By Mark Fischenich
---- — MANKATO — Paulsen Architects, the creative force behind some of the Mankato-area's most eye-catching properties, has been purchased by I&S Group, a rapidly growing regional engineering, design and planning firm.
Both firms are based in downtown Mankato, and Paulsen employees will join I&S on a new sixth floor being added to the US Bank building on 2nd Street where I&S already occupies the third and fourth floors. The addition of Paulsen's 17 employees will bring I&S's total employment to about 150 — nearly 80 of them in the Mankato headquarters with others at branch offices in Faribault, La Crosse, Wis., and three north-central Iowa cities.
Paulsen Architects founder Bryan Paulsen, who will lead the I&S architectural division for at least the next five years, said the acquisition will allow himself and his colleagues to have a more regional reach and also have the support of the broad engineering and technical services of I&S. Both Paulsen and I&S President Chad Surprenant said Paulsen sought assurances that the merger would come with a continuing commitment to design excellence.
"It still gives me the chance for the next five years to leave my legacy and leave my brand and mentor all these young people," said Paulsen, 57, adding that his first priority was to ensure that his entire staff would be retained by I&S.
I&S, founded as a two-man civil engineering firm in 1973, has added architectural services as it has expanded. But Surprenant said Paulsen and his team have a history of award-winning designs that are typically found only in large metropolitan architectural firms. The acquisition brings those skills to I&S and also makes the combined organization better able to attract top talent to Mankato in the future.
"I'd say it brings one of the absolute best design firms in Minnesota to the I&S fold," Surprenant said.
Among the notable Paulsen designs in the area are the Midwest Wireless corporate headquarters near Highway 14 on Mankato's east side, downtown Mankato's Hilton Garden Inn, the Minnesota State University student union, the Blue Earth County Justice Center, Austin's Spam Museum and the St. Peter Food Co-op.
The acquisition continues a strong growth trend for I&S in recent years. Surprenant was just the 10th I&S employee when he joined the firm as an engineer in 1993 — 20 years after it had been founded by his father, Ken Surprenant. Along with growing 15-fold since Chad Surprenant's arrival two decades ago, I&S Group currently has projects underway in 25 states ranging from Florida to Utah — although most of its work remains concentrated in the southern half of Minnesota, the northern half of Iowa and western Wisconsin.
Surprenant, who approached Paulsen about the possibility of combining forces, said it would have been difficult earlier in his career to initiate that conversation with someone who had been a frequent competitor in bidding for projects. The competition has been friendlier in recent years, though, and both teams respect the work done by the other, according to Surprenant.
Talks intensified in the past two weeks, and the deal was announced Thursday afternoon.
"I honestly think it's extremely good not only for Mankato but also for the regional marketplace," Surprenant said. "... We're going to do really, really good things."