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A boat launch basin in Lake Forest, Illinois. Baird’s engineers have pioneered the technique of building models of the breaches, breakwaters, piers or harbours it is hired to construct. (Baird & Associates)
A boat launch basin in Lake Forest, Illinois. Baird’s engineers have pioneered the technique of building models of the breaches, breakwaters, piers or harbours it is hired to construct. (Baird & Associates)

Canada Competes

Innovative marine engineers thrive on the edge Add to ...

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a world leader in hydrological construction projects, faces a problem that even it can’t solve, it calls Ottawa. The fixer that it turns to, however, isn’t a government agency. Ottawa-based coastal engineering firm Baird & Associates has carved out a reputation as a problem-solver for any kind of project where water meets land. Ports, harbours, waterfronts, watersheds, you name it, Baird tackles jobs for everyone from mining giants to military organizations.

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CEO Kevin MacIntosh says that when a job comes in, “Our guys just light up. It’s like turning on a switch. We’ll figure out a way.”

Baird works in some of the most severe environments and locations in the world – from Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, which has some of the most extreme winds and waves on Earth, to remote and undeveloped spots on Africa’s coast. Yet the company employs fewer than 100 people, making it a small operator compared with competitors such as Bechtel and Aecom, whose payrolls number in the tens of thousands. “We don’t do routine stuff,” says Mr. MacIntosh, who stresses the importance of maintaining the edge in their niche. They stay ahead of the market by seeking challenges that will force them to innovate.

It’s a strategy that has served Baird well. Founder Bill Baird started the company in 1981 with two colleagues, taking on projects for Dome Petroleum and Esso in the Arctic waters of the Beaufort Sea. The company was adept at calculating the size of the waves that drilling installations would be required to withstand, and also constructed models for an artificial island and mobile drilling caisson, or platform.

In one early commission for the United States Navy in Keflavik, Iceland, the firm reinvented a type of berm breakwater that could stand up to the pounding seas of the North Atlantic. Instead of the large armour stone that usually makes up most shore-line infrastructure, Baird used smaller, locally available stones.

Baird engineers pioneered the technique of building models of the beaches, breakwaters, piers or harbours it had been hired to construct, working with the National Research Council in Ottawa to devise representations of proposed facilities calibrated down to the millimetre. Previously, such detailed models were used in pure research projects, but not in more practical applications.

“It was kind of odd to us” that more firms didn’t use this technique, Mr. MacIntosh says. Today, computer modelling is much more common, but with the number of variables at play in hydrodynamics – the ways in which waves refract, diffract and shoal – physical mock-ups remain vital to Baird’s process.

Since the company’s inception, the amount of ocean data available for analysis has exploded, and continues to expand by orders of magnitude. Baird runs computer simulations of the world’s oceans that operate 24 hours a day, and are sophisticated enough to predict “the wave height in Barbados for the next three days using ocean swells that were generated in the North Atlantic,” Mr. MacIntosh says. The firm has made its wave data available to coastal contractors and governments, and even to companies that issue wave forecasts for surfers.

Complex and ever-varying jobs are Baird’s stock-in-trade, which helps it recruit and keep staff. (Above-industry-average salaries help, too.) Mr. MacIntosh jokes that loyalty is like something out of a John Grisham novel:

“We call it The Firm as a joke, because people rarely leave.” While a new contract may bear some similarity to previous jobs, Mr. MacIntosh says that “the [ocean] environment is so complex you can’t really find a replication. It may have the same wave height, but [the area] doesn’t have the materials available to build the same structure. So you have to come up with another design.”

One such project, an ocean terminal in Madagascar connected to a Rio Tinto ilmenite mine (a mineral containing titanium dioxide that is widely used as a pigment in white paints and plastics), was in an area that had seen so little development that Baird was forced to ship in almost every building component. “There was absolutely nothing there,” Mr. MacIntosh says. If the right drill wasn’t available on site, somebody had to take a three-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, to get one.

Adapting to local conditions keeps the company on its toes. The Middle East, a hugely competitive and still-booming region, is subject to monsoons and other unpredictable weather. Worse, there’s little local stone to be had, at any price. Yet Baird has found creative ways to transcend these obstacles; for example, it uses specialized, interlocking concrete forms. Its work in Hawaii on the Kaumalapau Harbor breakwater won an American Society of Civil Engineers Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award in 2008.

With acclaim comes the expectation that Baird will scale up, but the company continues to grow at its own pace.

“People have contacted us about hiring the majority of our company, because they are used to hiring 100 engineers at a time,” Mr. MacIntosh says; the firm generally turns down such offers. “I know lots of companies that do this – they go with one client, make lots of money for two or three years, and then, suddenly, guess what? They have no clients, no relationships and no work.”

Mr. MacIntosh manages the pace of Baird’s growth by subcontracting its expertise to bigger companies such as France’s Artelia Group, with whom the Ottawa firm is currently working on a project in the Russian Arctic. While large engineering construction outfits like Artelia or Bechtel might have 10 coastal engineers of their own, they still reach out to Baird’s specialists on more challenging projects.

“We’ve been profitable for 30 years, even in deep recessions,” Mr. MacIntosh says. “We’ve been through three of them, and our best years have been our last three.”

With a healthy complement of awards, steadily rising revenue and more than 100 projects in various stages of development, it doesn’t seem as though Baird will run out of work any time soon.

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