A forensic investigator and native Yooper brings his business home – Crain’s Detroit Business

Jon Olson’s timing couldn’t have been worse in moving his company, Superior Forensic Engineering LLC, from Howell to the SmartZone in Sault Ste. Marie.

The company, which investigates the cause of accidents, fires and explosions around the country, moved into its new headquarters in March — the same day Gov. Gretchen Whitmer imposed statewide lockdown orders. His clients enacted what he described as “pencils-down edicts. We went from 100 miles an hour to zero overnight.” Courts across the nation were shuttered, as well — bad news for a company whose work involves providing testimony at trials.

But Olson, the company’s president and principal investigator, turned the sudden stoppage to good advantage. He was able to properly organize the three suites he rented at the SmartZone building and to set up the auto-testing area in the warehouse in the back of the building. (The company’s main focus is on auto-related accidents.)

Things are getting back to normal now for the company. “Our clients have begun reengaging in cases,” he said.

Olson has been running tests in the Sault on a Kia Sportage on behalf of Kia Motors America Inc. A 2012 Sportage burst into flames at the ATM of a bank in Pittsburgh last August and burned the bank to the ground, causing a loss in the millions. Kia has been warned by insurance carriers of a potential lawsuit, but no specific claim has been made against Kia, at least not yet.

Olson found a similar Sportage in Grand Rapids, Kia bought it and it was shipped to the Sault. Olson has had heat sensors welded onto components of the car that get hot, monitoring heat levels during a variety of driving conditions to see if there is any inherent design or manufacturing defect.

He is setting up a training exercise with the Sault fire department. Olson wants to set a fire in a Nissan he has at the warehouse and see how it progresses as part of his work on another case.

Olson fits a recurring theme for companies moving to the Sault area: he’s an entrepreneur who grew up in the Upper Peninsula, left to start his career elsewhere and wanted to return to his roots.

Once a Yooper, always a Yooper, he says. “This is my home. I still had family here. I have siblings here.”

Olson grew up in the Sault and got a degree in mechanical engineering from Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie in 1991. His wife and partner in the business, Kristi, also graduated from Lake Superior in 1991, with a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice administration and a minor in fire science. She is a forensics analyst for the company and oversees business operations.

“They wanted to come home and they are a perfect fit here,” said Jeff Holt, the executive director of the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corp., which runs the SmartZone and owns the building.

The Olsons already have a particularly U.P. and Sault life style: they live on Neebish Island, a large island southeast of the city in the St. Mary’s River, and commute to and from the mainland each day on a ferry.

“Travel is more of a challenge here, because we have clients all over the country,” said Jon. But there are two flights out of the Sault every day, to hubs in Minneapolis and Detroit, where connections are easy to make to anywhere. “It’s workable.”

On a mid-June business trip to Portland, Jon left the Sault in the morning for Detroit, caught his connecting flight and was in his meeting that afternoon. The next day, he was back in the Sault.

After graduating with his engineering degree, Olson took a job with a Ford supplier, then went to work in 1994 for Ford at the Rouge complex, eventually ending up in the auto-safety department, investigating accidents, helping the company decide if it had to send out recall notices or in defending itself in product-liability cases.

“I was really happy at Ford. I loved my job,” he said. In 2011, Ford wanted to move him to another department as part of a career-development path. He wanted to stay in accident and fire investigation and decided to hang out his own shingle. Ford said it would be happy to continue to use his services as a contractor.

He founded the company in Ypsilanti in 2011 and moved to Howell in 2017 before heeding the siren call of the Sault.

He is a certified fire and explosion investigator, a certified vehicle fire investigator and a senior member of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers and has testified many times in both state and federal courts across the United States.

Superior has four engineers who do investigations for the firm as 1099 contractors. All remain in southeast Michigan.

The company has worked for every automaker in North America, including BMW of North America LLC, Daimler Truck North America, the Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Isuzu Motors America LLC, Mazda Motors of America Inc., Mercedes-Benz USA LLC, Subaru of America Inc., Toyota USA and Volkswagen Group of America Inc.

It has also worked on projects for automotive dealerships around the U.S.

Nonautomotive customers have included the Montgomery County, Pa., district attorney’s office; the Braun Corp.; Bosch USA and Ecolab Inc.

The Ecolab case involved the explosion of a Cheesecake Factory restaurant in Philadelphia. EcoLab serviced the cooking equipment in the kitchen and the allegation was that EcoLab hadn’t properly maintained the equipment, which caused the explosion. This case didn’t involve as much science to settle as most. Olson was able to get hold of surveillance videos of the interior, one of which showed an employee inadvertently jumping on a gas line while cleaning the equipment, causing the leak that led to the explosion. The case was settled before trial.

Jim Feeney , an attorney in the Bloomfield Hills office of Dykema, has worked with Olson for about 18 years, first during his tenure at Ford and then hiring him as a consultant for more than a dozen cases since he went out on his own.

“I do a lot of work for Ford in the product liability space. Jon has a particular expertise in fire cause and origin, in fuel-system design and general automotive manufacture. When he was going through the process of deciding whether to leave Ford, which he loved, and strike out on his own, I absolutely told him that when I got the kind of case he specialized in, I’d call him. I wasn’t the only lawyer who gave him encouragement, many lawyers did. He’s one of the few very, very qualified fuel-system and first-cause experts out there,” said Feeney.

“Jon is a very ethical guy. No matter what side of the case he is on, as a scientist and an engineer, he is going to give you the unvarnished truth.”

Feeney said Olson’s testimony was crucial to winning a case on behalf of Ford in Salt Lake City in 2014, a case with a very sympathetic plaintiff, a young girl who had been badly burned in a freeway accident and whose attorney claimed the fire was a result of a defective valve.

Olson did a series of tests and determined that even if the valve was faulty, it could not have caused the fire.

“Jon’s testimony was instrumental. The thing to understand about Jon is, I call it his U.P. upbringing. He’s straightforward, honest and very likeable. He connects with a jury,” said Feeney.



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