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Cooper-Zietz Engineers: Fred Cooper Leads Firm to Excel in Niche Market

Profitable and highly functioning companies have a strong sense of their market position in their chosen industry. By harnessing the core competencies of the organization, well-run companies focus on how best to leverage their strengths to strategically defend and grow their market

Fred Cooper, founder and President of Cooper Zietz Engineers, with Penny Painter, Workforce Development Specialist. - Photo by Maileen Hamto

CooperZietz Engineers Inc. (CZE) is a small firm that specializes in hazardous waste services in the Pacific Northwest. The company, started by Fred Cooper in 1990, offers environmental permitting and engineering services, including compliance audits, site assessments and hazardous waste site remediation support.

Cooper, who has more than 30 years’ experience as an entrepreneur and business owner, is one of the first Native American engineers to start his own consulting firm. His first company, started in 1976, became one of the first minority-owned engineering firms in the Northwest. “We did quite a bit of work with some of the non-minority engineering firms as a subcontractor for design of sewage systems and waste water treatment plants,” said Cooper, a member of the Lower Chehalis Band of the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, based in Washington.

While Cooper successfully expanded his business, mounting health problems led him to the decision to sell the business to another Native American company. As his health improved, Cooper began laying the ground work for the next generation of his engineering consulting practice.

CZE was founded in 1990 and incorporated in 1997. The firm now employs 35 professional staff. With its headquarters in downtown Portland, the firm also has an office in Seattle and a business office in Battleground, Washington. While the firm primarily works on projects in Oregon and Washington, CZE projects span the United States – from Alaska to the East Coast. There has also been projects in Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Barbados, China and the Central Pacific.

“We currently have work in Hawaii, California, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming. We do a lot of construction QC inspection that tends to be highly seasonal on construction project sites. Our staff is requested toward quality assurance and quality control, owners’ representation or construction oversight work, and permit compliance. Our work is heavily government-oriented rather than private sector; and about 95% of our work is for federal, state and local agencies,” says Cooper, who holds MS and Ph.D. degrees in environmental engineering from the University of Arizona. Cooper was the first member of his Indian Tribe to obtain an advanced college education.

Securing government projects is advantageous for the firm, Cooper says, because it allows the firm to target longer and larger contracts. “We don’t have a large sales department or marketing staff. I can’t afford to be preparing proposal after proposal. That’s why I tend to target my projects and choose them very carefully, so we have better success at winning contracts,” he says.

Competing with large firms for public works and environmental engineering projects requires smaller players to be highly specialized in their niche market. That strategy has worked well for CZE, says Cooper. CZE teams have worked on highly challenging projects at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington and at the Umatilla Chemical Depot in Oregon where they have successfully filled an important niche role.

“Hazardous wastes cleanup work has been an active market for 20 years. But now, there are more firms in the business so there’s more competition and it’s a much harder market than it used to be. We are very specialized; we have kept our focus on the disposal of chemical warfare agents. We’re one of only two or three firms that do what we do,” he says.

How did the firm develop its specialization in hazardous wastes? CZE had the technical knowledge and expertise about compliance issues involved in executing environmental cleanup projects, Cooper says. “We got our break because we had worked with hazardous wastes regulations in the state of Oregon. A major engineering and construction firm from outside the area needed a firm that was familiar with these regulations. We were also a small business and the company gave preference to minority-owned, small businesses. More importantly, our fee was right, and that’s how we won the project.

“That was nine years ago when we first won the initial contract. We’re still working for that client. That’s solid proof that if you do a good job for a client, they will offer you additional work,” he says.

Beyond providing high-quality work and expertise in highly specialized areas, Cooper says the firm also leverages the advantages of its small size in delivering value to clients. “First, we are responsive. Second, clients get access to principals for their project, such as myself and my partner, Carl Zietz. We don’t delegate everything, we become involved ourselves. Our clients appreciate gaining the experience that we have. In many cases, they’re willing to pay a little bit more if they know they’re getting key people with excellent experience,” he says.

Operational factors also play a key role in enabling CZE to remain competitive. Low overhead has kept fees low for the firm. “We don’t have a lot of support staff. Ever since I started my second company in 1990, I wanted to be a lean company that relies upon service and technology. Our goal is to maintain a small, highly productive staff even during slow times. This approach has kept the company highly competitive in terms of overhead costs and retained profitability,” Cooper says.

Cooper’s success as a business owner and entrepreneur has only strengthened his resolve and passion to serve his community. He is a founding member of the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs, and is an active member of many national Native American professional and community organizations.

In 1996, he was recognized by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society with their highest award for his outstanding personal and professional service to American Indians. He was a strong advocate for Native American participation in designing and building the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. When the museum opened its doors in 2004, Cooper was among the delegation of business leaders who attended the opening ceremony from all over the United States. His firm also manages an Oregon Department of Transportation grant aimed at increasing Native American enrollment in construction apprenticeship programs.

“I’m happy to be active in my tribe and with minority business organizations. I’ve mentored many young people and startup businesses over the years. I currently mentor a woman-owned business in Alaska through the SBA Mentor Protégé Program. I believe that it’s important to share the lessons I’ve learned from being in business to also help others succeed.”

Fall 2006

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