Joe Berlin began his engineering career working for Boeing in Seattle on secret military projects, which he still can’t talk about. Photo by Michael Buck
When Joe Berlin looks at you, he doesn’t just see a person, a framework of colors and shapes. He sees equations.
That’s what engineers do, after all.
“I think in equations and grids,” he said. “Honestly, I look at that wall and I see a grid. I can make it into a big or small grid, it just depends on what I want to describe.”
Berlin is president of BLDI Environmental Engineering, a Grand Rapids-based environmental consulting firm headquartered at 150 Fountain St. NE. He was born in Hamtramck but grew up in Traverse City, and has spent his career working jobs all over the country, trying to make an engineer’s impact on the environment.
Gifted with a brilliant mind, Berlin worked hard in school and holds a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from Michigan State University, a Master of Science in civil/environmental engineering from Montana State University, and an MBA from Grand Valley State University.
Interestingly enough, the man who sees life through math-influenced glasses actually dreamed of becoming an engineer because of his father, a Hamtramck firefighter who “always wanted to be an engineer.”
After Berlin graduated from MSU, he found plenty of job opportunities — but none in Michigan.
“When I got out of college, I probably had four different places I could have gone,” he said. “None of them were in Michigan. We were going through a big recession in Michigan in the early 1980s. That’s when Chrysler almost went out of business for the first time.”
Berlin’s first job was for the Boeing Co. in Seattle. He worked in a “black box” on secret military projects, designing the kind of stuff that, if he told you about it, he might have to kill you.
Even to this day, he remains elusive about revealing what exactly he did there.
“It was for the military — for foreign countries, I’m sure, some of it,” he said. “I still can’t talk about it … but stuff you see flying around on TV in different war stuff, I worked on.”
It might be impossible to draw up a fully detailed curriculum vitae of Berlin’s career because even he can’t remember all the jobs he’s had. He guesses the number is about 18.
“A professor once told me that an engineer might not make a lot of money, but they’ll always find a job,” he said.
After Boeing, Berlin lived in Montana for awhile where he earned his M.S. degree from Montana State University (the other MSU). Next he moved to Wyoming, where he worked for the state designing bridges.
For a civil engineer, it doesn’t get any better than that, he said.
“I ended up designing a 1,200-foot-long, curved, girder bridge over the Snake River just south of Jackson — in an earthquake zone on a landslide,” he said.
“We were replacing a bridge that kept sliding down, so what they had to do every two years was jack it up. … We had to put in sheet piling and then temporary piers, then excavate, then blast into the base rock underneath.”
Berlin eventually returned to Traverse City to be closer to his family, after his father was diagnosed with lung cancer. After his father passed away, Berlin eventually took a job in Grand Rapids to be closer to his girlfriend — now his wife, Joan. For a few years he worked for the company that would eventually become known as Williams & Works.
In 1991, Berlin got bit by the entrepreneurial bug and helped launch BLDI Environmental Engineering. The company works in the area of environmental regulations, offering clients across the country environmental due diligence, environmental risk management and hazardous cleanups, he said.
BLDI’s first big break came that same year when Meijer hired it for a series of major investigations. Berlin called it an extremely generous move on Meijer’s part — giving that scale of work to a brand-new business.
“It was a very large case and they needed someone to come in for essentially two years of field work to excavate underground tank systems and to serve as an expert witness,” he said. “Working with Meijer, I learned so much about how to treat people, how to place high standards on people. They were wonderful.”
BLDI currently has projects in Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.
The pressure of running a business forced Berlin to go back to school in 2000 for his MBA, he said, adding he recommends that anyone thinking about starting their own business should take some business courses beforehand.
“Engineers always (underestimate) going out, doing business development and think, ‘If I build a better mousetrap, people will come.’
“And that is definitely not the case,” he said. “You need to make people aware of what you do. I find that people today are much more scrutinizing of purchases.”
But one issue he wishes was scrutinized more — an issue he said bothers him in his soul — is what he believes is a lack of regulation for environmental consultants.
“Michigan is the only state in the Midwest that has no licensing whatsoever for doing environmental work. We had it until May 1, 2012, and then they eliminated it because the state didn’t want to manage this list anymore,” he said.
“In other states, to submit (environmental) reports to the states, you have to have a license. Not Michigan. It’s really an anomaly and it creates real difficulties.
“There’s a guy here locally who has no education, never worked for any other consulting firm … and gives advice on stuff that sometimes is illegal — what he’s recommended, and creates huge issues for some of his clients.”
Berlin added that BLDI has had to do “cleanups on sites that have been closed out. There’s gasoline still floating on the water table. The initial consultant never documented that.”
In the past, a consultant who submitted a faulty or deceitful report could be investigated by the Department of Environmental Quality and could be threatened with having his or her license taken away — or worse.
Now, however, enforcement is left to the bank lending money for the project, Berlin said, adding that banks are increasing their scrutiny of consultants from which they receive reports.
But banks aren’t designed to act as enforcement agents for environmental reports, he said. The bank acting as regulator only increases transaction costs because it’s hard for them to assess risk if they can’t trust the data they’re getting, he said.
Even if the banks find something that seems amiss, he said, there’s still the problem that there’s really no place to go for justice.
“Now, with a lot of the lenders, they’re only accepting work from certain consultants, or they’re going to make them all have $5 million in insurance, which is a real common thing right now,” he said.
“Lenders are going to hold that loan for a year, two years, and they’re going to sell that off. It’s more difficult to sell (Michigan) loans on the secondary market than it is from other states.
“That is not an inconsequential thing. And one of the reasons is because of a lack of enforcement in environmental — and Wall Street’s aware of it.”