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How the Environmental team is working today to anticipate the regulatory demands of tomorrow
As Atwell continues to grow, so too does its Environmental team. From permitting to habitat mapping, their services continue to grow to meet our clients’ demands. Vice President Bourke Thomas shares the story of the team’s journey and his vision for their future.
What brought you to Atwell, and how long have you been leading the Environmental team?
Bourke: Unlike most, I knew that I wanted to be a wetland consultant in sixth grade. My dad ran the wetland program in Michigan, so I knew what it meant to be a wetland consultant at an early age.
In high school, I shadowed one of my dad’s friends, who was a wetland consultant, to learn about the career path he took. He told me where he went to school, what he minored in, and what he received his undergraduate degree in. By the time I was a high school senior, I knew I wanted to receive my undergraduate degree in environmental science from Michigan State University.
When I graduated from college, however, there were no jobs available. I sent resumes all over the world looking for a job. My brother was living in New Zealand at the time, so I even applied for roles there. I couldn’t get a job anywhere, so I went back to my dad’s friend who happened to own a wetland consulting business in Detroit. I worked for him for a year and a half until the day I received a phone call from Kevin O’Connor, who at the time was a recruiter at Atwell. We met for coffee shortly after that call, and I’ve been with Atwell ever since.
The Environmental team is where it is today because the two people leading the diversification conversation way back in 2005 were Matt Bissett and Tim Augustine. They were selling environmental work and selling our full services. They sold a raptor nest survey for two projects in Michigan in 2008 and here we are today, a $15 million environmental group doing most of our work in the renewable space.
What would people outside of your team be surprised to learn about the Environmental team?
Bourke: They’d be surprised to learn how big we are and how much work we do. The Environmental team has more than 70 people with a business plan that represents 5% of the firm’s hours. That’s a substantial number of hours considering the environmental team only had 37 employees in March of 2021. We have six archaeologists on staff, and we have 3 full-time avian biologists. We do bird surveys, cultural resources surveys, critical issues analysis (CIAs), wetlands, habitat mapping, and local, state, and federal permitting. There are a select few states including Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan where we’re doing county, state, and township municipal permitting. We do all that work in-house.
What would a prospective client be surprised to learn?
Bourke: Every time I talk about our work with a current or potential client, they say, “I didn’t know you did that.” We’ll be talking about an environmental project in Minnesota, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, or Michigan and we’ll share, “We do electrical design; we do transmission design; we have six licensed professional surveyors in this state.” They’re always surprised to learn about the breadth of our services.
Our clients would also be surprised to know about the growth of the Environmental team. In 2021, we had 37 people. Today, we’re at more than 70 people. We’ve almost doubled our team in just two years We know that as our clients’ needs and scopes increase, our team will continue to grow as well because we know they’re going to need our bandwidth.
What is your vision for the future of the Environmental team?
Bourke: I’m excited about providing opportunities for our staff. I like working at Atwell because the opportunities are endless. I started as a technician 18 or 19 years ago and look where the opportunity brought me! Some leaders within Atwell took me to coffee when I was a technician and asked, “What do you want for your future? If you want to do this, these are the things you can focus on. And, if you focus on those things and you master them, you can move to X, Y, and Z roles. The future is available to you.”
I would like to do the same thing for someone else at Atwell, whether they’re an intern, newly out of college, or 20 years into a career but new to Atwell. I want to know who people are as individuals, learn what excites them, and help them find a path that will motivate them to show up to work every day. Whether it’s in the environmental group, the program group, the survey group, the engineering group, or any group within Atwell. Wherever it is, I want to help people envision their careers and get started on that path.
How do you see the landscape of environmental services changing in the next five to 10 years?
Bourke: The beautiful thing about the environment is that regulations are not going to get any easier regardless of local, state, national, or global politics. The environment is important, and it will continue to be important. The regulations are only going to get stricter.
With that in mind, how do we differentiate ourselves from our competition? We don’t do technical things any differently than our competitors, so where we can separate ourselves is by thinking ahead and anticipating what policies are coming. We have solar projects and wind projects that aren’t going to be operational until 2026 or 2029. We’re starting to develop projects that won’t be built for three to six years. How many presidential elections is that? How many different versions of the EPA are there going to be? How many changes are there going to be in county leadership, of all the different counties or municipalities in in the United States? What’s going on at the local, state, and federal levels that are influencing or could influence these projects? How do we keep track of that?
That’s the differentiator. We are paying attention to the politics and how policies are going to drive environmental legislation. That will then inherently drive our projects.
What drives your passions?
Bourke: From a work perspective, there’s nothing that excites me more than getting a permit faster than expected. My passion is winning as it pertains to work and getting our clients what they want as fast as we can, as efficiently as we can, and exceeding their expectations. That excites me every day.
Personally, my passion is sharing my knowledge. My hope is to work for people on the Environmental team who are smarter, quicker, brighter, more eager, more aggressive, and more strategic than I am. I want to empower the team to feel like this is a flat organization. If you’ve got an idea that’s better than mine, there’s nothing more important than our clients’ success. I want to foster creative thinking, with sound, legally-defensible science, because we must be able to defend what we do but do it in a way that is strategic with our clients in mind. I want to share what I know with the people that I work with every day, so they can take it one step further and achieve even greater things.