Client Needs Drive Bowen Engineering's Strategy
Bowen Engineering fine-tunes its niche in the water-wastewater and power markets to keep up with demand and the industry’s changing climate
From its humble beginnings in 1967, when construction teams were mustered at the owner’s home, to being ranked 254th on ENR’s Top 400 Contractors list in 2015, Indianapolis contractor Bowen Engineering Corp. has grown strategically while playing to its strengths.
“We’ve stayed focused on what we do best,” says Mike Soller, Bowen’s vice president of business development. “Other contractors of our size have six or seven areas [of emphasis]. We build and update water and wastewater plants—that’s what we specialize in.”
Today, nearly 250 full-time employees and 600 to 800 field staff work out of Bowen’s main office in Indianapolis and its five regional offices in Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Texas.
The employee-owned contractor has completed more than 1,000 water/wastewater treatment plants across the country, working from New Jersey to New Mexico this year. Meanwhile, its water/wastewater work has evolved organically toward the energy market, doing coal, gas, nuclear and wind projects. Both markets serve municipal clients as well as private energy and industrial customers.
“We look to those two market core competencies and ask ourselves how we can grow our partnership relationships,” says President and CEO Doug Bowen, whose father, Bob, started the company and, in its early years, relied on his wife’s teaching salary to keep the business afloat.
The firm’s strategy ultimately revolves around understanding client needs and adapting capabilities to support them. Doug Bowen took the helm in 2009, when his father retired. The contractor is expected to reach $300 million in revenue this year, and Bowen attributes much of that growth to the 80 employee stockholders who own half the company and are passionate about its success.
“Our voice is heard and implemented,” Soller says. “What we dream about and want for our clients [becomes] the strategy for how we grow.”
Poised for Growth
Bowen has positioned itself as a leader in effluent-limitation guideline (ELG) solutions, helping utilities to work within the guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. ELGs regulate the quality of water being discharged at electric power plants and construction sites. Bowen’s expertise with the water and energy markets has converged, positioning the contractor to help energy utilities understand and meet ELG requirements.
To date, Bowen is one of the few contractors to have installed all the existing and recommended treatment technologies for ELG compliance, including physical, chemical, biological, membrane and zero liquid discharge, or ZLD. Bowen’s largest project to date, a $240-million joint venture with Burns & McDonnell currently in progress for Indianapolis Power and Light (IPL), falls into this category.
Although the process is less intensive because of the plant’s upcoming gas conversion—being completed by Bowen—the Bowen-Burns & McDonnell team also will address ELG compliance at IPL’s Indianapolis Harding Street Station.
“Bowen brings a lot of money-saving ideas and cost-effectiveness to the table,” says Jason Deadmond, IPL capital projects and engineering manager. He notes that Bowen’s approach to construction is different than that of most contractors because the firm employs four-year graduates of construction management or engineering schools to run their projects.
Despite its name, Bowen Engineering is a contracting firm that, out of its entire staff, employs 80 people who have engineering skills and backgrounds, many of them Purdue University graduates. The firm recruits heavily from the nearby university, Bob’s and Doug’s alma mater.
“Having a pool of knowledge and high-level thinkers [on staff] is tremendously helpful, especially in the estimating process,” Deadmond says. “When dealing with more complex scopes of work, this gives them an advantage, particularly on design-build projects.”
Dave Kiesel has worked with Bowen for 15 years in his current role as director of plant engineering for Citizens Energy Group. He says Bowen lends a design-build skill set to every project because it hires and trains highly competent people. “It’s a win-win-win situation for owners and consultants who work with Bowen,” Kiesel says.
Bowen is currently working on Citizens’ $95-million expansion of the Southport Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Indianapolis. The project will double treatment capacity at Southport and prepare it to treat the flow from the city’s ongoing, 25-mile-deep tunnel construction program.
Southport is one of the contractor’s largest water/wastewater projects to date. The project eliminates combined sewer overflows into Indianapolis waterways during heavy rains.
Safety, Quality, Production
Bowen’s SQP (safety, quality, production) process is another key component of its business model. The contractor’s highly personalized take on lean construction techniques tasks employees to find the fastest and best way to perform a project for the least amount of money, says Aaron Purdue, Bowen’s vice president of operations.
For the past 25 years, Bowen has applied its SQP process to every aspect of the firm’s operations, from accounting and IT to the field, human resources and estimating. Bowen digs into and develops these functions to improve jobsite efficiency.
“We constantly develop processes to eliminate waste, allowing our craft workers to do their jobs in a very efficient manner,” Purdue says.
For example, Bowen is exploring in great detail how technology can best be used on the jobsite. Team members carry iPads that enable plans, drawings and specs to be automatically updated and digitally available. Bowen is developing its own internal app to improve the process.
“What really separates Bowen from others is their planning,” Deadmond adds. “They have the ability to sit down and pre-plan a project to a completely different level and degree than others I have dealt with. Before they walk out onto the jobsite, they have a high level of competence for how they’ll execute every aspect of that job.”
It helps that, to create the best team for each project, Bowen pairs a graduate engineer with a technically savvy foreman. “Bob Bowen drove this concept. It’s unique for construction and gives the client the best of both worlds,” says Purdue.
Unlike a typical construction manager, Bowen also self-performs a majority of its labor—everything but the scaffolding, electrical, painting and HVAC specialties.
“We will continue to be flexible with what our clients need,” Soller says. “We work to understand our clients’ challenges and pains and are constantly positioning and adapting Bowen to help solve them.”
For instance, the contractor is moving into recycle-reuse work in the industrial wastewater market. While there are “lots of good business reasons to do this, we’re going where our clients see benefit,” Soller says.
“We’re trying to be more strategic with growth today,” adds Doug Bowen. Since early 2000, much of the company’s focus has been on coal-fired energy projects. As natural gas has come into more environmental favor after recent regulatory and market changes, the contractor has responded by moving forward with more gas-fired power projects.
“As we’re trying to forecast our market position and where we want to be, we saw this coming and made a concerted effort to ensure we weren’t left sitting on the sideline as gas moves forward. And, fortunately, whether they’re doing gas or coal, we are able to help clients with these different solutions,” Bowen says.
There are more opportunities than resources right now and strategic growth depends on smart hiring decisions, he observes. “From 2007 to 2009, when things were booming, we were guilty of hiring based on need instead of qualifications because there just weren’t people out there,” Bowen says.
“It’s a frightening reality, and a lot of organizations can find themselves in that position today if they don’t have a focused, concerted effort to throttle that. It’s not easy, but once we’ve been able to learn from those lessons, we’ve done a better job putting the best team together,” he adds.
In analyzing the current marketplace, “many clients are asking for a one-stop-shopping, turnkey solution,” Bowen says. “In order to compete head to head with megasized firms, we band together with our complementary partners [engineers, subcontractors, vendors, technology firms] to develop a total project solution,” he says.
“Ultimately, there’s no right way to do the wrong thing. You have to be good at what you do,” Doug says. “Surround yourself with really great people, take care of them and invest in them. It just goes forward.”