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Morrison-Maierle builds on half century of success

July 4, 2003View for printing

When it came time for the 84 local employees of one of Helena's oldest professional firms to design a new office building, they didn't need to go far to find someone to perform the planning, engineering and surveying work for the new digs.

By JOHN HARRINGTON, IR Business Editor

After half a century near downtown on Helena Avenue, the venerable engineering firm Morrison-Maierle is planning to move a few miles north, to a new 38,000 square-foot building in the new Anderson Business Park off of McHugh Drive north of Custer Avenue. The $6.5 million project, expected to be completed by late next summer, will have room for 110 employees, accommodating several more years of expansion for the oldest and largest engineering firm based in Montana.

The Helena-based firm generates some $20 million in revenue annually and has offices in Kalispell, Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls and Missoula, as well as Phoenix. But more of its 250 employees are here than anywhere else.

Joining Morrison-Maierle on the design-build of the project are Crossman-Whitney-Griffin Architects and Dick Anderson Construction, both of Helena.

The three-story building will also be built to accommodate future expansion to 76,000 square feet or around twice the original size. While construction has been under way for weeks, the firm held a formal groundbreaking ceremony this week.

It's tough to go anywhere in Helena — or anywhere in Montana, for that matter— without seeing the work of Morrison-Maierle. From smaller designs like Anchor Park or the recent Holter Museum expansion to major projects like the $9 million renovation and upgrading of the City of Helena's water treatment plant or the tricky routing of Interstate 15 through Wolf Creek Canyon north of town, much of the area's infrastructure was designed by the minds of M-M.

The firm was founded by John Morrison in 1945, and he was joined by Joseph Maierle a year later. Both men previously worked on bridges for the state highway department. Morrison, instrumental in getting a professional engineering licensing board set up in Montana, has the distinction of owning state license No. 1.

Much of their early work involved developing the roads, water and other infrastructure of smaller communities around Montana.

"Coming out of the war, there was such a latent demand for community improvements," said vice president Rodger Foster. "They started out with mostly water and sewer systems."

The firm still takes on many of the same projects today. In fact, second and third generations of the company's founders often find themselves updating water and sewer systems originally engineered by their fathers and grandfathers.

Through the '60s and '70s, M-M branched out into transportation projects and commercial and residential development work.

In the 1980s, the firm took advantage of a number of U.S. Agency for International Development contracts to do lots of engineering work overseas. At one time in the 1980s, half the company's revenue came from projects completed on foreign soil, everything from road building in Vietnam to airport construction in the Philipines to a water project in Lesotho in southern Africa.

Willis Wetstein, a past president of the firm who joined M-M right out of Montana State some 46 years ago, said the international projects were some of the most rewarding.

"The Lesotho water project was one of the most satisfying projects I've ever worked on," he said. "Just being able to provide water for people who had had to work so hard to get their water. The people were so appreciative."

When USAID money dried up, the firm turned its attention back toward home. Wetstein opened a branch office in Phoenix in 1986, as the firm sought development contracts in rural areas outside the city. That office — M-M's only permanent office outside Montana — employs around 40.

Today, transportation accounts for around a quarter of the firm's revenue, with water projects (one third) and development (28 percent) making up most of the rest.

It's development, of course, that tends to stir the most community controversy, and while the firm isn't directly in the subdivision business, it has done engineering work for a number of new developments, some of which have stirred no small amount of local controversy. Among them: The Crest View subdivision at the base of Helena's South Hills.

Recognizing that their bread is buttered by developers, company officials say they take on only projects that will be a good fit in the community.

"We're paid by a client to accomplish a purpose, and that is to get the development past the regulating bodies," said current president James Maierle. "But our approach to development work is that it's got to be a win-win situation both for the municipality and for our client. We've got to meet certain standards and government or municipal conditions. Our approach has always been one of partnership rather than one of adversity — partnership with the community as well as the developer."

"If we see things where the developer's wishes are not in accordance with what the city is requiring, or what might be good engineering, we err on the side of professionalism and good engineering," Foster added "We feel that as long as we do that, the developer will be better served."

And while subdivisions may make headlines, some feel it's other infrastructure work that sets the firm apart.

"Development may be the most high profile, but from an engineering standpoint it's not our most renowned work," said vice president and chief engineer Robert Morrison, grandson of the company's founder. "How many award-winning bridges did we have early on? And lately we've been involved in some real major water and wastewater projects and airport projects in this state."

Looking ahead, the new building guarantees Morrison-Maierle's future in Helena — but that future was never really in doubt. Though the firm could perhaps have grown its revenue and profile faster by moving to a bigger city, that's never really been seriously considered.

"We've certainly looked at those opportunities, but we seem to come back to what we consider to be our culture, and that's serving rural communities," Morrison said."

John Harrington can be reached at 447-4080 or john.harrington@helenair.com.

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