By Rachael Kvapil
The mission statement of Amie and John Sommer’s general contracting company is reflected in their name — Tutka LLC. Many people assume the company is named after Tutka Bay near Homer where they have a family cabin, but Amie Sommer said that’s only part of the story. “Tutka” is a Finnish word that translates to “radar” in English, and it adequately sums up their business philosophy from Day 1.
“This name seems fitting as we are always looking at what’s next on our ‘radar,’ ” says Amie Sommer, co-owner of Tutka. “It’s not a crystal ball, but it is imperative that we continue to look at the economy, measure up our staff and resources, track trends and strive to be at the forefront of the industry.”
Tutka has embraced change from the start. Amie Sommer started the company with her sister in 1999, branding it as an environmental and instrumentation company. Early on, the sisters ran a smart business, filing for the State of Alaska Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program. Amie Sommer said the company has benefited monetarily from the program by getting funds for training, taxes, marketing and bonding costs each year. Likewise, it has also opened doors to new customers and further certification by the Department of Transportation as a Women’s Business Enterprise/Disadvantaged Business Enterprise.
“Many people don’t know how beneficial this certification is,” she said. “It’s cumbersome initially, but the annual renewals are simple. We would encourage any woman-owned business to apply for the program.”
Amie and John Sommer merged their backgrounds in civil engineering and environmental science to
produce niche services for their customers.
Photo courtesy Tutka LLC
After Amie and John Sommer married and he became co-owner, Tutka evolved into an environmental and heavy civil construction company. Amie Sommer jokes that the husband-and-wife dynamic can be challenging at times when one is a licensed civil engineer and the other is an environmental scientist. Yet, there is no denying that it has made for a successful team, resulting in the company tagline: “Where Engineering Meets the Environment.”
“Not only did this evolution work for us professionally,” Amie Sommer said, “it allowed us to have the personal life needed for two kids.”
To accomplish growth, Tutka continually focuses on niche services such as bridge construction. Amie Sommer said Alaska’s bridge infrastructure is old and compromised; due to recent bridges collapsing in the Lower 48, states are repairing or replacing bridges as funding becomes available.
One of the bridges Tutka recently replaced was the Roche Moutonnee Creek Bridge at MP 265 of the Dalton Highway. The project required a roadway diversion and temporary stream crossing constructed alongside the existing bridge, followed by demolition of the existing 40-foot-long wood structure, allowing for streambank modification, driving H-pile and rock lining. Tutka successfully completed the final 120-foot long concrete bulb-tee girder bridge, including on-site mixing of concrete for the substructure, by careful planning and effective use of nearby resources. The company received a 2017 AGC Excellence in Construction Award for the project.
Not that growth hasn’t come with challenges. Amie Sommer said environmental work has been lucrative in the past, with higher profit margins than civil construction. However, the projects are generally smaller and hit-or-miss contracts for a company their size. Federal work procured under larger bundled contracts (infinite delivery/ infinite quantity or ID/IQ, hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste or HTRW, environmental remediation service or ERS, etc.) are difficult for smaller, local companies to win, as owners either want engineering companies or companies with larger capacities to reduce owner risk. Another obstacle is getting bonding and insurance to write environmental cleanup policies in Alaska. This limits their options and is costly.
Tutka recently replaced the Roche Moutonnee Creek Bridge at MP 265 of the Dalton Highway, a challenging project
that required a roadway diversion and temporary stream crossing alongside the existing bridge, followed by
demolition of the existing 40-foot-long wood structure before building the new bridge.
Photo Courtesy Tutka LLC
However, Tutka still provides turn-key environmental services such as hazardous-waste cleanups, site remediations, Phase I/Phase II environmental site assessments, project planning documents, on-site sampling, storm water pollution prevention plans/hazardous materials control plans and more. With the construction side of the business, they can perform the dirt and structures work as well as the environmental work on jobs. For example, Tutka performed a site remediation project and removed contamination under a crumbling foundation. They were able to save the structure and put a new foundation in to achieve “no further action” from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Key partnerships with other businesses have also fostered growth. When Tutka started, the Alaska economy was struggling. Interest rates on small business loans were 12.75 percent, and the price of oil was less than $20 per barrel. Amie Sommer said it took close alliances with mentors and financial partners to ensure adequate capital for operations. While capital is always an issue for small business, it has become easier to obtain after 19 years of success. Given their start in “hard times,” Amie Sommer said it has made them cautious business owners who have the experience to survive the current flat economy.
“We are lean, keep our overhead low and don’t get over-extended,” Amie Sommer said. “We track our costs closely, bid wisely and perform every job with pride in craftsmanship. When issues arise, we, as owners, step in and work with our staff as a team member to ensure the project is a success for owners and clients.”
Bob Walden, PE, civil engineer/ project manager for the Matanuska- Susitna Borough, said Tutka has provided quality work since the borough started collaborating with the company five years ago. He describes Tutka as proactive in identifying potential problems and providing solutions.
“This allows them to be incredibly efficient and get work done — and right the first time,” Walden said.
Tony Sprague, PE, Construction Group Chief for the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, agrees that, “They have always completed projects on time and to specifications.”
Tutka has been an AGC member since 2016. Amie Sommer said she sees membership as an investment into her business as well as an investment into other businesses. She said AGC keeps Tutka abreast of the changing federal, state and local regulations; politics; and economic trends in Alaska. Likewise, she believes AGC goes to bat for contractors and the construction workforce and provides numerous discounted or free training events and networking opportunities.
As for the future, Tutka will celebrate a major milestone next year. Amie Sommer said a huge party is in the works as they celebrate 20 years in business.
“We have many blessings to celebrate. We are healthy and happy. We have a great group of skilled people that keep our company going. We have a beautiful new office building, a fleet of equipment and full-time, year-round work for our staff. We see Tutka continuing to grow despite the economic outlook,” she said.
Rachael Kvapil is a freelance writer and photographer living in Fairbanks.