Engineering Corporate Citizenship

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For 27 VAA employees, lunch was spent learning life-saving CPR / AED techniques. Saving a life can happen any place, any time at any age.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) kills more than 350,000 Americans every year and the national survival rate is less than 10 percent. Did you know SCA is not the same as a heart attack? This unexpected medical emergency kills more than 7,000 seemingly young, healthy kids every year.

As part of their ‘Heart Safe Plymouth’ initiative, the Plymouth Rotary Club provided compression-only CPR and AED training. By participating in the training, VAA contributed to the City of Plymouth continuing its ‘Heart Safe’ community designation adding to the number of area residents and organizations educated in CPR / AED use. Since the program began seven years ago, the Rotary Club has taught 5,700 people and held 200 training sessions. Lub-dub!

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Since Human Resources (HR) Manager Mary Pettit, PHR, SHRM-CP, joined VAA five years ago, the number of employees increased by 65 percent and the firm’s uptick in HR initiatives have made it an even better place to work. Mary retired in mid-March after building upon the HR structure and policies in place by her predecessor.  

“I like to develop people and it has been so rewarding to build an HR team that supports our employees and Partners,” said Mary. “I’m a good listener and I developed good relationships with employees because they know they can talk to me.”

Among the influential changes that occurred on her watch, a high-deductible health plan and generous company-sponsored HSA were introduced the year Mary started as she helped educate employees on the details. Mary also introduced Predictive Index, a behavioral assessment that aids in hiring, team building and conflict resolution.

Other milestones include an expanded Wellness and Outreach Program, including volunteer opportunities with Feed My Starving Children, True Friends, Habitat for Humanity and many others to enhance community engagement; charitable paid time off (PTO); and on-site bio-screening that provides employees with confidential health information such as blood pressure, cholesterol level and BMI.

A Peer Welcome Group was also established to help connect and on-board new employees and make them feel welcome. The Group serves as a resource to field questions as employees begin their career with the firm.

“VAA employees embrace the work HR performs and Mary has been key to the evolution of the HR department by applying policies fairly and consistently in the warm way that she is known for,” said Partner, Mark Mielke, PE, P.Eng. “Mary has advanced who we are at VAA and helped us evolve into a more effective organization by helping solve issues and identifying challenges that can threaten our culture. She has remained an advocate for all employees with her sincerity and patient demeanor.”

President Keith Jacobson, PE, “we wanted someone who was passionate, professional and capable. Mary has done a great job helping us grow and hire a lot of great people. She cares immensely and really connected with our employees.”

In retirement, Mary plans to volunteer, garden, travel, serve as caregiver for her mom and enjoy some pontoon time with her adult children. “Whenever employees leave they say they’ll miss the people the most, and it’s also true for me. We have wonderful people and VAA is a great place to work.”

We thank Mary for being a tireless professional, a caring leader who enhanced our VAA environment and we wish her well as she shows us how much fun is possible in retirement.


Gene Haldorson Retires as VAA's Longest Tenured Employee

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After almost 38 years, Gene is retiring from VAA at the end of 2018. A mentor to the next generation and a foothold in VAA’s agribusiness projects, his influence on the firm’s culture has not gone unnoticed.

A graduate from Minneapolis’ Dunwoody College of Technology and a former VAA Partner, Gene’s career began at a design-build firm drawing grain handling facilities and feed manufacturing plants. Eventually he joined VAA’s then sister company, Grain Facility Design (GFD) in 1981. Pushing to establish GFD’s reputation in the industry, he helped propel the company into the agricultural spotlight. With the closing of GFD in 1990, he joined VAA to focus on facility design and process / equipment layout.

Respecting those who you work for and those who you work with is evident in Gene’s daily interactions. He is authentic – and the value he places on relationships is apparent with several clients that have been in place 30 years. “You meet a lot of people in the industry and you want to be in a career where it is not just about the work – it is about the people and the value of relationships you have impacting the work you do together. It is more rewarding when you truly feel you have accomplished something together,” said Gene.

A no-nonsense leader, a skilled project manager and friend. Gene set the tone of VAA at our roots through his clear commitment to the firm and steadfast display of integrity. Many employees appreciate his perspective, quality conscience “red pen” eye and continued guidance. We wish Gene well-deserved relaxation and enjoyment in his retirement.


VAA celebrated the season with an ugly sweater day and a Partner-served luncheon in the Plymouth, MN office. An annual tradition, the lunch is a way for our leadership to take a moment to engage with each employee and share gratitude for collective efforts throughout the year.

This sincerity is also paired with a light-hearted competition. Awards were doled out for Most Rash Inducing, Most Flammable, Most Creative and, of course, Ugliest Sweater.

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Gene Haldorson is our final club member of 2018 and longest-running employee to date. After 37 years, Gene’s authenticity and no-nonsense leadership is as valuable today as it was when he joined the firm in 1981. We thank you for being you and congrats on this milestone.

How did you first learn about VAA?
Dick Van Sickle hired a gentleman who I worked with before he joined VAA’s sister company, Grain Facility Design (GFD), in 1980. After introducing me to Dick Van Sickle and Chuck Allen and several “get-to-know-each-other meetings,” I received and accepted a job offer in March of 1981.

What is the best piece of advice you received throughout your career?
Several come to mind that guided me throughout my career. Work ethic is important. Honesty, commitment and integrity earn the respect of those who you work for and those who you work with. Don’t pretend to know something you don’t. It is best to respond, “let me see what I can figure out and get back to you.” Finally, don’t forget to do what you say and follow through in a timely manner.

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment / contribution since you started working here?
I am proud to have become an Associate and Partner of the firm and feel my biggest contribution has been developing VAA client relationships, especially those in place for 30 years.

Pick three words you feel best describes VAA. Why do they apply to the company?
Diverse – In our clientele, staff knowledge and project experience.

Committed – VAA is a devoted firm to its employees and clients.

Longevity – Being in business for 40 years, VAA provided me more than just a job – it was a career opportunity.

From your perspective, describe the biggest differences between when you started at VAA and the company now.
Design technology / resources and becoming a multidiscipline firm to include architectural, civil, structural, material handling, mechanical and electrical engineering capabilities. Also, the number of “high quality repeat clients” we are privileged to work with. We earned their trust by performing well technically to retain their business. I have also seen changes in the grain industry, particularly increases in the rates of grain handling both at the truck dump pits and loading 110 car rail shuttle trains on loop tracks.

Do you have a motto or personal mantra?
"Always do your best."


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