Take a look at the fellow to the left, the one pictured rolling up his sleeves. You probably know it as the Norman Rockwell tribute, The Kansas City Spirit, commissioned by Hallmark founder J.C. Hall after the great flood of 1951.
And you probably know, just by looking, how that mythical figure would have made a living—as an engineer or architect, a professional charged with creating the working world around us—the roads and bridges we drive on, the power grids we rely on, the telecommunications systems that drive a modern economy.
Engineering and the design world had a lot to do with Kansas City’s comeback in the 1950s, but no less than it had to do with the city’s rise from the river bluffs 80 years earlier. It has long been said that Kansas City has more engineers per capital than any city in America—and perhaps, the world.
If that were indeed the case as recently as January, it became even more so last month. That’s when Lamar, Mo.-based Finley Engineering announced its entry into the Kansas City market with a new office in Overland Park, Kan.
Finley, which specializes in established disciplines of power, oil and gas transmission, but also newer engineering fields in telecom, Internet protocol and geomatics, is entering a market that already boasts three established global firms and dozens of smaller niche companies. And it knows what it’s up against.
“The Kansas City location was a natural fit,” said Phil Carroll, vice president for operations. “It complements our other office locations throughout the Midwest and upper Midwest in terms of support and resource sharing.” The region also boasts amenities of location and growth opportunities that other engineering firms have long enjoyed, he said.
But is there room for another regional player among the range of Kansas City’s engineering companies? “There are a lot of niche markets out there, and we’re by no means operating on the same scale as a Burns & McDonnell or Black & Veatch,” Carroll said, “but there still some significant bandwidth and niche markets.”
As Finley’s debut here shows, the history of engineering and design in Kansas City isn’t completely written, and it’s adding new chapters every day.
But it’s been a fascinating story up to this point.
The Engineering Roots
Just before the turn of the 20th century, and only a few years after that milestone, a series of entrepreneurial yearnings laid a foundation that we’re still building on today:
• In 1886, John Alexander Low Waddell, a bridge engineer, opened a consulting practice in Kansas City. Through its evolution over nearly 130 years, the company is known today as HNTB.
• In 1898, a pair of Stanford graduates, Robert McDonnell and Clinton Burns, determined that Kansas City was closer to more growing cities—communities that lacked clean water and sewage facilities—than any other city in the nation, and launched their firm here. Today, Burns & McDonnell is a nearly $2 billion behemoth that’s still on a fast-growth track: Its revenues last year increased nearly 29 percent over their 2012 base.
• In 1915, two more young engineers, E.B. Black and Tom Veatch, saw an opportunity to capitalize on the need for power and water plants in the region—and soon afterward, landed the first of its longstanding ties to government projects with contracts related to spending during the Great War. Today, it is the heavyweight of the region’s firms, employing more people overall (10,000-plus) and more engineers firm-wide (nearly 4,100) than any engineering concern in this region.
It says something about the impact of engineering firms that those three, all on the cusp of 100 years old, or older, have been able to thrive when the city itself is but 160 years old. Their impact has been profound—by acquiring other firms along the way, or by outlasting competitors during those early decades, the Big Three account for the bulk of the region’s engineering history through the end of World War II. Among the 25 largest engineering firms in the region, none traces its roots back before 1950.
Success for all three was grounded in something more meaningful than engineering competence, says Tom O’Grady, central division president for HNTB.
“Clearly, the world is different than it was in 1914 when HNTB was formed,” O’Grady says. “The founding partners of the firm created our value system and our focus on innovation within the civil engineering area,” he said. By understanding what clients really need for them to be successful, he said, the firm embraced key characteristics of integrity, honesty and personal responsibility.
“Those were really critical to the founding partners and we see that in terms of the history of clients we’ve worked with and the projects we’ve done,” O’Grady said, “but also in terms of who they hired—starting that chain of hiring based on types of characteristics we want to see. We still value that today.”
The same holds true, he said, for Black & Veatch and Burns & McDonnell: Kansas City’s evolution as an engineering center of excellence is rooted in a shared set of values that helped set the bar for successful firms here.
“We all have to measure ourselves against our competitors,” O’Grady said.
In addition to stability and shared values, the Big Three have provided something more important: a critical mass of engineering talent that continues to build on itself today. Their collective work product is, in a very real sense, a blueprint for the construction of America’s industrial might: bridging rivers, boring tunnels, gouging out interstate roadbeds and sewer systems, pouring airport runways, erecting power grids and much more of what we take for granted today.
In the 21st century, when we talk about quality-of-life considerations, we’re often addressing entertainment, dining and sporting events, the relative merits of one school system vs. another, or low crime rates. We have the luxury of engaging in those kinds of debates because America’s engineering companies completely changed the discussion: Before they brought clean water, efficient wastewater disposal and electricity to virtually every home in the nation, those amenities were enjoyed by the privileged few who frequently beat the average life expectancy of 47 years back in 1900.
Freed from the scourge of water-borne diseases, from the threat of food poisoning thanks to modern electrical refrigeration, and from barriers to health care presented by long distances in the era of transportation that quite literally was horse-powered, Americans began to live longer. Much longer. And, as it turned out, much better. Today, we talk about WiFi access for our mobile devices, rather than whether that last glass of water is going to give us dysentery.
Another success metric for this region has been Kansas City’s collective sense of helping others to help one’s self. In that way, collaboration between the firms has been a win-win, and a standard practice. That’s not to say there isn’t competition for work between them and the smaller firms in town, but not all levels of engineering expertise are housed in even the biggest firms, and the work they do in partnership with each other has demonstrated the power of collaboration.
Phil Carroll, of the market-newcomer firm Finley, noted as much when he said the move here was about more than location for a firm that deals in public, private and governmental organizations. “This location offers a convenience to larger companies with a global reach, of whom we have collaborated with in the past,” he said.
Geography, collaboration and the formation of a three-firm foundation helped give this region its outsized position in engineering, but there was one other contributing factor that even today is keeping the sector relevant: The abundance of university-level engineering programs and, to a lesser extent, the undergraduate certification programs that yield a competent support staff for the engineering professionals.
“This is perhaps the strongest link” for Finley’s move into Kansas City, Carroll said.
“I don’t necessarily see it as a bidding war (for talent), but a partnership with local institutes of higher learning. The greater the opportunities, the more attraction they have for students. The more students, the greater the opportunity for the service providers to attract talent and retain in this region, rather than lose this talent pool to other regions of the country.”
HNTB’s Tom O’Grady saw it much the same way.
“It’s really foundational to us,” he said. “We do have the great engineering schools with KU, K-State, MU-Rolla and UMKC, and their programs help feed that, as well,” he said. “But we also draw from schools all over—Iowa State, down into Texas, really from the whole Midwest region. It’s full of so many great schools in the engineering area.”
So, like other large firms, he said, HNTB works hard to encourage and support those universities and programs. “Many of our employees are involved as adjunct professors or have been at one time professors or involved in programs at these schools,” he said. “And we provide internships and cooperatives to individuals to get them exposed to the industry and help them strengthen their abilities and decision-making about what they want to do when the get out of school.”
A little competition, both for work and talent, is good for everyone, Carroll said. “The more opportunities we can offer kids to stay in the region, the better for the region as we become a hub of technology and higher-skilled jobs.”
The Design Side
Given that engineering and architecture are hand-in-glove as professions, it’s no surprise that Kansas City punches above its weight with design services, as well. But unlike engineering, none of the 25 primarily architectural firms in this region was founded before 1970, making that sector considerably younger than its engineering counterpart.
“I’m not sure why that is,” says Bruce Miller, principal at Populous. Local engineering firms with long histories, Miller said, quite likely say something “about the culture of this place.” But with architecture, the nation’s biggest firms tend to cluster in the biggest cities. “We are a younger community overall” in Kansas City, he said, “and communities develop with infrastructure, then buildings. So as a community, we’ve been developing for a shorter amount of time than many of the bigger, urban areas. That’s partly just historical and being in the Midwest,” a reflection on the nation’s westward expansion in the 19th century.
The rise of Populous to the top of the region’s architectural firms, in terms of licensed staff, was rooted in its creation as a sports-venue spinoff of the St. Louis-based design firm HOK. In 1983, it set up the Kansas City operation, HOK Sport, and today, the firm is deeply immersed in some of the most innovative and high-profile projects on the planet, such as Olympic Stadium in London for the games in 2012.
“The entrepreneurial spirit of our founders is the distinguishing thing about what brought us early success,” Miller said. “Going back to the Truman Sports Complex, that’s the event that started the firm.”
It was ground-breaking in more ways than the literal one, he said. HOK Sport co-founder Ron Lubinski, he said, “saw that the single-purpose stadium was the future of sports in the U.S.
At the time, most communities were building an engineering solution of multipurpose venues that would accom-modate football and baseball.”
Lubinski’s vision for single-purpose stadiums implied an explosion of new design work: After all, replacing a multipurpose facility with single-purpose venues required at least two new stadiums for each one being phased out. “That was the insight of our founders that led them to believe that a firm specializing in sports could have success doing one building type,” Miller said.
And how. Populous has designed projects like Nanjing Sports Park, the new stadium for the New York Yankees, Wembly Stadium in London—even the Sprint Center, right here at home. And in each, the firm’s designers have been able to demonstrate one key difference between two related pro-fessions: While engineering is often a matter of applying the raw strength of steel and concrete to a solution, architecture draws on a far more refined sense of aesthetics.
Success, though, is driven not by design alone—there had to be a bigger payoff for the client. “It really generated a more successful business operation for football teams, baseball teams, basketball teams,” Miller said. “Those tenants came away being stronger teams financially from our expertise in bringing them ideas like club seating, revenue-generating, sport-specific ideas that made a bottom-line difference. It was also about a great fan experience, and that’s what made us successful—it really benefitted our clients, not only then but today.”
Another factor that has contributed to growth of the design sector in the Kansas City region has been good, old-fashioned Midwestern entrepre-
neurship, the kind that this city is long known for.
When Mitch Hoefer and David Wysocki founded their firm in 1996, the strategy they designed was missing two key elements—paychecks for the founders. “That first year, we went without a salary, both of us; we didn’t borrow, and we used our own cash to start it,” Hoefer recalls.
Today, though, Hoefer Wysocki Architects is among the Top Five in this region in terms of licensed architects. “We were fortunate in that we weren’t home grown,” Hoefer said, because their previous work with national companies gave them a sense of the bigger competitive canvas they were drawing on nationally. “So even though we were small, we were a very sophisticated bunch—a big fish in a small pond compared to my earlier time in Dallas.”
The firm grew and strengthened itself by diversifying its fields of work, one of which was in the government sector. When a lot of other work dried up in 2008, companies that didn’t have ties to public-sector sources of finance were trying to get into that game too late to effectively compete with firms like HWA.
“At that point, we’d been in the government game a long time, and we actually added people through 2008, 2009 and 2010,” Hoefer said. “We had
no layoffs; in fact, we were able to gather up people whom others layed off,” he said. Now, with something of a turn-around afoot in the construction and design sector, the firm is able to apply all of its muscle, he said, to running hard, rather than scrounging for talent. “So it was huge for us to weather the storm that way.”
Success with the bottom line also has allowed the firm to broaden its focus, engaging in civic ventures that
benefit the broader community, Hoefer said, in particular, with efforts to bring more Fortune 500 companies and other new business here.
“That’s the challenge and the oppor-tunity for Kansas City,” Hoefer said. “We have such a great quality of life, so many good school systems, the Midwest is still a very reasonable place to live.”
The biggest impediment to growth in his sector, he said, would be a lack of regional effort to recruit high-caliber businesses that want to take advantage of the region’s centrality.