-ordinary opportunities for engineers who like to venture beyond the nitty-gritty design details. They often find themselves working side by side with people like financial analysts, certified utility appraisers, and procurement specialists. As Wetzel, says, “The technical issues are important because they relate to cost and timeframes and schedules, but at the end of the day, the general manager of a utility or board members of that utility have to think more broadly than what kind of pump will go in a pump station or what kind of transformer to spec out for a transmission station.”
But Wetzel warns that the allure has a caveat: “It’s not for everybody.” Who does it fit? “We hire a number of people who come out of large engineering firms, and they’re kind of tired of doing what they’ve been doing for the last ten or 15 years. If you like to think in bigger terms about the broad implications of a project to a municipality or utility, then Beck can really appeal to people.”
R. W. Beck offers consulting and engineering services for water, wastewater, stormwater, electric, gas, and solid waste facilities. Customers include water, sewer, and power utilities; energy marketers and brokers; independent power producers; industry; financial institutions; and local, state, and federal governments. The firm has offices nationwide staffed with more than 500 employees, including 187 engineers.
As an electrical engineer, Robert W. Beck founded the firm that bears his name in 1942 in Columbus, Nebraska to offer consulting engineering services for new public power utilities. He was a pioneer in the development of the nation’s publicly owned electric utilities and a co-founder of the American Public Power Association. Beck began his business as a sole proprietorship, and he expanded it into a partnership in 1954, R. W. Beck & Associates, and began diversifying into new markets such as hydroelectric projects, electrical design, and construction management.
The 1960s saw the firm enter the field of water and wastewater management, and in the 1970s, they added solid waste management services. In the 1980s, they expanded globally. In 1996, the firm incorporated, becoming R. W. Beck, Inc., a privately held corporation. Over the years, they expanded their client base to include private as well as public sector clients.
Today, the company is divided into two major sectors: energy, and water and waste resources. On the energy side, R. W. Beck continues to offer services in its core business of electric utilities, but they have also expanded into renewable energy, including biogas, biomass, geothermal, fuel cells, ocean thermal energy conversion, small-scale hydropower, solar, and wind.
As an example, a private utility was planning to build three 100-million-gallon-per-year corn-to-ethanol plants in Ohio, Indiana, and Nebraska. They planned to use technology developed by a design-build firm and wanted an independent review of the project. The financial advisor to the project selected R. W. Beck as the independent engineer. The review included engineering design, cost and scheduling estimates, and projected operating results.
In water and wastewater, Ed Wetzel’s experience epitomizes what that sector does. He has managed water treatment process studies, water quality investigations, resource recovery facility feasibility studies, sewer system modeling, wastewater reuse projects, and wastewater treatment plant design and performance evaluations. He has a B.S. in civil engineering from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and an M.S. in civil and sanitary engineering and a Ph.D. in sanitary engineering from Lehigh University.
For water resources, Wetzel reports, “We do a lot of conceptual design and planning work, master plans, and modeling for water distribution systems.” Beck’s team of engineers, hydrologists, and environmental scientists create new or maintain existing water supplies, enhance surface and ground water quality, manage storm and surface water flooding and erosion, and restore wildlife and fish habitats.
Solid waste activities involve reduction, recycling, and reuse as well as energy and material recovery. They plan and design landfills, waste-to-energy facilities, material recovery facilities, transfer stations, and recycling facilities.
Having performed hundreds of recycling studies, R. W. Beck ranks as a leading recycling consulting firm. Its roots in recycling date back to the mid-1970s, when they assisted many pioneering states in shaping recycling legislation.
A client in New York was directed by the state legislature to analyze the disposal options and markets for scrap tires. After performing market characterizations, analyses, and evaluations, Beck prepared a five-year tire recycling market development plan, which served as a guide in advocating scrap tire recycling statewide.
Independent engineering reviews come because highly complex and capital-intensive projects often mean high risk for investors, lenders, developers, and owners. Reviews provide an independent, objective viewpoint, often for financial institutions looking to invest in power projects.
Wetzel puts Beck’s services in perspective another way: “More often than not, we provide the more programmatic-type services.” This often takes the form of project management, as Beck provides an on-site project manager and off-site support staff. They blend this with the client’s in-house staff, performing project work within their standards and procedures.
Another program-type service Beck provides is alternative project delivery. In an effort to build more efficient facilities faster, they develop and manage approaches such as design-build, design-build-operate, engineer-procure-construct, and build-own-operate-transfer. These allow a shorter schedule, financial savings, risk mitigation, and access to innovative design and technology.
For example, when the city of Seattle built a major water facility, Beck handled the conceptual planning and issued procurement documents to select a design-build-operate team to execute the project. The project was one of the first of its kind in the U.S. and the largest DBO project done by a public agency at the time.
With its unique infrastructure-related services, Beck finds business booming. According to Wetzel, “From a technical perspective, we’re seeing some key trends. One, there is a real need for improving the infrastructure in the U.S. A lot of our infrastructure has been severely ignored for the last 40 or 50 years, particularly the underground stuff. What we’re seeing is the recognition that it’s a problem, and attempts are now being made to rectify that problem.”
But Wetzel points out that it goes beyond the country’s well-documented infrastructure problems and into a realm that benefits Beck with its business-and-engineering approach. “There’s generally more scrutiny on the utility managers out there to be better business people. And that’s a good thing for us because that’s our sweet spot. So to the extent that they have to run themselves more like businesses gives us more things we can do to help them.”
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