Engineers of Record

John Forcier and Brad Aldrich blend engineering skills and a sense of civic duty to build and improve Vermont's municipal water and waste-water systems

by Craig Bailey

For Forcier Aldrich & Associates, there's no such thing as water under the bridge. John Forcier explains when the name of his Essex Junction engineering firm is affixed to the municipal water facilities it designs, it's there forever. "If the total of the pieces doesn't work, they're going to come to us," he warns, "because the town has trusted us."

John Forcier (left) and Brad Aldrich of Forcier Aldrich & Associates in Essex Junction specialize in water and waste-water treatment facilities. State law requires such facilities undergo evaluations every 20 years, assuring a certain percentage of the engineering firm's work consists of upgrading existing plants.

That type of accountability might rattle some people. It seems to fuel Forcier and his partner, Brad Aldrich, who might consider it the call of a challenge as much as the nature of the beast. The two have chosen to make a specialty of water and waste-water plants, complex facilities that might include 50 systems that demonstrate a slew of scientific principles. Equally abundant political and funding issues require engineers in this field have people skills that are on par with their engineering prowess.

Forcier and Aldrich, both professional engineers and native Vermonters, believe the small, local nature of their firm is an advantage when it comes to working with the town select boards that constitute their clientele. The company employs seven professional engineers, a handful of graduate engineers, computer-aided design (CAD) operators, administrative people, and a technician. Aldrich says the company often hires graduates from Vermont Technical College and the University of Vermont. "We both went there," he says of UVM. "We understand their program." At any given time, Forcier Aldrich manages approximately 30 projects scattered across Vermont, with a handful of jobs in New Hampshire. This summer the firm will spend its time working in Fair Haven, Poultney, Brandon, Vergennes, Newport and Pownal, to name a few.

"Vermont, like New Hampshire, is pretty provincial," says Aldrich. "Especially with the smaller communities, they want a Vermont firm. They want to know the money they're spending, the money they're paying to their engineers, is staying in Vermont.

"A big part of our business is the relationships that we build with the people in state government," which, he says, "are probably invaluable towards really successful projects." Forcier cites a job the firm was recently awarded with the town of Springfield for an $8 million waste-water treatment facility upgrade. He believes Forcier Aldrich beat a number of large, international firms, in part, because the competition was perceived as being too big and out of touch with how to engineer a facility in Vermont.

Whether in Vermont or elsewhere, engineering projects of this breed are lengthy endeavors. Aldrich says, "When I think about a project, I kind of equate it to an iceberg. The nine-tenths that's below the water is everything from conceptual planning through design. Construction really is the last piece, which you see.

"It may take three-plus years to get a project through construction to completion. Two of those years is studying it, permitting it, designing. That's a big effort."

A project often begins when Forcier Aldrich responds to a request for proposal issued from a municipality -- a process designed to find the lowest responsible bid. On the other hand, some select boards use a quality selection process, designed to find the engineering firm best suited for the project, not necessarily the lowest bidder. "It's something that we as professional engineers recommend, because you don't necessarily shop around for the cheapest doctor or the cheapest lawyer," says Forcier. "We would hope somebody would hire the most appropriate, not necessarily the cheapest.

"Engineering costs are a pretty small percentage of the total project costs," he adds, "so if we can design something that is better and more cost-effective, we can save a lot more than what ... (our) fee is."

Case and point: a project Forcier Aldrich handled for the town of Richford, which was being pressured by the state to complete a long-overdue upgrade to its waste-water treatment plant. "The town was really in a bind," recalls Forcier.

"We were at a standstill for letting new connections come on. Our permit was at capacity," says Garry Stover, Richford town supervisor. "We needed to do something and get everything up to grade." Though a 1994 study suggested the project would total $2.9 million, Forcier Aldrich completed it in less than six months for $760,000. "The construction was only 31/2 months," says Forcier. "If we'd done it a conventional way, it (design, bidding and construction) would have taken a year."

Staff engineer Joe Duncan

"We only had to bond for $380,000, so it saved us quite a bit of money," says Stover, adding the town had recently put $4 million into a water system and was expecting to invest $5 million in its school. "We just couldn't go to the public again.

"I've worked with John directly, and he's been great," Stover offers. "They've done great work for us, and we'll use them still."

"You don't do projects this way," Aldrich says of the fast-track approach to the Richford project, "but they knew John and I. They trusted that if anybody could pull it off, we could." For its efforts, Forcier Aldrich received the grand award for engineering excellence from the American Consulting Engineers Council of Vermont in the water resources category. The same honor was bestowed on the company for a project in Johnson three years earlier.

Forcier Aldrich will typically spend six to 12 months in the study phase once it wins a bid. When it arrives at a price for the project, the figure is put to a bond vote. If the vote passes, the engineers spend six to 18 months designing the project before putting it out to bid to contractors.

During the construction phase, an additional three to 18 months, Aldrich often acts as project manager, keeping him out of the office 80 percent of his time. "We're responsible to make sure that the thing is, as much as possible, constructed per plans and specifications," explains Forcier. Forcier also does project management, but focuses on the administrative side of the business.

Forcier Aldrich handles a small amount of civil/site work, like an ongoing $11 million addition/renovation at U-32 High School in East Montpelier. It also takes on jobs for architects, and construction project management for industrial and institutional clients like Fletcher Allen Health Care, but its bread and butter is municipal water and waste- water systems. Aldrich says specialization makes good business sense for a firm that's committed to staying on top of all the nuances of its niche while remaining small.

Diversifying would require more employees, and then, says Aldrich, "John and I become managers, not engineers. I'd rather be out there meeting with clients and doing work." The partners' attitude toward layers of management and corporate politics is unwavering: Been there; done that; won't do it again.

Most of the treatment facilities the company has designed in the last five years have utilized ultraviolet disinfectant: Waste-water flows past banks of special light bulbs like these, which kill bacteria. The technology replaces hazardous chemicals. (Courtesy: Forcier Aldrich & Associates Inc.)

Forcier says his firm is run democratically, with few perks afforded the powers-that-be. The family-like atmosphere he felt lacking at some workplaces has been boosted in a literal sense by the presence of his daughter, Jill Marsano, one of his four grown children, who works as project assistant to Aldrich. His wife, Diane, whom Forcier married in 1973, manages the office. The two live in Essex and serve as state directors of Worldwide Marriage Encounter of Vermont, an organization affiliated with the Catholic church. "We present weekends to make good marriages better," he explains.

Aldrich says much of his spare time is spent at sporting events of his children, 14-year-old Christine and Patrick, 11.

Growing up in St. Johnsbury, Aldrich knew he wanted to be an engineer early on. "Everybody else was going to be doctors and lawyers; I was always going to be an engineer," he says, "probably since third grade." His father, Frank, spent his entire career as an engineer at the Vermont Agency of Transportation; he retired in 1990 as director of maintenance. A large map of Vermont from 1960 salvaged from his father's attic hangs in Aldrich's office. His father's example, and a love of math and science, led the younger Aldrich to the University of Vermont where he earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1981.

When it comes to biosolids -- "sludge," in lay person terms -- "Vermont has limits that are much stricter than federal limits," according to John Forcier. "Twice as strict." From left: Don Phillips, senior engineer/director of business development, and senior engineer Russel Ryan.

After graduation, he spent seven years at Pizzagalli Construction. "That's really where I learned a lot of my management skills," he says. "They had a very good management training program.

"Pizzagalli moved me to Maine on one of their projects," he says. "And then my wife and I got settled in Portland, Maine, and decided we wanted to stay when they wanted me to move. So that's really why I left Pizzagalli." Aldrich began working for a Portland contractor.

Eventually, he and his wife, Mary, a native of Burlington he married in 1984, decided to return to the Green Mountains in 1992. They settled in Montpelier, and Aldrich started a stint with the state's buildings division.

Forcier's career had taken a similar path. He left his native Newport to earn a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from UVM in 1972.

Out of college he worked for Pizzagalli, where he met Aldrich in the early '80s. Forcier was a project manager on a water treatment facility upgrade in Burlington; Aldrich was a project engineer. "We worked together for about a year," recalls Forcier, who says the two immediately "clicked."

Facility in Plainfield (Courtesy: Forcier Aldrich & Associates Inc.)

After three years on a Pizzagalli project in Maine, in 1985 Forcier left to become chief estimator and project manager for a smaller firm in Syracuse, N.Y. "I was fully vested. I really intended to work there for my life," he says of Pizzagalli. "When I left, everybody was shocked." Pizzagalli, he says, had grown greatly during his tenure, and he felt the intimate workplace he had enjoyed early in his career had changed.

Fourteen months later, after a "parting of ways" with the New York company, Forcier returned home to work for Engelberth Construction. After leaving in 1990, he offered consulting services before joining Thermo Consulting Engineers in Williston the following year. The regional firm was owned by the mammoth Thermo Electron Corp. of Waltham, Mass., and had offices throughout the Northeast. Forcier was manager of the civil and environmental engineering department consisting of approximately a dozen people. He asked Aldrich to join the team in August 1992.

"I never intended to be a business owner," Forcier states, but when Thermo decided to close its Williston office and offered him the opportunity to purchase part of the business, it was either play ball or hit the streets. "I vowed that I would get into a situation where I can control my destiny."

Managing projects in the tens of millions of dollars for companies like Pizzagalli was one thing, but running a business was another: Forcier was hesitant to jump into ownership alone. "My first thought was, I need somebody to share this risk, work and possibly benefit," he says. "Brad was the first person who came to mind."

The timing was fortuitous. "I had been contemplating making a move of some sort anyway," offers Aldrich, who says he'd been considering forming a professional construction management company. After dealing with the processes and politics of a large corporation, Aldrich says, he asked himself, "How much longer am I going to put up with this before I'm going to take control of my own destiny and do it? And this opportunity laid itself in front of us. I've told people since that I will never, ever work for somebody else again."

The partners acquired and renamed the civil and environmental branch of the business in August 1995. Financing came from the seller, which they paid off within four years. In May '97 they moved to a building they purchased: the 4,800-square-foot former Finish It Furniture on Market Place, off Suzie Wilson Road.

Forcier Aldrich & Associates has grown from a gross figure of $900,000 in 1996, its first full year of operation, to $1.35 million last year. "Thermo Consulting Engineers as a company struggled," says Aldrich. "Part of it was just the nature of the economy back in the late '80s and early '90s: It wasn't that great. But when we bought the company, we flourished.

"I think it's because we focused on our core values of giving our clients more than they expect," he theorizes, "and for a fair price."