Economic Trends: GRAEF CEO envisions strong year for company, city

Rendering of GRAEF-USA Inc.’s new office space in downtown Milwaukee.
Rendering of GRAEF-USA Inc.’s new office space in downtown Milwaukee.

2020 is shaping up to be a big year for GRAEF-USA Inc. The Milwaukee-based design and engineering firm at the end of last year officially moved into its new downtown offices at The Avenue, the mixed-use redevelopment of the former Grand Avenue mall space at 275 W. Wisconsin Ave. Work on the space is still being completed.

John Kissinger, chief executive officer of GRAEF, said he sees more good things ahead on multiple fronts, beginning with Milwaukee’s Westown neighborhood, where the firm is now located.

The downtown area west of the Milwaukee River will benefit from continued development activity, he said. In addition to the Avenue, other major projects include Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s redevelopment of the Grand Warner Theatre, the renovation of a number of office buildings and further development potential in the Milwaukee Bucks’ Deer District.

“I tell people now is the time to get into Westown,” Kissinger said. “I think it’s a really emerging neighborhood in the city.”

John Kissinger
John Kissinger

Also on the horizon are big opportunities for the rest of the city, the state and the U.S., said Kissinger, who will be a speaker at BizTimes Media’s annual Economic Trends event on Jan. 24.

“Milwaukee and Wisconsin are both poised to have a good year,” he said, citing the 2020 Democratic National Convention and the Ryder Cup as shining moments for the region, along with the extra attention Wisconsin will receive as a battleground state in the presidential election.

On a macro level, Kissinger expects another good year, though perhaps not quite as strong as 2019. In predicting that, he points to strong consumer demand and low unemployment.

GRAEF sees opportunity to grow its business in the southeastern region of the U.S. and among clients facing climate change-related issues, such as those dealing with rising sea levels or those preparing for increasingly common severe weather events.

The firm in 2018 acquired a Miami-based consulting engineering company for that very reason. Beyond that, GRAEF is seeing heightened interest from both public- and private-sector clients on how to make structures that are more resilient to large storms.

“We’re trying to get heavily involved in coastal engineering because there’s a lot of issues on the coast with hardening for storms and rising sea levels,” he said. “Even in the Midwest, you see concern about how do you design infrastructure for larger and larger storms.”

For instance, clients in Miami are dealing with regular flooding as the high tide moves in. They have responded by rebuilding properties further inland and raising street levels.

Coastal engineering makes up less than 5% of GRAEF’s business, but Kissinger said he expects it to “more than double every year over the next four, five years.”

GRAEF is also looking to grow further through acquisitions this year if the right opportunity presents itself, he said.

“We’re actively seeking acquisitions and have been (doing that),” Kissinger said. “We have to be very strategic in what we do.”

Because of GRAEF’s size, a bad choice in acquisition would prove more harmful for the firm compared to larger companies.

Beyond that, Kissinger said he would like the company to continue the trend of organic growth it has seen in recent years, including in the Midwest. He added that its Minneapolis office will “really hit its stride” in 2020.

“We’re also growing organically at about 7-10% per year, and have been the last few years,” he said.

Although Kissinger expects a good year on the whole, both for GRAEF and the general economy, he anticipates a few challenges.

For one, Wisconsin hasn’t found a sustainable method of financing all of its needed infrastructure improvements. The aging public infrastructure in areas such as Milwaukee is a “real problem,” he said.

However, he pointed to some recent successful public-private endeavors to rebuild or construct new cultural assets, including the MSO’s project in Westown, Fiserv Forum and several projects happening at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

“They’ve been able, in a public-private fashion, to upgrade their facilities,” Kissinger said. “The strictly public sector has struggled to upgrade those facilities, and those are the same age.”

Other cultural assets and public infrastructure in Milwaukee that are in need of attention include the Mitchell Park Domes and portions of the freeway system, he said.  n

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