From Mid-State Associates to MSA
In 2022, MSA officially turns 60 years old. That’s a long time, but there’s actually so much more to the story that I’d like to share.
What’s well documented is that on July 2, 1962, the board of what had been known as Mid-State Engineering filed articles of incorporation with the State of Wisconsin to create Mid-State Associates, Inc. For the last 60 years, we have dutifully observed significant anniversaries of this date. In reading the board minutes from those early days one can get the sense of the tenuous nature of a start-up. Board members regularly were making personal guarantees on the bank notes that enabled them to make payroll. There was a revolving door at the top, as the firm had three presidents in its first 18 months, and by its seventh year was on its fifth top officer. It was truly touch-and-go as to whether the firm would make it to its 10th anniversary, much less its 60th.
Stability came in 1968 when Matt Pinion, a former employee, was recruited back with the idea that he could be the leader the company needed. By 1969, Matt became that fifth president, a role he held for the next 25 years. Matt oversaw the growth of this company, from fragile start-up to becoming the seventh-largest engineering firm in Wisconsin. Under Matt’s leadership, the firm that would eventually become known as simply “MSA” built our headquarters office building, instituted strategic planning, made the first investments in technology, hired our first full-time controller, implemented our Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), and opened seven new offices.
While the early founders of MSA deserve respect for their dedication to survival, it was Matt’s longer view of company purpose and camaraderie that helped turn the tide. Prior to his leadership, MSA was merely a succession of partnerships focused on transferring one’s ownership to the next partner in line. Matt recognized greater opportunity. In forming the ESOP, he set the company, its employee-owners and families up for multi-generational ownership succession. He knew that taking a long-view approach to the investments the company made would enable MSA to endure, and someday reap the rewards. This wise, humble and human influence on the culture of the firm is still felt to this day.
Since Matt’s retirement in 1994, MSA has continued to grow both within and outside of Wisconsin, becoming the one of the largest engineering firms in Wisconsin while adding seven more offices outside of the state. The firm has experienced good times and bad, yet has continued to evolve and improve. Matt sadly passed away in 2020, but he was a frequent visitor to the company of which he was so proud.
The Rest of the Story
In all, that makes a pretty nice origin story. But it is not the whole story. What is also well documented is that what is now MSA was a succession of partnerships prior to our incorporation in 1962, which means that our roots go further back than the 60 years we celebrate this year. How far back is the part that is less well documented.
We know that Harold Platt and Verne Schultz were partners in the firm that became Mid-State Engineering Co. in the late 1950s, which later incorporated as Mid-State Associates, Inc. We also know that Helmer Amundson was Harold Platt’s partner beginning in the 1940s. And we know that Amundson became the partner of Herbert E. French in about 1925. Finally, we can say with certainty that H.E. French, an 1894 civil engineering graduate from the University of Michigan, came to Baraboo, Wisconsin, in 1904 to become the city engineer. It is evident from the pen and ink drawings in our records archive that Mr. French was allowed by the City to go into private practice on the side of his job as city engineer, presumably because there wasn’t enough work to support him, or perhaps he needed the extra income. Sometime between arriving in Baraboo in 1904 and his taking on a partner in about 1925, French launched a private practice that led to present-day MSA Professional Services. The name H.E. French is inscribed on survey plats, on structural drawings, and on plans for whole community water systems. The oldest known drawing in our archive that was done by H.E. French is dated 1919. That means that our firm is indeed already over 100 years old! What we do not know is the exact year Mr. French actually began his private practice, so our true age is still shrouded in mystery.
We know a little about Mr. French from the historical records. Active in the community, he was known to have made presentations to the community on the history and geology of Devil’s Lake, as well as on the historical surveying of Sauk County. He married Louise Van Orden, the daughter of a prominent local banker, and they had two children. But what is lost to history is any commentary on the kind of person he was. While I can attest to the impact that Matt Pinion made on the culture of MSA, what present-day cultural artifacts have their origins in our de facto founder, H.E. French? We may never know.
Past as Prologue
We cannot think about our history without also thinking about our future. As MSA plots our course for further improvement as well as growth outside of our Midwestern home, I can only view it as the continuation of an arc that was set in motion over 100 years ago. So, as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the formation of our company, we can also honor our more distant past. We can see that there has been a succession of people whose commitment to this company has allowed us to enjoy the prosperity of the present day. What is also made clear is that we have the opportunity, and even the responsibility, to renew that commitment so that future generations of MSA employee-owners can enjoy even greater heights of success for both our clients and for themselves.