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WSN finds strength in diversity

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Motorists drive by, on, over and under structures created with the efforts of Widseth Smith and Nolting everyday and many probably don’t realize it.

Roads. Bridges. Buildings.

Projects include the Paul Bunyan State Trail Bridge over Excelsior Drive in Baxter, Forestview Middle School, Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Baxter Clinic, St. Francis of the Lakes Catholic School remodel and addition, Pillager school addition, Baxter’s new water tower, Riverside Drive, Johnson Centre, Downtown Brainerd streetscape, Bremer Bank, Paul Bunyan Vistor Center and the Brainerd City Hall remodel.

Some projects involve multiple disciplines inside the company from architecture to civil, mechanical and structural engineering. Others, like a Mills Ford wetland restoration in Willmar, relied solely on Widseth Smith Nolting’s environmental services.

Widely known by its initials of WSN, the company’s work isn’t always as readily visible, although the end result may be. More recently, WSN added expertise to help clients with grant applications and to secure funding for items such as the city of Perham’s 75-foot ladder fire truck.

Company officials credit that diversity as a strength, particularly through the last four years of economic downturn. They also point to a partnership with employees as a key in the company’s current and continued success.

The company grew stronger during the recession, merged other firms and added to its list of service offerings.

“I think the secret is in addressing the situation head-on,” said Kevin Wernberg, civil engineer and WSN executive vice president, of surviving the Great Recession. Company officials sat down and created a multi-phase plan and kept employees informed along the way.

“Our goal was to keep all of our staff that we could possibly keep through the times and face the situation together,” Wernberg said.

The company sought to be flexible. Jobs were taken farther afield as crews were sent to South Dakota a week at a time. The goal was to keep the employees company officials knew would be needed when the economy began the long climb back up. Beyond expanding its range in miles, the company looked at different types of projects.

“The opportunities are there,” said Kevin Donnay, WSN vice president and director of architecture. “We just have to figure out how to grow in them.”

That willingness to expand disciplines was part of WSN early in its history. The company’s genesis came in 1975 in Crookston with a small group of engineers. In June of 1978, WSN moved into the Brainerd lakes area.

Bruce Buxton, president of WSN from 1994 to 2005 and later board chairman, said even after being in the community for 34 years there are still people who don’t know what they do.

The employee-owned WSN only recently put the business name up on the highly visible side of the building near the intersection of highways 210 and 371. The sign includes a list of the types of people who are employed within from engineers to scientists.

A company, Wernberg said, takes on the culture of its leaders, and Buxton and Don Anderson, engineer and longtime office manager, brought a commitment to client satisfaction that was followed by the next generation.

Now, Donnay said, they need to foster that attitude with staff who will be the leaders of the future; that if the clients are taken care of, everything else will work out for the long term.

“Our best success is when our clients are successful and they’ll come back and need us again,” Buxton said.

Joe Breiter, business development director, described WSN’s culture as a collaborative process with a high level of ownership by staff members that is reflected in the client experience. As with any business, it’s about building relationships.

In an age of electronic communication, when co-workers at nearby desks email each other, WSN believes in gathering different project members and clients around the conference table.

“We like the face-to-face,” Donnay said of the team approach. “It really creates that investment in the project.”

When they look for employees, beyond the expected skill levels, they seek those who are well-rounded with activities, hobbies and community involvement outside the office or classroom. In turn, Donnay said, the company provides opportunities to advance and be involved in community service. An Esprit de Corps Committee organizes social gatherings and brings in guest speakers.

Buxton said when employees make the commitment to WSN, the ownership feels a responsibility to provide a job and a future so the company will continue on to its fourth generation. WSN still has employees who were with it since they arrived in 1978.

Buxton said what sets WSN apart from competitors is the company’s client-centered design process works in the present to solve problems that would cost a client more in the future. Engaging clients in the design work is a big part of what WSN does, Donnay said.

For the future, the company sees growth in transportation, bridges, stormwater retention, health care and senior living. Housing, Breiter said, may not come back at its previous level for many years.

Buxton added: “If they are still happy five years later, then you’ve done your job.”

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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