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December 10, 2012

Freeman just keeps climbing mountains

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever 7 Summits CEO Rohan Freeman.
Nathan Whetten, geotechnical engineer, Freeman Companies LLC

After climbing the world's highest peaks, Rohan Freeman is looking for new mountains to climb with his Hartford-based civil engineering firm Freeman Companies LLC.

Just three years after Freeman founded the firm, he has hired a top geotechnical engineer to lead a new geotechnical division as he looks to expand his business.

Freeman, the first African American to complete the Seven Summits, said he didn't exactly plan to start a company in the midst of financial turmoil in 2009. He wanted to take a few months off of work to climb Mt. Everest, and when his employer turned him down, he quit, with plans to start the company upon his return.

“This vision had been bumbling around my head for about eight years or so,” he said. “It felt like that would be a perfect time, regardless of the economic conditions. Even though I knew it was risky, I guess I was overconfident in myself and what I could do, based on my track record.”

Freeman, with 28 years' experience in the industry working for nationally recognized engineering firms such as BL Companies and BSC Group, along with the City of Hartford Public Works Department, started working with little more than his good reputation behind him.

“I'd been working with clients for a long time, and there was one thing I knew I had that separated me from a lot of other folks, and that was that I provided good service,” he said. “The folks I worked with were dedicated to me because of my style of working, so I focused on that. Even though I didn't have a deep client base, that was my focus.”

He was born and raised in Jamaica and immigrated to the United States to attend the University of Connecticut to study civil engineering. He later became dually licensed as a professional engineer and land surveyor.

He has positioned Freeman Companies as a minority-owned business, with certifications as both a Minority Business Enterprise and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, allowing the firm a shot at more business opportunities. But Freeman said he wanted to build a name for the company on its own merit.

“Even though I knew I had that advantage, initially I just focused on going after the work,” he said. “I didn't have a lot of experience working in the MBE or DBE field, and I think a lot of people appreciated that. I wasn't coming to them saying, 'I'm a black guy, give me work.' My approach was, 'Give us a shot; see what we can do.' ”

And those that have given the company a shot are happy. Of current clients, Freeman said 90 percent of them are repeat customers. The firm works in both the private and public sectors, with many projects in the medical/health care and education industries.

Freeman's projects in the Hartford area include water and sewer main replacements for the Metropolitan District Commission, the Community Health Services addition and The Fitchman Eye Center in Hartford's North End. School projects include several schools for the Capital Region Education Council, including the International Magnet School for Global Leadership.

Looking to grow the three-year-old company, Freeman hired nationally renowned geotechnical engineer Nathan Whetten earlier this year to head up the firm's new geotechnical division.

Whetten said he was intrigued by the possibility of starting a geotechnical division from the ground up.

“Freeman had the reputation of being a small, quality firm and that was really the draw for me,” said Whetten, who has worked in the business for 30 years, most recently as senior associate at GEI Consultants, a worldwide science and engineering firm.

Whetten, considered a leading authority by his peers, has published more than 15 articles for multiple science and engineering trade publications. He is one of several strategic hires made recently at Freeman Companies, which also provides services in civil engineering, land surveying and environmental sciences. He has a successful track record of secure, long standing structures, including rock slopes, highway and bridge projects, parking structures, dams, large buildings, water/wastewater treatment facilities and utility pipelines.

Freeman said he believed hiring Whetten would open doors for the company.

“Even though we didn't have geotechnical work for Nate (yet), I thought it was one of the business lines we needed to get into,” Freeman said. “Looking at the marketplace and the strengths and weaknesses in the MBE and DBE market, we didn't see a lot of geotechnical emphasis there. Looking at Nate's resume and experience and the depth he brought to the table, I felt that set us apart within the DBE/MBE market.”

Geotechnical engineering is now required on most large projects to characterize the physical properties of the ground, ground water and underground rock. Many geotechnical questions need to be answered on any given project, whether it be a building, bridge or tunnel.

In a competitive industry and a still struggling economy, Whetten said Freeman Companies is looking to be one step ahead of the competition.

“A lot of what we try to do is to develop that personal relationship with the people we're working for so we can maybe anticipate things they need to do or think about, and then provide that to them so it just makes it easy,” he said. “We try to get outside the agreed upon scope of work and brainstorm a little bit.”

One of those firms Freeman Companies has developed a strong relationship with is AECOM, a Rocky Hill-based firm providing fully integrated professional technical and management support services for a broad range of markets. Freeman approached AECOM shortly after he formed his business to discuss the possibility of becoming partners on civil infrastructure projects.

“We met with him and got a sense of their qualifications and we're very impressed with his methods in starting his business,” said Jim Sullivan, AECOM's senior project manager. “He hired some good quality people with good skill sets.”

As a large firm with a global presence, AECOM specializes in large, complex engineering projects, but seeks help from small, local firms when possible.

“One of the focal points we have is trying to be a mentor to small firms, particularly local firms,” Sullivan said. “Civil engineering projects tend to be disruptive, and we like to have involvement with local firms.”

Freeman is working with AECOM, doing construction inspection and surveying, on two of the company's Hartford projects.

Sullivan said AECOM was aware of Whetten's qualifications when he was hired at Freeman, and wanted to give the company an opportunity to get involved with its large projects.

“We have an intensive geotechnical engineering project with a lot of geology components to it,” Sullivan said. “We amended (Freeman's) contract to give them the geotechnical (part of the work). (Whetten) has performed as we expected. I think we'll continue to look for opportunities to engage them in those types of projects going forward.”

While Sullivan concedes his firm wouldn't look to hire another large firm it competes for business with, partnering with smaller firms only makes sense.

“All these projects have disruption to them, and you're looking for ways to have that impact benefit the local community,” he said. “Despite that they get a new bridge or a water main, if the community businesses are actively working on that project, there's a benefit to that and we support that.”

Freeman said he continues to look to expand the firm. He plans to add structures and transportation to the company's service lines, and also hopes to expand the firm's work into the Boston, New York and possibly Washington, D.C. areas. Freeman is also working on strategic hires for senior bridge design, environmental engineering and land surveying professionals.

Freeman said Freeman Companies will get the word out about expanded services as it always has.

“It's making contact with the right person at the right time so they remember who we are,” he said. “When you get that opportunity, you have to perform. They'll see this company provides good service and provides quality work.”

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