LRT Contractor Has An Intriguing Story

The Metropolitan Council distributed the following profile of a Twin Cities business that is one of the contractors working on Light Rail projects.  Sirish Samba’s story is intriguing, and giving our listeners a chance to hear from this immigrant/entrepreneur/engineer would certainly line up well with KFAI’s mission.

Assignment:  Approach Sirish Samba for a live or recorded interview to be used on the Morning Blend.

Sambatek: Helping build Twin Cities LRT

Sirish Samba’s journey to working on Twin Cities LRT projects started outside a bank in India

Sirish Samba had just finished an undergraduate engineering degree in India in the early 1990s and wanted to attend a university in the United States to earn his master’s degree. But he had grown up the only son in a modest family of seven children and couldn’t afford the move.

“Only the privileged in India go study abroad,” said Samba, the son of an Indian Railways guard, the British term for conductor.

Today, Samba, 44, is the CEO of Sambatek, a 100-employee engineering firm in Minnetonka. The firm is working on the METRO Blue Line Extension LRT Project and has worked on the METRO Green Line and Southwest LRT (METRO Green Line Extension) Projects. Sambatek has thrived in part through its participation in the state’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program, but Samba also emphasizes his company’s professional work and experience as keys to its growth.

Samba’s path to employment in the United States and the helm of Sambatek didn’t happen by chance.

For a solid month when he was 21, Samba sat outside the bank in southern India, trying to talk to a key banker each day as he entered the building. Eventually, the banker agreed to meet with him. He informed Samba that the bank didn’t provide student loans.

Samba, a strong student, had already heard from South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D. The school had accepted him into its master’s program for an engineering degree and had agreed to let him pay in-state tuition.  But Samba needed a $4,000 loan to help him travel to the United States and enroll at South Dakota State. Once there, he planned to get a job to help pay his way.

“Every day I would go back to the bank and ask for the loan,” Samba said.Seeing Samba’s persistence, the banker relented and provided the loan.

He gained valuable experience working on high-profile projects, including wastewater treatment facilities for the growing city of St. Michael, the Arbor Lakes development in Maple Grove and the Water Park of America in Bloomington.

But the ownership of MFRA was in flux. The former CEO decided to retire in 2000 and pass the firm to four senior managers. After an appraisal, though, he decided to sell the business to an investor. In 2005, MFRA changed ownership again when it was sold to a private equity firm.

As the recession hit, MFRA, which was well known in the Twin Cities as a land development company, found itself burdened with debt. Over time, Samba took a larger role in righting the company’s finances and eventually ended up the majority owner supported by other employee-owners.

The restructured company operated as MFRA and still did development work, but Samba was seeking more civil-engineering related work as well.

At a convention in 2009, Samba met Tracey Jackson, a senior equal opportunity consultant for Metro Transit, who works with DBE firms. Requirements for participating in the DBE program involve limits on personal net worth (less than $1.32 million), a business-size standard set by the Small Business Administration of less than $17.4 million in annual gross receipts and be at least 51 percent minority or woman owned.

For the Green Line Extension LRT Project’s advanced design contract and for the Blue Line Extension engineering contract, the DBE goal is 19 percent.

Samba was apprehensive about participating in the DBE program, but the company qualified and was looking to grow to rebound from the recession.

In recent years, Sambatek won a contract for work on the Interchange project in downtown Minneapolis where all of the LRT lines and Northstar commuter rail come together. His firm is doing survey work on the Blue Line Extension LRT Project. Sambatek was also awarded a master contract from the Metropolitan Council, which essentially puts the firm on call for a wide range of future work.

Paul Danielson, a senior vice president with Kimley-Horn, a nationally known design consulting firm, was introduced to Samba when Kimley-Horn was pursuing preliminary engineering work for the Southwest LRT Project. Surveying was Sambatek’s primary work on the project, Danielson said. “But what’s worked out well is their willingness to jump in and do just about anything we’ve asked,” he said.

That included support for visual simulations along the Southwest LRT alignment, architectural renderings and storm water management analysis.

“They were our number one DBE firm on Southwest LRT,” Danielson said. “They became an extension of our staff.”

Sometimes the two firms compete on projects, sometimes they’re partners, Danielson said. “We trust each other enough to know that we’ll be team partners and at times we might compete head-to-head,” he said.

In 2014, the company changed its name to Sambatek and moved to new space in Minnetonka, near Interstate 494 and Highway 62. “It shows our confidence in the future of the company,” Samba said.

Sambatek is also opening an office in Bismarck, N.D., to support highway projects there.

Samba, who is married with three children, says his success in Minnesota paid dividends back in India. Years ago, he paid back the student loan that made it possible for him to attend South Dakota State. “Even now, when I go back, I sometimes visit with (the banker) because I’m a very grateful person,” Samba said.

His work in the United States has also allowed him to help all of his sisters get married in India, where paying a dowry to the groom’s family is the norm. “That’s where I get my drive,” Samba said, referring to his ability to help his family back home. If all else is failing, he said his background “teaches me to not take no for an answer.”

Samba is a naturalized citizen and calls Minnesota home now.  “I’m grateful to the country and its people, and its systems that provide equal opportunity,” he said. “For a son of a railroad guard to be a consultant for an LRT system, it’s an incredible honor.”

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