De Pere-based construction engineering firm Foth & Van Dyke LLC was just beginning work on a large, complicated project when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020.
The company, which does business as Foth, had been hired to provide engineering services on a new $300 million vegetable processing facility that food industry giant Conagra Brands Inc. was developing in Waseca, Minnesota.
Foth’s 80 or so engineers involved in that project worked from remote locations during the pandemic — a practice made possible through the use of such technology as 3D digital design models and virtual reality headsets, said Chief Executive Officer Randy Homel.
“We just took it to a whole new level,” Homel said.
That work on the Conagra project, the largest in Foth’s history, helped the firm win the Distinguished Performer Award for Innovation in this year’s Wisconsin 75 program.
The Wisconsin 75 is an annual list of the state’s 75 largest private and closely held companies ranked by revenue. The list is prepared by consulting firm Deloitte.
Foth is among five winners of the Wisconsin 75’s Distinguished Performer Awards.
The others are Plymouth-based Sargento Foods Inc., for the community award; Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual, for the diversity, equity and inclusion award; Janesville-based JP Cullen & Sons Inc., for the succession award, and Green Bay Packaging Inc., for the sustainability award.
Six companies are on the Wisconsin 75 list for the first time
Foth is also among six companies to land for the first time on the Wisconsin 75 list, which requires the businesses to have their headquarters in Wisconsin and post at least $50 million in annual revenue.
The other new entries are Waukesha-based Walbec Group Inc., Menomonee Falls-based RJ Schinner Co., Middleton-based Hy Cite Enterprises LLC, DeForest-based Hooper Corp. and Schofield-based Crystal Finishing Systems Inc.
Foth, which ranked No. 64 on the list, posted revenue of $277 million in 2021 — up 58% from $175 million five years earlier, Homel said.
The company has more than 650 employees at 28 locations nationwide, including 280 people based at its headquarters.
Founded in 1938 by Herbert Foth, it is owned by 180 of its employees.
“We’ve been growing a lot,” said Homel, who’s spent his entire career at Foth — which includes serving as CEO since March 2013.
Foth has attracted business in part by focusing on specific clients and their needs, he said.
“We’re not trying to serve everybody,” Homel said.
Foth does a lot of work with companies that make food, beverage and paper products, such as toilet paper, which have been less prone to shifting their manufacturing operations to other countries, Homel said.
Its clients include such well-known firms as The Kraft Heinz Co., Molson Coors Beverage Co. and George-Pacific LLC.
Also, an increasing number of companies are outsourcing their design and construction work, along with engineering work, to companies such as Foth.
The Conagra project is an example of a food industry development.
The 245,000-square-foot facility opened in June.
It processes fresh vegetables to support Conagra’s frozen meals business and Birds Eye brand.
The new building replaced a 92-year-old facility in Waseca.
It provides approximately 20% more capacity for processing corn, peas and rice, while using 25% less water per pound of food produced compared to the older facility, according to Conagra.
Dashboards help with organization
Foth’s work on that project, as well as others, included remote meetings using virtual reality and 3D technology so the company’s clients could immerse themselves in the design — and suggest changes.
“This interactive decision-making ultimately reduced design iterations and rework which saved the clients’ money and allowed us to complete the projects on schedule,” according to Foth’s submission to the Wisconsin 75 program.
The firm’s project management processes provide a common approach, common language, common roles and practical tools for all projects.
“Digital supply chain procurement tracking dashboards were created to procure and deliver materials needed to construct projects on time. These tools were invaluable during global supply chain delays,” the submission said.
Also, augmented reality technology was used during the design and construction process, as well as 3D models in a computed cloud environment.
Foth’s ability to adapt was appreciated by Conagra.
“We leveraged new technologies that allowed for seamless offsite collaboration with Foth,” said Jim Prunesti, Conagra’s senior vice president of engineering.
“Innovative virtual reality and 3D design tools enabled us to stay agile and paved the way for new ways of working,” Prunesti said.
In adapting to the pandemic with remote work, Foth also relied more heavily on such programs as Microsoft Teams, Homel said.
New recruiting tools include remote work
Foth is operating more efficiently by sticking with those practices even as the pandemic has waned, he said.
Also, the ability to do remote work helps with recruiting talent “in a wider fashion,” Homel said.
The company’s operations are split among three broad areas: production solutions, such as the Conagra project; environmental services and infrastructure work.
Foth’s higher profile projects in Wisconsin include work on improvements to Fincantieri Marinette Marine’s shipyard in Marinette, and DeLong Co.’s new agricultural products export terminal at the Port of Milwaukee.
Winning the Wisconsin 75 innovation award seems especially fitting for Foth, Homel said.
The award recognizes an individual or company whose new product, business processes and/or service development have positively impacted how an organization is able to work or do business.
“Innovation is what we do for a living,” he said.
Tom Daykin can be emailed at email@example.com and followed on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.