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Big Story: How a one-man business in a Rock Island attic grew to 1,200 employees

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In a 56,000 square-foot complex at 623 26th Ave. in Rock Island is one interior, wood-paneled wall. If it looks like something out of the 1960s, that’s because it is. It’s a wall from the first “real office” of a firm that has grown from a one-man operation to what it is today – a 1,200 employee, global engineering firm.

That wood paneled wall is a reminder of how far they’ve come and how far they'd like to go.

The once-modest office building on 26th Avenue was the third location for the company founded in 1961. Walter Kimmel started the business in the attic of his home, then moved into an apartment-building space next door before he was joined by Ward Jensen, Sam Wray and Vern Wegerer. With that partnership, KJWW was born.

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IMEG offices in Rock Island, Illinois. (Formerly KJWW)

Over the years, growth and mergers have transformed KJWW into what stands today as IMEG.

First-time visitors to IMEG's headquarters, who don’t know the back story, might find its west Rock Island neighborhood an unlikely location for a global engineering firm whose work has helped build hospitals, universities, sports arenas, entertainment complexes and airports around the world.

It is in the heart of an industrial neighborhood occupied mostly by warehouses, service shops and storage yards. The exception is a mixed-income housing complex, Cascade Garden, which was built next door in 2011.

Inside IMEG's home office, the modern space is a showcase of its engineering capabilities. The walls of its entry hall are covered in pictures of the projects it has engineered.

"This was our initial home," said Paul VanDuyne, IMEG's president and CEO. "The main door was right there on 26th Avenue.”

VanDuyne, who was hired as the 16th KJWW employee, occupies an office that sits near the area where 26th Avenue ran through the property before the city allowed KJWW to vacate the street for a 2007 expansion.

Just 3,500 square feet when the office first opened in 1966, it is now 56,000 square feet after five expansions between 1976 and 2007. The building also surrounds an outdoor, landscaped courtyard intended as a private retreat for employees.

Tim Anderson, IMEG's human resources director, acknowledged the location may have discouraged a few job candidates over the years. But, he said, "We've never had any trouble (in the neighborhood). People are always pleasantly surprised when they come in the building."

Office culture

Located in a so-called food desert because of so few nearby restaurant and grocery options, the company created Cafe 623 in the last expansion, bringing in its own coffee shop/cafe. Grab-and-go foods on the breakfast and lunch menus are a nod to several employees, including The Joe Riley, an English muffin, named for the company webmaster; and the Toni H, an English muffin concoction named for Toni Howard, an education assistant.

The company converted a former garage into a game room for employees, who can sneak away to use the exercise equipment or play a game of pool, ping pong, darts, foosball or bags. Game rooms have taken root at other IMEG offices.

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When the weather is cooperates IMEG employees can enjoy the tables and chairs in the courtyard at the companies Rock Island office.

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A full assortment of beverages and snacks are available at Cafe 623 for IMEG employees.

"You can play ping pong for 10 minutes, and it's a good way to recharge," Anderson said. "There are a lot of competitive people here."

Another break room with TVs, a small kitchen and a fireplace with casual seating also is a retreat.

"We have a lot of nice amenities inside our building and have made our building very comfortable," VanDuyne said.

Active in the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce, he said, "We're very happy here, and the Quad-Cities has treated us well.

"We see the Quad-Cities making strides at trying to improve itself from a cultural standpoint and a quality-of-living standpoint, and that means a lot to us. So we're committed to the Quad-Cities."

Behind the scenes

The joke at IMEG is: We do the work nobody thinks about.

"People look at buildings as the architect building the building. But everything else that makes that building work is engineering," VanDuyne said. "We get to make sure the building is comfortable. We get to make sure a building is functional. We get to make sure a building is sustainable and energy-efficient."

While IMEG prefers its contributions are unnoticed — meaning their buildings function as designed — there is no hiding the growth of the global engineering consulting firm. From its modest beginnings, it came to be known for decades by the Quad-Cities and its clients as KJWW Engineering Consultants.

But IMEG was formed two years ago when KJWW and Pasadena, California-based TTG Engineers had what VanDuyne calls "a merger of equals." After a transition period in 2016, the combined company rolled out the IMEG Corp. name earlier this spring for all its operations.

With the histories of KJWW and TTG (founded 1955) behind it, the new firm is positioned as a national engineering contender. Industry magazine Building Design + Construction ranks IMEG among the Top 5 engineering firms in the United States based on revenue and No. 3 among health-sector engineering firms.

Since the merger, IMEG has followed up with a handful of other acquisitions and mergers from across the United States. In the Quad-Cities, that includes two longtime civil engineering firms: Missman Inc. in late June and McClure Engineering Associates in mid-July.

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IMEG President President Paul VanDuyne in his Rock Island office.

"We've become a full-service engineering company," VanDuyne said. "Now we do everything engineering for a building. In the past, we'd have to hire a Missman or McClure (for civil engineering).

"The building needs to stand up — that's the structural (engineering). It needs heating and cooling — that's the mechanical. Lighting and power — that's the electrical. Fire protection and civil (engineering) — that's how utilities get in and out of the building."

The local acquisitions give IMEG the civil-engineering services it lacked in the Midwest, but was offering in its West Coast division through TTG, he said.

"To have an engineering firm providing professional services of this magnitude, it truly supports the Quad-City economy," said Pat Eikenberry, who was Missman's president and CEO and now is IMEG's Vice President of Civil Engineering U.S. "It truly is a big deal for the Quad-Cities to have a powerhouse like IMEG headquartered here and then you add Missman and McClure, and (IMEG's) corporate headquarters right here in Rock Island with no plans to leave."

'Merger of equals'

VanDuyne was hired as an engineer in 1976. He came to the Quad-Cities after a brief stint with another engineering firm in his native New Jersey.

Larry Pithan, IMEG's chief financial officer, joined KJWW three years earlier. The Iowa State University graduate was the first engineer to be hired right out of college.

In 2003, VanDuyne became the fourth president of KJWW. By then, the company had 200 employees and offices in Madison, Des Moines and Batavia, Illinois. His vision, he said, was "to grow in the Midwest, at least."

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Although computers have replaced much of the need for paper, sets of plans are still needed for contractors and company copies.

After expansions in St. Louis, Indianapolis and downtown Chicago, the company aspired to grow westward.

"We really took a look, and we started to go out to San Francisco and realized how difficult that was," VanDuyne said.

During that same time, he became connected with Zareh Astourian, TTG's CEO/president — now chairman of IMEG’s board of directors.

"We wanted to move (expand) either to the east or the west and they wanted to move from the west, east," VanDuyne said. "We thought: Why don't we just join together? We wind up exactly where we wanted to be."

Today, IMEG employs 1,200 people at 38 locations around the world. The Rock Island office, which is IMEG's headquarters and single largest operation, employs 140.

"It really was a merger of equals, and that merger of equals is something really unique in the engineering industry," VanDuyne said. "In the U.S., it was the first time in our business that it has been done. Usually, somebody acquires somebody."

The company spent 2016 sorting out the details of internal infrastructure, including accounting, human resources, marketing and IT.

VanDuyne, who spends one week a month at the California headquarters, credits the merger's success to proper focus: "We kept egos on the back table, and we really tried to build this as a combination of two companies going forward."

Anatomy of Q-C mergers

Like the IMEG merger, timing and mutual respect were key to the mergers with Missman and McClure, VanDuyne said.

The companies competed with one another and were "valued partners to IMEG" on many projects, he said.

"It was an alignment of the stars,'' said Eikenberry, formerly of Missman. He and VanDuyne are longtime friends, and he regards VanDuyne as a mentor.

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IMEG Education Director Patrice Accola talks about the companies continuing education process.

In fact, Eikenberry said Missman and KJWW came close to merging in the late 1980s. At that time, both firms had about 30 employees. But Missman went on to grow to 60 employees, making its own acquisitions along the way. And Missman and McClure considered their own merger.

When KJWW and TTG became IMEG in 2015, Eikenberry said, "They got a civil engineering component out in California, and it spurred discussions over time: What would it look like if KJWW added more civil?"

After thoroughly vetting the idea, he took it to Missman's stockholders — about a third of whom were employees.

"I truly wanted our employees to think I did the right thing, so I left the vote up to them," he said. "I was the only one who didn't vote, and I got 100 percent."

VanDuyne said he remembers the first meeting, which took place at City Limits restaurant in Rock Island, "We were able to put something together that, again, was something unusual."

Competing for top talent

Because of its size, varied locations, scope of work and its reach, IMEG leaders see themselves as well-position for today's stiff competition for engineering talent. But the company went another step, creating a culture and an atmosphere that are designed to attract the latest generation of engineers.

For Tim Anderson, IMEG's human resources director, managing growth is not a new challenge. When he went to work 17 years ago at KJWW, his first job was to fill 27 new positions.

"I got most filled in five to six months," he said.

Today, Anderson is uniting IMEG with Missman and McClure in terms of benefit plans, policies and other compliance and legal issues. Since the merger, the company has grown from 575 people at KJWW to 1,250 at IMEG.

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The Rock Island staff visits 17 Midwest universities a year in their efforts to recruit graduates and current engineering students. At career fairs, Anderson said, "We're recruiting against Apple, Microsoft and Boeing. We want the top-of-the-line engineering students, so we devote a lot to getting sharp new graduates in."

He estimates the company hires 50 graduates each year, "There is some turnover, but mostly it's growth in hiring new engineers."

Experienced consulting engineers are even more difficult to find, Anderson said.

"If you want a 20-plus year electrical engineer, chances are you have to relocate someone here," he said. "There is a lot of competition for them."

When they get here

Chad Blomquist began his engineering career as an intern more than two years ago. He had just made a career move away from massage therapy.

An electrical engineer focused on power systems, the Morrison, Illinois, native was pursuing engineering at the University of Iowa when he first encountered KJWW.

It was the company's "employee-centric focus" that attracted him.

Now part of an IMEG health care team, Blomquist is involved in the company's Employee Recognition Committee, helping to plan lunches, social outings and employee competitions, such as ping pong and bags tournaments in the office game room or dodgeball on its adjacent, outdoor field area.

"It's just fun things to get people out of their desk," he said. "They have changed a lot of things here to make it more interesting or desirable for young engineers."

The Rock Island office's remote industrial neighborhood, "is not the most appealing," Blomquist said. IMEG's office in Naperville, Illinois, is a bigger draw for young engineers, he said, given its proximity to Chicago.

Caitlin O'Loughlin joined the firm two years ago after graduating from Iowa State University with a civil engineering degree. A native of Kelly, Iowa, a small town outside Ames, she has been impressed by the cultural and social offerings she has found in the Quad-Cities.

At IMEG, she appreciates the level of involvement she already has in projects with the structural team.

Not yet a licensed engineer, O'Loughlin is benefiting from IMEG's education programs and the mentoring program designed for all new hires. The 25-year-old also is active in IMEG's community outreach projects, regularly working on a home build with Habitat for Humanity of the Quad-Cities.

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A photo of the site when it was purchased for construction of our first office building (shows a dilapidated garage). According to our 50th anniversary book, what would become KJWW (and later IMEG) began in 1961 in the attic of founder Walt Kimmel’s home. In 1963 the firm moved to an office space in an apartment building. In 1965 the site in west Rock Island was purchased.

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First office building at current site (opened in 1966). (According to our 50th anniversary book, the owners “… got all the local architects together, fed them lunch, and then drew a name out of a hat. That architect was hired to design the 3,500-square-foot building.”)

"It was a very excellent first choice of a job,'' she said.

IMEG's community involvement committee now is in place in all its offices, VanDuyne said, adding that donations and volunteering are equally valued.

Among its pet projects is the Festival Express model train exhibit at Quad-City Arts Festival of Trees. He said his staff designs the layout, assembles the train and operates it each day of the event.

"I get to see my train set,'' said VanDuyne, who donates the actual train.

Developing consultants

VanDuyne and other company leaders launched a program 10 years ago that is becoming a game-changer for recruitment and retention.

Patrice Accola, a principal and education director, was hired 13 years ago, after VanDuyne became president. Her job was to help KJWW accelerate the development of young engineers into consultants.

The result was a Design Consultant Certificate Program based on four "Pillars:" technical, project management, interpersonal/communication and business acumen. The internal program is intended to turn engineers, designers and design technicians into consultants.

VanDuyne explained the distinction between an engineer and a consultant: "When a person graduates college, an engineer knows how to calculate ... but a consultant is someone that can actually address a client's issues."

When the education program began, Accola said, "the old-timers" were the firm's only consulting engineers.

"We were bidding on $500 million of projects," she said. "You couldn't just be an engineer. You have to talk the language of business, and you have to have your business hat on."

At first, St. Ambrose University was brought in to teach mini-classes to new hires on topics such as economics, finance and marketing.

"Then, the new hires began asking for MBAs," she said.

An MBA program with St. Ambrose began in August 2012 and later was expanded to include Western Illinois University. The University of Redlands in Redlands, California, soon will be added to the lineup for employees on the West Coast.

To date, 20 employees have earned master's degrees with IMEG paying "a generous portion" of the costs, Accola said. Employees take three online classes a year for four years to earn the MBA.

More opportunities

IMEG starts new hires with the "Consulting 101" week-long orientation to get a picture of what a career with IMEG could look like.

VanDuyne said the company was built on hiring young graduates, many of whom spend their entire careers there.

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Sarah Garthaus presenting a Virtual Reality walkthrough to a client in Buffalo Grove, Ill.

"We like to take people right out of college, put them through our education program and, from a young age, turn them from being an engineer to a consultant," he said.

IMEG also encourages company ownership through an employee stock program. With more than 200 stockholders, shares are sold every year and are available to all licensed professionals, senior level staff and employees with five years of continuous service.

It's a more inclusive program than the early days when employees had to purchase stock from retiring co-workers. VanDuyne said he bought his first stock when former president Ward Jensen retired.

"We just had an administrative assistant purchase stock for the first time this year," he said.

Eikenberry, who now will lead all the firm's civil engineering operations, said IMEG's size positions it competitively in the industry. More locations allow more room for employee advancement opportunities, including areas for relocation, he said.

"To compete for talent, you compete much better with a larger firm," he said. "We want the brightest and the best. You've got kids graduating top 10 schools who have high aspirations of working on a big building, big project or a big bridge, and that wouldn't be possible if we hadn't grown."

VanDuyne said his company works hard to keep employees challenged and engaged. And the outcome: "When they see value in the company, and we see value in them, there is no reason they need to leave to be successful."

He also sees no end to IMEG's growth.

"As you notice, we're located in the central part of the United States, and we are located in the western part of the United States," he said. "But there is a pretty big eastern part of the U.S."

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