Meridian Management Inc. started 19 years ago with a simple goal: 10 employee-owners wanted to provide the best project management service possible to clients and were willing to put skin in the game to show their commitment.
Nearly two decades later, the company is diverse, nimble, resilient and resourceful. In a climate where professional service jobs are growing scarcer (1,100 layoffs in Anchorage’s Professional and Business Services sector in 2016, according to Alaska Economic Development Corporation’s 2017 Anchorage Economic Forecast released in February), Meridian has managed to thrive.
Meridian has played a key role in GCI’s massive TERRA program, a $300 million effort by the Alaska telecom company to deliver reliable high-speed broadband service to rural communities via a hybrid of land-based fiber-optic cables and microwave broadband. Previously, remote areas of Alaska relied on costly satellite connections, which also had high latency, or frequent delays in transferring data, making real-time communication difficult.
The project is on track to wrap up this year, said GCI TERRA’s project director Rebecca Markley. Meridian provided site construction management services, financial analysis and logistics for the project. Logistics alone was a big job, Markley said, because each of the job sites was remote and most were dozens of miles from each other.
Markley said the TERRA crew installed broadband towers in 10 villages this season and eight mountaintops, as well as four “backbone” sites or commercial towers along the loop.
Meridian was the interface between the building contractor and the civil contractor that performed site preparation and installed the modules, towers and any other necessary infrastructure.
“They have always been there, and, even when we weren’t thinking about it, they were always a step ahead of us, thinking of what needed to happen next,” she said. “Their knowledge of the state and their knowledge of construction contracts was a definite bonus for us.”
Markley said GCI gained efficiencies by hiring Meridian to handle project management, thus freeing GCI’s management team to focus on design, construction and engineering tasks.
“They offered a lot of knowledge and insight that helped our team manage the construction phase more efficiently,” Markley said.
Meridian president Erik Fredeen said companies hire Meridian for two main reasons: to supplement existing staff, such as with GCI and Alaska Regional Hospital, also a Meridian client; or to manage a project for a client that does not have the in-house expertise and wants to mitigate their risk.
“Being in a small market like Alaska, we don’t specialize in any one sector; we have strengths in a lot of sectors. Performing construction management services, we’ve worked on a lot of projects that have state and federal funding, where we are ensuring different regulations are being met,” Fredeen said.
Prior to GCI’s TERRA project, Meridian was a subcontractor on the $200-million-plus Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport renovation project, which added Concourse C and refaced Concourses A and B. It was a 10-year program, Fredeen said.
In addition to multimillion-dollar contracts, Meridian takes on smaller, more community-minded projects that might not net a lot in billable hours but make Anchorage a better place to live.
Caroline Storm, owner and architect at 11.17 Design Studio, said she was glad to work with Meridian on an ongoing project to perform a laundry list of upgrades at the United Nonprofits building, which houses several Anchorage nonprofits. United Nonprofits received a grant from the Municipality of Anchorage, through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to repaint the building’s exterior, replace carpet inside, install security cameras, redo asphalt paving in the parking lot and fix a broken sidewalk.
It’s not a glamorous job, Storm said, but with a limited budget of $90,000, a variety of different mini-projects and stringent grant documentation guidelines, she needed help managing it. Fredeen spent hours — many of them ultimately uncompensated — making sure contract documentation was done correctly so the work would meet grant requirements.
“It’s really interesting that Meridian can manage these huge projects and still take on these tiny little community-based projects, too. It’s not always about the money; it’s also about making sure community needs are taken care of,” Storm said.
“The project, budget-wise, is small. The scope is quite small, but the performance requirements are quite onerous. I don’t have the expertise (in contract documentation), and, to be honest, I had no interest in devoting as much time as it would take to do the extra paperwork which ultimately takes time away from my other projects,” she continued.
Storm said that Fredeen and others she has worked with at Meridian are “just incredibly straightforward, competent people with a different skill set than I have. Of all the project management companies I’ve worked with, Meridian is definitely at the top for me.”
Meridian has typically averaged about 10 employees, Fredeen said, but the company has the ability to scale up when needed.
“We can scale up through additional in-house resources; we have a large network of people we know and can call upon,” Fredeen said.
Working in a smaller but highly skilled office has meant doing jobs all across the state, he said.
“Our project managers are very adept at traveling and managing projects at a remote job site or here in Anchorage. We’ve done it all with tech and web-based management tools that can improve some of the project management. But nothing replaces having a project manager on site,” he said. “If the project can allow for it … we like to have our project managers on site during the construction phase as much as possible. That’s important because not only does it show the level of dedication we have to the project, but we can better work with the contractor to resolve problems collaboratively and look out for the owner’s best interests at the same time. We want to be the best at what we do, and you can’t just call it in.”
Keeping the office intact while the state economy is in a slump is no easy task, Fredeen said. Although the company has traditionally shied away from oil and gas work — where most of the professional service-related job losses have come from — Meridian has felt the effects.
“A falling tide sinks all boats, too. It’s very concerning. The state capital budget really impacts small companies like ours, and we really hope the state is able to realize a long-term, sustainable fiscal plan that includes a healthy capital budget,” he said.
Fredeen said that being a member of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska and other professional organizations has helped Meridian ensure its views on the need for a stable fiscal economy and a stable capital budget are represented before legislators in Juneau. As an AGC member since 2000, Meridian has also found the networking opportunities and locally focused seminars and events helpful, Fredeen said.
“At the convention, you’re constantly running into people that you know or worked with in the past, and you keep those relationships moving forward,” he said. “I like going to the Legal Bites and Bagels (a meeting one Wednesday morning each month, check the AGC calendar online at web.agcak.org/events). That’s been very important: to reinforce best practices from a construction law perspective that we run into day in and day out on projects.”
“If AGC didn’t exist, there would definitely be a hole. You wouldn’t have those vehicles to be able to rub elbows within the industry, which is important,” Fredeen continued. “We might not be a general contractor, but we are a part of the industry and project teams, helping to move projects forward and building Alaska’s future.”
Rindi White is a writer for MARCOA Media Alaska.