Somat Engineering, Inc.
A fascination with infrastructure
Business View Magazine interviews representatives from Somat Engineering, Inc., as part of our focus on best practices in the infrastructure sector.
Somat Engineering, Inc. is an award-winning infrastructure solutions provider with expertise in the planning, design, construction, and administration of small to large scale infrastructure, transportation, and water/wastewater systems, built facilities, and environmental pollutant controls. The company was founded in Detroit, Michigan, in 1986, by Ramji Patel. Somat Engineering is a portmanteau of “soils” and “materials.” “Our original focus was on geotechnical foundations engineering,” says Arpan Patel, the company’s Washington, D.C. Area Manager, and son of its founder. “It’s the study of foundations – soils and materials – that hold up structures, whether they be buildings, highways, roads, or runways.”
“So, we started off in geotechnical foundations engineering,” Patel continues, “and at the time, we even did basic grunt work in the sense that we owned drill rigs to take the samples in the field. We sold those off many years ago and hired people to do that. But we do maintain three testing laboratories in the Midwest, so we still do a lot of our own materials testing – concrete, soil, other materials that go into construction and foundations. Along the way, we expanded into other areas, like structural and site civil, which is dealing with the development of real estate and structural bridges and other elements like that; environmental engineering; and construction services, which is really the quality assurance and oversight of any construction project, primarily transportation, but also water and wastewater.”
Along with new offerings, came geographic expansion. “We started off with one office in Detroit,” Patel notes. “We now have five offices in Michigan, on both the western and eastern sides of the state. Our first regional expansion outside of Michigan was into northern Ohio – Cleveland, to be specific. We have two offices in Cleveland. We planted a flag in the District of Columbia in 2009, to avail ourselves of some federal opportunities. Since then, we have opened offices in Prince George’s County and Baltimore, Maryland.”
In fact, Patel, who had worked at his father’s company as a young man before leaving to work on Wall St. and Silicon Valley, came back to the family firm in order to help it expand and diversify. And he believes that his financial bona fides are well-suited to the current world of infrastructure financing, which, more and more, involves new models, such as public-private partnerships (P3s), and design/build contracts. “As a result,” he notes, “we’ve been working on selected P3 and design/build transactions with engineers, and we’re also getting involved with AI and other industry-wide initiatives to understand and promote these new infrastructure development vehicles that are emerging.”
Somat Engineering employs about 80 people, about 25 of which are licensed, professional engineers. “We have a very technically-savvy bunch, people who love a good technical challenge,” says Patel. “We love very difficult problems. Our specialty is the dense, aging urban areas, where there are a lot of multi-jurisdictional challenges and forensic work. As Ram likes to say, ‘If your problem is a problem from hell, we’d like to take a look at it.’”
Ram is G. Ram Ramanujam, President & CEO of Somat Engineering. He explains how the company acquires most of its contracts: “First of all, most of our work, to date, has been as a sub-consultant – in other words, being part of a team. A larger engineering company is the prime contractor, and we’re working under it. And consulting engineering work is typically not bid out like contracting work is. Most of the work we do is actually on QBS – qualification-based selection. So, the price is not what determines the selection; the team with the best quality is selected. Somat is not the cheapest company in town; neither do we aspire to be. What we’re interested in is bringing value.”
When Ram talks about bringing value to a project, he is echoing the ethos of Somat’s founder: “When Ramji started the company in 1986, he was very clear. He said, ‘We’ve got to do the right thing.’ So, integrity was at the forefront. The biggest thing that sets Somat Engineering apart from our competition is in how we actually approach the entire philosophy of doing business. In our 30 years, we have never shirked from taking responsibility for our actions and, when they happen, our mistakes. If Somat is at fault, we take responsibility for it; we do not try to point fingers. And when I say responsibility, it means financial responsibility, as well. Thankfully, we haven’t had to do it too often. And our clients tell us it is something that they really appreciate about Somat.
“The second thing is we are extremely service-oriented. Our clients tell us that it is always a pleasure to deal with Somat staff because they’re pleasant, they’re professional; they’re focused on solving the problem rather than figuring out who is at fault. When there is an issue, whether it is within the engineering team, whether it is with the contractor, whether it is with the supplier, most of the times, the problem is due to something in the process that was not going right – maybe it was in communications, maybe it was in scheduling, maybe it was in prioritizing, maybe it was financial. Whatever it is, we always focus on the process, and how it can improve.
“The third thing that makes us stand out is when we cannot deliver something within the timeframe that was originally expected, we make sure to let the client know that we cannot do it; we give them the reason why; we tell them what we can do instead; and we figure out how to come up with the best possible answers. Sometimes, that means getting someone else onboard to assist us, and we have not been shy to do that, when necessary. So, these are the three things that make us stand out, and they all have to do with the character of the company. That was Ramji’s vision and passion – to run a company that does it right and does it the right way.”
Those values have made Somat Engineering a much sought-after partner. “We don’t spend a lot of money on marketing,” says Patel. “Our work is particularly repeat business, so it’s the work that we do that markets us. But we’re always looking at opportunities and evaluating them. Our latest venture is in the Washington D.C. and Maryland area where we have three small offices. We’re excited about this expansion. We’ve already started doing work there for a few agencies, like the D.C. Department of Transportation. We’ve just gotten contracts with D.C. Water; we’ve done work for the Maryland Department of Transportation; and we’ve just gotten a contract with the City of Baltimore.”
Going forward, Patel believes that Somat Engineering can continue to set itself apart in the marketplace by being very savvy about the future of the infrastructure construction sector and knowing where the sweet spots are in the food chain. Lately, those include more construction management and inspection services. “Quality assurance oversight is often an independent function, and Somat prefers to work on the owner side as an independent overseer. By owner, I mean the public agency that is having the airport, or the road, or the building, built. We want to remain flexible and independent, so we find ourselves doing more construction management and inspection work because of the independence of that function.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by infrastructure,” says Patel, in conclusion. “And again, we deal with these dense, urban, built environments that are aging and challenging. There’s a lot of work to be done on what they refer to as ‘deferred maintenance’ all over the country. And I believe that infrastructure is a ‘civil right,’ if you will – clean water, operational public transportation. And I think it’s a bigger mission than just our daily nuts and bolts work that we believe in, and that we can bring quality to in the communities we serve.”
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AT A GLANCE
WHO: Somat Engineering, Inc.
WHAT: An infrastructure solutions provider
WHERE: Headquarters in Detroit, Michigan
WEBSITE: Visit Site