Case Studies

McKissack & McKissack

Five generations of family ownership building change in NYC

With headquarters in Manhattan, Harlem and Philadelphia, McKissack & McKissack is the oldest woman- and minority-owned professional design and construction firm in the country. With roots tracing back to the late 1800s, McKissack & McKissack is the product of generations of family ownership and a history of firsts. The tradition of working in the building trades dates back to the first McKissack family member to arrive in the United States.

“My great-great-grandfather, Moses McKissack III, came to this country as a slave at just 12 years old,” recounts Cheryl McKissack, president and CEO of McKissack & McKissack. “He was owned and worked for a contractor named William McKissack, who taught him the brick-making trade and that became his craft.”

Building a family legacy

After being granted his freedom, Moses married a Cherokee woman and had nine children. His ninth son, Gabriel Moses II, picked up the trade where his father left off. “My great-grandfather Gabriel was a master carpenter, known throughout the South for his spiral staircases and unique exterior finishes,” says Cheryl. “Working out of Pulaski, Tennessee, he was hired to work on one of the most famous hotels in Nashville – one that many presidents stayed at over the years. He met his wife in Nashville and they had seven boys and seven girls.”

Two of Gabriel’s sons were also interested in the building trade – Moses III and Calvin. The brothers formed and incorporated McKissack & McKissack in 1905. “The first big commission was in 1908, when they were hired to build the Carnegie Library at Fisk University,” says Cheryl.

McKissack & McKissack continued to land more projects, including the home of Governor A.H. Roberts, dormitories at Roger Williams University, the AME Sunday School Union Building, residences and churches. Four of the firm’s early Nashville projects are on the National Registry of Historic Places.

With their services in high demand in Tennessee and neighboring states, Moses and Calvin sought to pass the state exam to be licensed architects. When they first appeared before the state licensing board, there was opposition in their desire to take the exam.

“After discussing it among themselves, the board supervisors reluctantly decided it wouldn’t do any harm,” recounts Cheryl. “It was unlikely that the men would pass the test anyway they thought, so why not let them take it and fail?”

In keeping with the McKissack & McKissack tradition of firsts, Moses and Calvin became the first African-American licensed architects in the country. The pair continued to be community leaders, driving change in the industry and acceptance.

After Moses’ death in 1952, Calvin stepped in and when he passed in 1968, Moses’ son, William took over the business. William had three daughters, including Cheryl, her twin sister Deryl, and Andrea. “When my father became ill, my mother stepped in and eventually brought myself and my two sisters into the business,” recalls Cheryl.  “I was only 28 years old at the time.”

After going on to earn a master’s in civil engineering, Cheryl worked for Turner Construction and other major general contracting companies. “In 1990, I branched out and started our New York offices and by 2000, I consolidated the operation, closing our southern offices and focusing on New York and Philadelphia,” she says.

Today, Cheryl represents the fifth generation of the oldest family-run minority- and woman-owned construction company in the country. McKissack & McKissack now employs 160 professionals throughout New York City and Philadelphia as a construction management-general contracting firm involved in major heavy civil and infrastructure projects.

“We have two main lines of business,” explains Cheryl. “One side is construction management where we act as an agent for our clients performing operational audits, budgets and schedules. Our niche is in very large projects in the $250 million and up range.”

“On the general contracting side, we tackle smaller projects from $1 to $50 million, where we hire subcontractors and self-perform work for owners,” adds Cheryl.

Game-changing projects

When McKissack & McKissack entered the NYC-Philadelphia markets the company mainly operated as a consultant, leveraging MWBE programs to navigate each new market, focusing on getting to know clients and building staff. “Our first game-changing project was at Medgar Evers College,” recounts Cheryl. “On this $280 million job, we signed on a joint venture with Turner Construction. This changed things for us as we had the lead position to run the job. From here, we were able to go after other prime assignments such as the major Atlantic Yards Relocation project to make way for the Barclay Arena.”

Another major milestone for McKissack & McKissack has been the company’s partnership with the New York Mass Transit Authority. “We are now the independent engineer in charge of managing MTA’s entire capital program which is in excess of $20 billion,” notes Cheryl. “We have been the prime on this for six years and it has really allowed us to make a push in transportation on the rail side.”

Other McKissack & McKissack clients include major names such as Columbia University, City University of New York (CUNY), NYS Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the NYC School Construction Authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and more. The firm has been an influential part of many landmark projects such as the rebuild of the Tappan Zee Bridge, Henry J. Carter Long-term Acute Care Hospital & Skilled Nursing Facility and a $90 million housing redevelopment for the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

McKissack & McKissack is currently providing construction management services for the $2 billion new World Trade Center Transportation Hub. The multistory central transit hall, designed to reflect the style of Grand Central Terminal, incorporates a lower concourse, an upper balcony concourse, a public waiting area, first-class amenities, restaurants and stores, enhanced permanent PATH facilities and full-service 10-car platforms. The facility includes an integrated network of underground pedestrian connections from lower and upper concourses, which will lead to adjoining New York City Transit subway stations and the proposed MTA Fulton Street Transit Center.

“Another new area we’ve decided to pursue is Hurricane Sandy related work,” says Cheryl. “We started out doing 1,000 home inspections in just three weeks for the New York State Dormitory Authority, mobilizing 200 inspectors and staff in just four days. Once we proved we could handle something of this size and significance for the state we’ve been involved in a great deal of demolition, reconstruction and storm recovery work since, including the 5.5 mile NYC EDC Rockaway Boardwalk reconstruction.”

Leveraging local labor and community connections

McKissack & McKissack’s projects take the firm all over greater NYC and whenever possible, the company is actively seeking a local labor force. “Our Harlem office is essentially an employment referral center,” explains Cheryl. “Over the years, we’ve realized the economic impact construction can have on a community. It began with our work at Harlem Hospital – we were flooded with people looking for work so we created a process to source local candidates.”

Whenever possible, McKissack & McKissack looks for local subcontractors, but the firm has an extensive in-house team of more than 160 employees. “We are about achievement, ownership, creativity and integrity and we do that in a very loose framework so our employees within our company can work to reach their maximum potential,” says Cheryl. “As an African-American woman in the construction industry I’ve seen the glass ceiling at work and we want to be a place that’s free of that. Everyone is here on their own merit. There isn’t a track to the top based on your color or gender. It’s based on your performance and out of that comes innovative ideas from a round table perspective rather than a boardroom one. This makes our company a fun place to work.”

As former president of the Women’s Builders Council, Cheryl is an industry advocate. “I was president up until December 2014 and now I’m a chairwoman on the advisory board,” she says. “WBC is a cross section of members from women-owned business and women in large construction, design and engineering companies. We come together to shape the industry in respect to women’s issues, offer guidance and political advocacy.”

In years to come, Cheryl says McKissack & McKissack has the potential to grow its national platform. “My sister heads up an architecture-engineering and program management firm with locations in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago so there’s definitely potential for a future collaboration. I think we could do well in areas such as Detroit, Miami and Atlanta.”

With a long-running family history and stature as the oldest woman- and minority-owned design and construction firm in the nation, McKissack & McKissack continues to build a lasting legacy.

Published on: August 3, 2015

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