Duluth, Minnesota is home to a construction company that for 50 years has proven its diverse capabilities for clients in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Today, Northland Constructors is thriving with approximately 40 full-time and 250 seasonal employees.
In 1970, Duluth entrepreneur Jim Holmgren began an excavating company, Northland Contractors of Duluth, which has become the area’s most respected and sought-after civil construction company, with the ability to self-perform much of the work on multi-faceted jobs.
Beyond executing award winning work, Holmgren valued the strong relationships he built with his employees and the community.
“Jim invested much of his life into our company and built our work on the relationships he had with our employees and the community,” says Northland Contractors’ Business Development and Communications Manager Annie Harala.
Although retired and no longer residing in Minnesota, these relationships remain strong.
Jim’s “interest in the future of the company lies with his interest in the future of all his long-time employees and to make sure that we’re all moving in the right direction and doing the right things,” adds Vice President of Project Management Craig Ploetz.
In 2016, Northland Constructors was acquired by another Minnesota-based company, APi Group. Founded in 1926, APi Group is composed of national and regionally significant businesses with market-leading providers of commercial life safety solutions and industrial specialty services in over 200 locations.
The acquisition has proved beneficial to Northland Constructors, and Ploetz says that the company takes pride in its culture and performance. “I think that culture really matches well with APi Group and this acquisition. They value companies with values like ours.”
One such aspect is the combination of small company abilities with large company advantages. “I think that really rings true from what we’ve seen,” continues Ploetz, noting that APi Group appreciates what Northland Constructors has built over the years and the direction that it is taking. APi Group is, “there to offer advantages that large companies have.”
Northland Constructors knows no boundaries. It has completed projects outside its primary area of operation in states such as Oklahoma, Michigan, Iowa and the Dakotas. “We have the ability to travel,” says Ploetz. “We follow specific projects, opportunities, and certain clients. With the APi Group acquisition, we’ll continue to do that.”
Northland Constructors has well-diversified capabilities and resources from earthwork and utilities to excavation, blasting, road grading and site work, utility installation and maintenance.
“A large asset that we have is that we perform a lot of scopes of work within our infrastructure work,” says Harala. Being a contractor that’s able to do that provides us an opportunity to have a really multi-disciplinary approach to our work. We build a lot of roads from the ground up,” she says, adding that much of the company’s work entails earthwork around large buildings, for example. “We have a broad work history and ability to support a growing region.”
“I think where we really shine is in multi-disciplined complex projects,” Ploetz says. “Because we have all those services in-house, we’re able to coordinate and execute in a timely manner.”
The company has a primary focus on serving the energy, mining, railroad, commercial, and industrial sectors as well as state, county and local government partnerships. “We have a nice mixture of public and private work,” explains Ploetz.
Northland Constructors’ employees bring various skillsets and include licensed engineers, management, and field personnel. “We invest in our employees,” says Ploetz. “We make sure they’re trained and experienced. They’re our number one asset.”
“When it comes to building a workforce, we’re sitting at the table with municipalities and other owners in the area to build that workforce,” says Harala. This is also where partnerships with trade unions help.
Northland Constructors is also affiliated with five local unions that provide laborers, operators, carpenters, teamsters, and cement masons. “We partner with them for training and involvement,” explains Ploetz. Each year, through its union partnership, Northland Constructors is able to introduce apprentices into the trades.
Like many other companies in the construction industry, Northland Constructors faces the challenge of finding and securing a skilled and qualified workforce. It has some initiatives in place to address this throughout various municipalities, career centers, and schools. The company also provides a yearly scholarship to local engineering students.
In February 2020, the company served as a partner and sponsor for Construct Tomorrow, which has a mission to build awareness about the numerous opportunities in the building and construction trades and “really working with getting high school students more interested in the trades,” continues Harala.
The company has also hired from some workforce centers and has had “great success with some of those employees that have come through. Our goal is to be in the frontline of that. And we do that by being an employer of choice. So many of our employees have been with us for years,” she adds.
Both safety management and environmental stewardship are core components of how Northland Constructors operates. “We live a culture of leadership and safety,” says Harala. “While we’re doing a multi-disciplinary approach to our work, that team that comes together is communicating strongly and really valuing and ensuring that everyone makes it home safely.”
APi Group’s ‘Striving Towards Excellence and Professionalism in Safety’ (STEPS) program begins with “making sure that each of our employees is armed with the knowledge and the tools that they need to make sure that our work environments are safe,” Harala says. This is achieved through pre-planning for safe environments and safety meetings every morning and throughout the day with all staff.
Employees assist in training the new hires, and this has been helped by “having really strong relationships in labor,” Harala says, noting that the company values the culture that has been established which enables employees “to feel empowered and valued.” Together with the city of Duluth, Northland Constructors has also been striving to “stand in partnership with women in communities of color, to be welcoming and empowering.”
The multi-year Superior Street project in downtown Duluth is “one of our marquee projects,” states Ploetz. The last time that particular street was remodeled was in the early 1980s. “We’re excited to be part of that project again.”
The project will be a total reconstruction of the downtown and involves updating drainage systems, adding electrical fiber ducts, and changing bricks to paving. “We pride ourselves in being part of the community,” says Ploetz. “It’s been a great project to showcase, getting back into the history of Duluth and being part of that.”
The company is also providing much of the earthwork and retention forms for Essentia Health medical campus, which is expanding. This particular project is “the largest private-public partnership investment in Duluth’s history in a long time,” says Harala.
After Northland Constructors’ half-century in business, the company is proud to have helped build the infrastructure of northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. “We’re looking forward to continue being the leading infrastructure company in years to come,” Ploetz states.
“50 years really proves that we are a preferred partner of choice,” Harala says. “We have proven success of building and partnering in communities. We continue to serve those communities and provide the best infrastructure.”