News Archives

VAA Welcomes Brian Hinrichs

New addition to VAA team provides expertise on infrastructure funding access.

Plymouth, Minn. (October 20, 2022) – VAA, LLC is broadening its expertise in the Maritime industry with the addition of Brian Hinrichs to their Port and River Terminal Design team.  Hinrichs brings three decades of experience and has helped garner local, state and federal grant funding on over 100 projects to advance coastal infrastructure. While Hinrichs is not new to the industry, he brings new and invaluable knowledge to the VAA team and will be an asset VAA is thrilled to offer to both current and future clients.  

“We’re excited to have Brian onboard,” said Kevin Full, VAA Partner and Head of VAA’s Port and River Terminal Design business. “With his notable experience and success, the potential he has in helping support our clients through the grant funding process is limitless.”

Hinrichs will provide VAA clients with vast insight and direction through the grant planning process, making grant funding for client projects more attainable than ever. Specifically, Hinrich’s success in securing Federal MARAD and USDOT grants for coastal infrastructure projects will aid VAA clients in securing widely prominent federal infrastructure dollars.  Hinrichs will also supplement and further facilitate the genuine client partnerships VAA provides. VAA gladly welcomes Hinrichs and looks forward to his full integration into the VAA team.

VAA is a nationally recognized engineering, planning and design firm with more than four decades of expertise and a highly specialized skillset. From bulk commodity-handling facilities to manufacturing plants, waterfront distribution terminals to consumer retail outlets – and beyond – our experience is both broad and deep. Designed. Engineered. Solved. Partner with VAA – Let’s Get Growing.

Jennifer Vecellio Joins VAA as Marketing Director

"Consulting is about forging true connections and adding value. If you add value to what you’re doing, the relationship will naturally follow. It’s exciting to join a company and leadership group that has such a strong work history and relationships with clients, vendors, and employees."

Jennifer brings both agency and client experience to VAA. She has led her own marketing consulting business where she worked within an array of industries even touching some global markets. Her focus as VAA’s Marketing Director is to develop marketing strategies that propel VAA forward. She enjoys the challenge of strategic branding and determining the best way to engage the target market.

Making connections is at the center of everything Jennifer does. Whether working alongside clients or colleagues or mentoring a team member, she’s not only driven to do her best but to inspire others too. She believes leaders have an opportunity to make a real difference with their team, impacting their professional development and work experience.

Jennifer loves traveling, spending time with family and friends, and being active outdoors. She’s peddled 110 miles (with a 10,000-foot elevation gain) in the Rocky Mountains, and she’s also biked west to east across the entire state of Iowa. She’s a proud mom of four children, one of which is an active-duty military member.


Gary Koerbitz Joins VAA as Process Department Manager

“Helping customers develop safe and efficient facilities and processes is key to a successful project and the long-term profitability of our clients.”

Gary hails from far north in International Falls, Minnesota. The oft-chilliest city is huddled along the Rainy River and the Canadian border. He grew up the youngest in a trio of three boys who would all go on to become chemical engineers. Gary obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of North Dakota and then an MBA from Mankato State University. He spent the next 30 years specializing in industrial process engineering and facility management.

As the Process Department Manager at VAA, Gary brings his portfolio of experience to large-scale and complex projects in oilseed crush and refining, protein-based food production, and biofuels industries. His expertise in industrial process engineering and his strength as a leader and mentor enhances the process engineering team’s practical knowledge and capabilities and also helps the department work seamlessly with VAA’s mechanical department.

Gary really enjoys collaborating with other technical areas and learning more about processes outside the oilseed and grain markets. He values every opportunity to put his engineering and operations background to work helping VAA’s North American clients achieve peak performance of their facility’s design and operations. In his free time, you may find Gary playing golf, fishing, or traveling with his wife and two kids.

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VAA Promotes Kevin Full to Partner; Paula Phillippe Becomes VAA’s First Outside Board Member

Kevin Full, PE, LEED AP, recently joined the Partner group at VAA. The multidiscipline engineering firm of over 200 employees is now privately held by 13 Partners.

A Senior Structural Engineer with expertise in large marine infrastructure projects, Full manages work within VAA's agribusiness and industrial sectors across North America, including the design of marine terminals. His extensive experience in specialty structural designs - from seismic design to vibration analysis for many construction types - makes Full a unique technical resource to the company and a sought-after expert to his clients.

"We're so proud of Kevin and his work over the years," said CEO Jeff Schrock, PE. "His technical abilities, dedication to his clients, and specific knowledge in marine facilities have helped propel VAA torwards our 2030 Vision. I'm happy to welcome Kevin into the Partnership group!"

Paula Phillippe is the first external, independent Director to join VAA's Board of Directors. Phillippe has been an executive leader in professional service organizations for more than 20 years. She has served on a variety of business and nonprofit boards and led several growth initiatives over the course of her career. A respected enterprise thought leader, Phillippe is routinely looked at by business executives and board members for her insightful perspectives and sound governance counsel.

"As an outside board member, my role is to bring fresh and objective perspectives to VAA's strategic planning efforts. I'm excited to help VAA identify and implement strategies that will help the company continue to grow."

Phillippe's expertise includes strategy development, leadership development, risk oversight, human resources, and communications. She is also well-versed in social responsibility, diversity, and culture.

CEO Jeff Schrock, PE, stated, "VAA is excited to welcome Paula as our first outside board member. Her impact has already been felt, and I look forward to her contributions in support of our 2030 Vision. We're glad you're here, Paula!"


25 Years at VAA - Dave Johnson

It is with great sadness that we announce the recent passing of Dave Johnson, an Associate and Senior Structural Engineer with VAA. Dave was with VAA for 25 years and prided himself on providing quality service for his clients. He made every project a priority and began project efforts within hours of the initial request from his clients. Nearly every project that he brought in was based on a recommendation from a previous client or contractor that he had worked with. Dave mentored many engineers and improved the detailing ability of several technicians. He was a willing resource for all, especially on complicated renovations with little existing information available. His impact on VAA can be heard throughout the office, both on a personal and professional level. His faith and his family (with a dash of iron range stubbornness) got him through all of life's curve balls. We are truly blessed to have had Dave in our lives here at VAA. He will be greatly missed.


Community Matters - This Year and Every Year

Raising money for local charitable organizations has long been important to VAA. Over the years our employees have had many ways to get involved and give back to their community, whether by participating in home building, packaging meals, donating blood, or volunteering time to students. The largest financial impact, however, is always made during VAA’s annual two-week Community Caring Campaign (CCC), and this year’s hybrid campaign was no exception.

Each year VAA’s Designing a Difference Team selects two or three Twin Cities charities on which to focus its fundraising support during the campaign. This year VAA’s participants raised money for three local nonprofit organizations: Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners, Second Harvest Heartland, and the Sabathani Community Center. All three organizations work in our local communities to support families and neighborhoods, providing food or other important resources to people in need.

During the 2021 CCC, which was held the first two weeks of August, a calendar of fun events, activities, and competitions was planned to get staff engaged and excited about donating. “Working during a pandemic is a challenge, and with many employees teleworking or coming into the office part-time, it’s not always easy for people to know where or how to give back,” said Project Manager Paul Antila, PMP, who led this year’s fundraising campaign. “Integrating VAA’s CCC events into normal working hours and then making sure they’re a lot of fun helps motivate our staff to participate.”

Aside from making a financial pledge, some of the ways employees could get involved this year included playing virtual Bingo (always a big hit with our staff!), participating in a silent auction, taking a paint class, purchasing sweets from a treat trolley, or attending VAA’s outdoor barbeque and taking their turn at dunking our CEO and company partners.

This year’s CCC exceeded VAA’s goal of $45,000 and then some! A total of $59,726 was raised by VAA’s generous staff, partners, and clients. These funds will go a long way towards helping the 1 in 10 people (and 1 in 7 kids) currently experiencing hunger in our state. For example, the portion of donations raised for Second Harvest alone can provide up to 94,419 meals.

CCC 2021 by the numbers:

  • $22,051 raised for IOCP

  • $32,643 raised for Second Harvest

  • $5,032 raised for Sabathani Community Center

Learn more about VAA's CCC in an article published in ACEC's Engineering Inc.


Related Articles

The VAA Egrets Walk Their Way into the Top Five

Community Caring Campaign Goes Virtual

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The VAA Egrets Walk Their Way into the Top Five

This spring VAA took to the streets with our furry friends to raise money for the Animal Human Society’s Walk for Animals 50th anniversary charity event. Although it was the second year in a row the AHS fundraiser was held virtually, it didn’t give anyone “paws.” The VAA Egrets team was one of the top five Corporate Team Challenge companies, raising over $1300 that will go towards food, shelter, and medical treatments to support animals in need while they sniff out their forever homes.

What can every $1,000 donation do? It can pay to transport 25 dogs from overcrowded shelters in the South to an AHS facility in Minnesota. Or it can cover the cost to spay 20 cats, reducing the number of kittens that will need care and placement. Or it can fund on-site X-rays for 15 animals who may need specialty services or surgeries.

“I enjoy volunteering for this event because I love animals,” says Cheri Axel, PHR, SHRM-CP, Senior HR Generalist and VAA’s team captain for the second year in a row. “Many of VAA’s staff were excited to get involved and help with fundraising. I have always had a big heart for the underdog (pun intended!), so working for a company that encourages support for the welfare of animals is wonderful.” VAA is proud to support such a wonderful cause and grateful to everyone who participated.

To learn more about the event or volunteering, visit the Animal Humane Society website.

Tina Frye Enters VAA as First CFO/Director of Operations

Tina joins VAA as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and Director of Operations, a newly created corporate finance and operations position for the privately held multidiscipline engineering and design firm.

The combination of introducing a 10-year, 2030 Vision and modifying the company's governance were catalysts to adding the newly formed CFO/Director of Operations position.

"With Tina on board, this allows other members of ownership to focus on what they do best - concentrate on client relationships and strengthening our service teams to bring their best to project execution," said Jeff Schrock, PE, CEO. "I am a firm believer of having the right people in the right seats, and Tina's ability to analyze and forecast our efforts will be a tremendous help as we move towards the 2030 Vision."

Tina will oversee the financial activities of the company that is nearing 200 employees. She will also manage the firm's human resources, information technology and administrative departments. 

"My role is to help build a strong financial and operational foundation that engages our people and builds upon the areas the company is doing well already," said Tina. "I'm excited to tap into my analytical background to see where processes can improve efficiency or remove barriers to improve the working environment for our employees and clients. The commitment to a long-term vision with an emphasis on corporate culture are standout qualities of VAA that fit me personally and professionally."

Tina, whose previous role was Chief Financial and Administrative Officer of a pharmacy benefit consulting and auditing firm, brings 25 years of financial and operational leadership in various professional service industries to her newly formed role. She is a graduate from the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities with a B.A. in international relations, and holds an MBA, majoring in accounting from Minneapolis' University of St. Thomas. 

Learn more about Tina in our leadership section where she shares what inspired her to join VAA.

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Going Up! Project of the Year for 2021: Commercial Inclined Lift

It has been said the best view comes after the hardest climb. But why not enjoy the views on the way up?

On the highest hill in Mazatlán, Mexico, sits an observatory that could previously only be accessed via a difficult climb up steep and rugged terrain. Hill Hiker designed an inclined elevator system that offers visitors a secure (and fun!) 260-foot ride to the top. Keeping safety at the forefront, the design successfully addressed the challenges of a 30-degree incline, uneven landscape, and constant ocean salt spray.

The track and car along with general layout services for the mechanical equipment at the top of the elevator system used VAA’s engineering.

Rising to the occasion on 40+ projects predominantly on the United State's West Coast since 2016, team leads Kelsey Brown, Aaron Fortunato, and Duston Foth continue to support Hill Hiker’s team and are thrilled to be part of Elevator World’s Project of the Year for 2021.

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Anniversary Accolades for Bernie Jansen on 35 Years

Former Partner and Senior Project Manager Bernie Jansen is celebrating 35 years at VAA. Respected and admired by clients and coworkers alike, to say Bernie has played an integral role in the growth of VAA is an understatement.

Bernie always possessed a natural curiosity about how things were built. Having discovered drafting in high school, he graduated from Dunwoody College of Technology with a degree in Building Construction – Drafting and Estimating. He then spent six years at a construction company planning and constructing industrial facilities and gaining firsthand experience in slipform construction. Bernie’s knowledge of slipform silos and high-rise building cores augmented VAA’s familiarity with this construction method, helping to create a niche used today for many of the firm’s facility designs.

When Bernie joined VAA in the spring of 1985, the company was made up of two small firms: Van Sickle Allen and Associates, and Grain Facility Design. Bernie started out providing structural drafting for commercial building projects under the direction of cofounder Chuck Allen, migrating back and forth between the two companies as needed.

It wasn’t long before he was taking on new responsibilities. At a time when drawings were still being done with pencils and the web wasn’t yet worldwide, Bernie spearheaded VAA’s adoption of computer-aided design. “Our first CAD machine was very expensive and quite large,” Bernie remembers. He also managed the firm’s IT functions at this time.

As fax machines and pencils were abandoned for email and 3D design, Bernie’s role continued to expand. He managed all aspects of VAA’s projects, from designing process flows and refining concepts to producing contract documents and coordinating construction. His integral role in company operations led to becoming a partner in the firm.

Bernie also played a key role in growing VAA’s agribusiness sector, working alongside Gene Haldorson, cofounder Dick Van Sickle, and others. Having backgrounds in construction, Bernie and Gene in particular both had a deep understanding of the needs specific to construction companies and were able to leverage this knowledge to forge many new relationships. “If we did good work for a client, we were not shy about asking them to help us find more opportunities,” Bernie revealed about expanding VAA’s client base.

While his understanding of engineering, material handling, and construction is wide and deep, it’s Bernie’s talent for cultivating and maintaining lasting client relationships that is a hallmark of his reputation. CEO Jeff Schrock is proud to call Bernie a mentor, partner, and friend. “His genuine desire to build relationships and help people is evident in his actions. The care he brings to his client relationships has paved an incredibly successful career and bolstered VAA’s business.”

Although Bernie greatly enjoys seeing projects progress from an idea to a built environment, what he relishes most about his work are the challenges that have pushed him to break unfamiliar ground, create a fresh process, or utilize new technology. “Bernie has a remarkable ability to adapt to change and innovate,” says Brian Utoft, PE, Partner and Senior Process Engineer, who has worked closely with and been mentored by Bernie. “He’s not only been instrumental in introducing VAA to new clients over the years but also expanding the types of projects VAA pursues.”

Bernie appreciates time spent with family, outdoor activities, and working with his hands. His hands-on approach extends to VAA’s staff, many of whom he has managed and mentored during his tenure to help advance their own skills and talents. His desire to help both his colleagues and the firm succeed combined with his ability to foster thriving client relationships has helped VAA evolve into the company it is today.

Congratulations to Bernie on 35 meaningful years at VAA! Highly regarded as one of the most knowledgeable and experienced members of the firm, Bernie helped VAA’s founders make the mold, break it, and reengineer a better one.


Related Articles

25 & Up Club Bernie Jansen

Gene Haldorson Reaches 35th Milestone Anniversary

Gary Nagel, PE, P.Eng, Celebrates 35 Years

A Virtual Commitment to Community

As with many 2020 events, VAA’s Community Caring Campaign (CCC) joined the virtual world to raise dollars for local organizations. Selected by VAA’s Designing a Difference Team (formerly Wellness & Outreach Committee), the CCC’s on-line events and employee efforts raised over $40,000 dollars for three selected charities.

Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners (IOCP)

A long-term partner with VAA, IOCP helps families in eight Twin Cities western suburbs overcome barriers, believe in themselves and soar to new heights.

Second Harvest Heartland (SHH) 

Partnering with VAA for the past decade, SHH is one the nation’s largest hunger-relief organizations that finds creative solutions to connect the full resources of the community to help hungry neighbors.

We Love Lake Street Recovery Fund

Dozens of businesses, many owned by immigrants and people of color, were damaged on Minneapolis’ Lake Street during riots following George Floyd’s death. Funds will help rebuild the hardest-hit and most vulnerable businesses in the community.

“We wanted to continue the fun buzz the campaign sparks while being responsive to the current atmosphere,” said Structural Engineer, James Snyder, PE, who led the campaign for the last two years. “The virtual CCC also created an outlet for employees searching for a way to give back and feel together while being physically apart.”

A painting class and fishing tutorial hosted by CEO, Jeff Schrock, PE, were among the events employees experienced. Team competition took the form of a school supply scramble led by VAA’s partners while an egg-drop challenge bolstered individual rivalry to create engineered contraptions. Regardless of the activity at the core of event was the desire to give back as the firm raised over $40,000 to support the Twin Cities community.

CCC By the Numbers

149 bags of school supplies for IOCP

$7,514 cash donations for We Love Lake Street Recovery Fund

$33,667 total raised for IOCP and SHH by VAA employees

Learn more about VAA's CCC in an article published in ACEC's Engineering Inc.

A Blueprint for Giving Back

VAA’s business is built on creating lasting relationships with clients, coworkers, and local community organizations. Cultivating partnerships that last decades and doing work that supports our partners’ overall purpose is at the core of what we do. One uniquely rewarding partnership is the one we share with True Friends, a local nonprofit providing life-changing experiences that enhance independence and self-esteem for children and adults with disabilities through a variety of programs and services. VAA staff—and three generations of CEOs—have been inspired by the immense positive impact of these programs to volunteer their time and design expertise in support of True Friends’ mission.

True Friends is the result of legacy providers Courage Center Camps (est. 1955) and Friendship Ventures (est. 1964) coming together in 2012 as a new organization. The agency operates five locations in Minnesota, providing outdoor experiences, respite care, therapy riding and other services to nearly 25,000 individuals each year. True Friends serves people living with any of hundreds of diagnoses including autism, cerebral palsy, and hemophilia as well as those with chronic medical conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

How the Relationship Began

VAA’s involvement dates to the mid-1990s when VAA (then Van Sickle Allen & Associates, Inc.) founder Dick Van Sickle enlisted the Marines to erect a new building at the site that would become True Friends Camp Eden Wood in Eden Prairie. Dick was a commanding officer of a Marine Corps unit specializing in occupational training in construction and engineering. Rather than have recruits practice their skills building temporary structures, Dick sought out the opportunity to provide hands-on training for the unit by erecting a new building at Camp Eden Wood. More than 200 Marines came together with donated supplies to create a building for the camp that is still in use today.

Over the years, VAA’s engagement with True Friends has taken many forms, from volunteering, landscaping efforts and the creation of tie blankets for campers to Eagle Scout mentoring and in-kind donations. Perhaps the most valuable way that VAA gives back is through its engineering and architecture services. The firm has provided consultation and reduced-fee work for several camp improvement projects, including facility designs at True Friends Camp Friendship and True Friends Camp Eden Wood

In 2006, current CEO Jeff Schrock, PE was introduced to the organization. He assisted in designing handicap accessible trails, dining hall and dormitory upgrades and other improvements for True Friends Camp Friendship. Jeff joined True Friends’ Facility Advisory Board in 2014 and the Board of Directors in January 2019. 

“The volunteering spirit displayed by Dick Van Sickle motivated me in my initial engagement with True Friends,” says Jeff. “The mission of True Friends inspired me to continue to this day. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the joy our work brings to so many people.”

Enhancing Through Engineering and Architecture

True Friends President and CEO John LeBlanc says VAA’s support of the organization through design work is an asset, especially when it comes to managing relationships with multiple jurisdictions and building codes.

“It’s a unique way of giving back and it’s a companywide dedication,” John says. “VAA has walked with us so we’re not alone; they’ve been in it for the long haul, transcending leadership at both organizations to help us serve people with disabilities.”

The firm’s efforts with True Friends continue with several projects currently in progress. The conversion of an existing dormitory into an educational facility at True Friends Camp Courage will add needed program space.  VAA is reviewing the underutilized building for structural capacity and spatial renovations. Two recently completed cabins at True Friends Camp Friendship add modern sleeping and program functions at a scale that fits the wooded environment of the site. Nestled among the existing cabins, the new cabins can each house five guests and one staff membe

Sr. Architect Travis Beck, AIA, NCARB worked closely with True Friends on these recent projects and enjoys the opportunity to provide lasting value for the nonprofit.

“There is no better use of your talents than to help those who have the capacity to help so many,” Travis says.

Continued Support During COVID-19

As an organization that serves a medically vulnerable population in large group settings, True Friends has been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Summer programs have been canceled but the agency continues to serve a handful of high-care respite clients and about 15 independent riders in its horse therapy program. Through their retreat program, True Friends recently launched a new feature, cabins equipped with kitchens are rented out to families with individuals with disabilities to serve them as single households to minimize contact.

The cancelation of summer programs is not just a lost chance to make summer memories; True Friends’ programs provide an essential service in the continuum of care, respite for caregivers and life skills development opportunities for campers.

“They’re developing skills that improve their lives; it’s a step towards independence to build friendships, confidence and courage,” says John.

As True Friends and VAA have grown together over the decades, both organizations have continued to find creative ways to partner on efforts to improve the experience and environment for campers and their families.

“Using our talents as engineers and architects to help others is inspiring to me and our employees,” Jeff says. “Truly designing and making a difference that will be felt by so many in the decades to come.”

Visit to learn more about True Friends.

National Safety Month Highlights Workplace Safety During COVID-19

June is National Safety Month and this year the National Safety Council (NSC) is focusing on worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

NSC is a nonprofit committed to reducing preventable injuries and deaths at work, on the road and at home. In the past, NSC has observed National Safety Month by providing free educational materials and articles associated with a weekly theme. This year, the organization will provide “real-time, relevant resources on a variety of topics for keeping workers safe in our new normal.”

Materials covering issues like mental health, ergonomics and promoting a safety culture will be available via NSC’s website during the month of June. A series of guides with recommendations for workplaces as they prepare to reopen is also available.

Since its inception in 2015, VAA’s Safety Program has provide training for individuals to recognize hazards and protect themselves from injuries in the workplace and on jobsites. As the firm begins a phased return to the office following an extended period of remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the health and safety of employees remain top priorities. VAA has implemented enhanced sanitation procedures and employees will be required to practice social distancing, wear masks and adhere to CDC guidelines on hygiene practices.

See these FAQs to learn more about VAA’s ongoing response to COVID-19.

Additional Resources:

National Safety Council Resources

CDC Recommendations for Employers

MDH Resources for Businesses

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Employee Funds = Nearly 10,000 Meals

During our annual Community Caring Campaign, employees can pledge a portion of their payroll to selected partner organizations. Amid COVID-19, VAA expedited these contributions to support increased demand at Second Harvest Heartland (SHH) and Interfaith Outreach & Community Partners (IOCP). Employee contributions recently aided SHH in distributing nearly 10,000 meals.

Scholarships Awarded to Dunwoody Students

Supporting industry education and giving back to our community are highly valued at VAA. The Haldorson and Jansen Scholarship program reinforces both goals and recognizes our enduring community ties to Dunwoody College of Technology (Dunwoody). Founded in 2014, the program includes two scholarships named for current VAA Principal and Dunwoody alum Bernie Jansen and former Partner / Dunwoody alum Gene Haldorson, who retired in 2018 after nearly 38 years at VAA.

The program has awarded a total of $20,000 to Dunwoody students since its launch. In addition to the monetary award, the scholarship recipients visit VAA for an office tour before being treated to a celebratory lunch.

Recent scholarship recipients David Thompson and Hazel Wolf applied for the program in 2019 and their awards will go towards their spring 2020 semesters. The candidates were interviewed and evaluated for commitment, academic achievement, benefit from scholarship, community involvement and previous employment. David Thompson was awarded the Haldorson Scholarship and is enrolled in the Architectural Drafting and Design Program. Hazel Wolf received the Jansen Scholarship and is enrolled in the Surveying and Civil Engineering Technology Program.

Congratulations to both 2019/2020 scholarship recipients. 

VAA Wins Wellness by Design Award

VAA received a 2019 Wellness by Design award for excellence in worksite wellness at a ceremony hosted by Hennepin County Public Health in November. As a silver-level award recipient, VAA was recognized for making “employee health a priority through creative and effective wellness initiatives.”

Wellness by Design awards are presented to Hennepin County employers that demonstrate accomplishments in management support, wellness infrastructure, communication, and programming directed at improving employee health. VAA joins over 70 organizations that were recognized with awards for workplace wellness this year.

“VAA is honored to be recognized by Hennepin County for our commitment to creating a healthy workplace for our employees,” says VAA HR Generalist Cheri Axel, PHR, SHRM-CP. “Receiving the award affirms VAA’s dedication to fostering an environment that promotes diverse wellness programs that meet a wide range of personal health needs while developing a workplace culture focused on celebrating and improving the quality of life for all employees.”

Each organization’s wellness program is assessed in 10 categories ranging from senior-level support to policies and employee engagement. This is the fifth time VAA has accepted a Wellness by Design award, demonstrating the continued growth of its social, mental, physical and financial well-being programs.

Wellness offerings at VAA include a structured mentoring program, charitable PTO, education reimbursement, profit-sharing, teambuilding outings, an onsite fitness room, quarterly healthy snacks, book club, and annual ping pong and basketball tournaments. The firm is also committed to community wellbeing; employees regularly participate in a variety of community-based events from Habitat for Humanity projects to hosting an annual Community Caring Campaign that raised over $50,000 for local nonprofits in 2019.

New additions to the wellness program this year include freshbenies, a heath concierge service offering a holistic suite of options to provide employees and their families with cost-effective healthcare services.

Worksite wellness programs are of value to both the employee and employer. They can improve employee performance, increase engagement, lower healthcare costs, and build community. Effective programs create a culture of health that affects all employees. To learn more, visit the Wellness by Design website.

25 & Up Club: Shawn Shahriar

Shawn Shahriar, PhD, PE, Principal / Sr. Structural Engineer, is our final “25 & Up” 2019 Club member.  Shawn’s influence on new employees, veteran engineers and VAA’s ag and industrial projects comes from the same place – an intense drive to help and the heart to do what it takes to make it happen. A phenomenal fixture in VAA’s structural engineering services, his technical skill with seismic design, forensic engineering and many areas in between are significant and appreciated. Thank you for being you and congrats on this milestone.

How did you first learn about VAA?
As a Project Engineer at Kiewit (formerly T.E. Ibberson Company) in 1992-1993, I was managing two major agribusiness projects where overflow drafting was subcontracted to VAA (formerly Van Sickle, Allen and Associates): Gene Haldorson (former VAA Partner and employee for 37 years who retired in 2018) and Bernie Jansen (former VAA Partner and current Sr. Project Manager). They impressed me and I felt we had good chemistry working together. Later in 1994 I contacted Gene about employment opportunities when I was looking for a change in my career. He introduced me to Dick Van Sickle, PE, and Reg Silverthorne, PE – the rest is history.  

What is the best piece of advice you received throughout your career?
“I think, therefore I am.”  -- Rene Descartes

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment / contribution since you started working here?
As a Partner from 1998-2018, I am proud to have helped build VAA’s reputation as a highly specialized and reliable design-oriented engineering firm capable of supporting clients’ engineering needs, particularly on one-off, complex agri-business and industrial projects. 

Pick three words you feel best describes VAA. Why do they apply to the company?

Successful: When I started at VAA in 1994 it was a 17-person operation. To see the firm steadily grow in revenue and to 140+ employees is testament to the dedication of our Partners and competence of our work force.

Organized: It takes coordination and organization to execute the best service possible to our clients and internally to our staff.  Through the years, we’ve stepped up and delivered success through our strong engineering performance and project organization, not to mention in-house accomplishments such as office moves / expansions, maintaining continuous operations around the 2016 office flood, healthcare benefit challenges, etc.

Niche: A specialized firm with unique knowledge and competency that distinguishes it from its competitors.

From your perspective, describe the biggest differences between when you started at VAA and the company now (other than company size).
At its roots VAA was a structural engineering firm. Today, we are a multi-discipline practice offering a full suite of services.  

Where is the most beautiful and/or enjoyable place you have visited?Zihuantanejo, Mexico. This city found fame as the destination at the end of the movie, Shawshank Redemption. It is inviting, peaceful, friendly and authentic Mexico.  I can count on two hands the times I have returned for vacation – truly breathtaking!


25 & Up Club: Jeff Ferkinhoff

Our second featured “25 & Up” club member in 2019 is Structural Engineer, Jeff Ferkinhoff, PE. Reliable and steady are a few words to describe Jeff’s M.O. He takes pride in thoroughly understanding what VAA’s agribusiness clients need and providing designs that translate into the field. Often seen in the office with a massive red mug of tea, he is a valued resource for engineering and the latest stats on local sport teams. Thank you for being you and congrats on this milestone.

How did you first learn about VAA?
I applied to structural engineering firms within reasonable driving distance of where I lived. After I submitted my written resume, I followed up with a phone call that resulted in an interview.

What is the best piece of advice you received throughout your career?
Listen to clients so you can understand what the issues are in the field and make sure the design is buildable for the guy/gal in the field. On paper things fit like a glove, but in the field that is not often the case, so it helps to have some ‘wiggle room’ in the design.

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment / contribution since you started working here?
Supporting one of VAA’s longest client relationships has been my greatest accomplishment. It has been rewarding to know my efforts on the team have helped this design-build contractor be satisfied with the firm for many years.

Pick three words you feel best describes VAA. Why do they apply to the company?

VAA often shows generosity towards employees and the community we live and work in. For the employees – substantial profit sharing, HSA contributions and educational opportunities are a few examples. For the community - the annual Community Caring Campaign and supporting employee participation in various outreach activities like Feed My Starving Children or Habitat for Humanity.

Relationships Whether it be with existing clients, new clients or company employees, relationships are important to VAA. The firm strives to deepen relationships to better serve the client and/or employee. Examples include the Egret Party (annual client event); the company holiday party which includes spouses and/or significant others; and past summer family picnics.

Growth When I first joined VAA (formerly Van Sickle, Allen and Associates), the company services were limited to structural and civil engineering, some architectural design and equipment layouts. The company has since expanded in all the previously mentioned disciplines and added electrical, mechanical and process engineering to its service offerings.

From your perspective, describe the biggest differences between when you started at VAA and the company now (other than company size).
The extent of services VAA provides clients and quicker turnaround time on projects. 

What was your favorite toy growing up?
Pretty much any kind of ball - whiffle balls, basketballs, footballs, baseballs along with accessories like bats / gloves. This became a big influence for me as I coached my sons and their friends in a variety of sports as they were growing up.

Jeff will be retiring at the end of 2019. We appreciate Jeff’s many years of dedication and wish him some well-deserved relaxation and enjoyment in his retirement.


Interested in the stories from our other 25 & Up Club members? Click on a name to read another Q&A session.

25 & Up Club: Terry Mahr

Terry Mahr is our first 2019 Club member. His memorable laugh and soft-spoken approach are valued by Terry’s teammates, his commercial / retail clients and the new technicians and designers he welcomes to VAA.

With a genuine interest to propel the firm forward, Terry is a steadfast resource for the firm’s recruiting efforts and a guide to others wanting to take their career to the next level. Thank you for being you and congrats on this milestone.

How did you first learn about VAA?
VAA (formerly Van Sickle, Allen and Associates) posted a position on the job board at Dunwoody College of Technology – a piece of paper on a cork board ad. One of my instructors at the time, Jim Roehl, brought the posting to me and said, “I think this is the one for you.” He sent me off with a foundation plan and foundation details to meet Gene Haldorson (former VAA Partner and employee for 37 years who retired in 2018) of VAA. Twenty-five years later, here I am.

What is the best piece of advice you received throughout your career?
When I began to put drawings together more independently, Dave Johnson, PE, VAA Associate / Sr. Structural Engineer shared a simple, but very useful tidbit. “When developing drawings, put yourself in the contractor’s shoes and think about what information he / she is going to need to build the building.” This line has been used countless times over the years with the technicians I’ve had the privilege to train.

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment / contribution since you started working here?
Being a member of the 25 & Up Club is my greatest accomplishment. To be with a company this long is a pretty great feeling. The stability to me and my family is very important. I appreciate Gene Haldorson taking a chance on me many years ago and am grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had since my very first day at VAA.

Pick three words you feel best describes VAA. Why do they apply to the company?
Dedication, service, growth. VAA is dedicated to its clients and employees. We strive to meet the needs of clients and approach each project as though it could be the last - a project is a project no matter how small. Through our service approach, VAA has established long-term relationships with contractors, owners and architects that began 40 years ago and continue to grow.

From your perspective, describe the biggest differences between when you started at VAA and the company now (other than company size).
I would have to say the biggest difference is the impact of technology in the industry. The pen plotter and fax machines are long gone!

What is your favorite sports team and why?
Born in Wisconsin, it’s hard for me to choose, but it can depend on the season.

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Interested in the stories from our other 25 & Up Club members? Click on a name to read another Q&A session.

Trick or Chili

Ghosts, ghouls and even a Greek goddess roamed the halls at VAA’s Plymouth office on Halloween. In addition to a costume contest, our Wellness and Outreach Committee hosted a Chili Cookoff and Dessert Bakeoff for employees to show off their culinary creations.

With nearly 20 costume-clad participants in the running, it was a tight race for the 2019 costume contest. Employees also engaged in a friendly competition for the Golden Spoon and Golden Whisk awards. For a $5 donation to Fur-Ever Home Rescue, employees received an all-you-can-eat pass for chili and desserts and a vote in selecting the top three winners in both categories.