All her life Cheryl McKissack has been told of the origin of her family’s business as master builders and contractors, of how the company thrived through slavery and post-slavery racism. CEO of The McKissack Group, an offshoot of the nation’s oldest minority-owned professional design and construction firm, she recites with pride the story of the Ashanti tribesman from Ghana who was taken to Tennessee as a slave and given to the contractor, William McKissack.
Genesis McKissack named the slave Moses McKissack and taught him to be a master builder and contractor. Upon gaining his freedom, Moses taught the trade to his son, Gabriel, whose own sons, Moses III and Calvin, incorporated a construction business, McKissack & McKissack Inc., in 1905 in Nashville, Tenn. The pair took the licensing course by correspondence in order to hide their race, but the truth came out when they arrived to take the exam. Denied entrance, they lobbied the examining board and eventually received their licenses in 1922.
Their commissioned projects in Tennessee included the Carnegie Library at Fisk University and the mansion of Gov. A. H. Roberts. In 1942, the company won a $5.7 million contract to build an air base at Tuskegee, Ala., at the time the largest federal contract ever given to a Black-owned firm.
“They got so much recognition, that the state of Tennessee helped them get licensing in 22 other states,” says McKissack in her signature Tennessee drawl. “In fact, they received commissions from [President] Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti, and from Monrovia, Liberia, so they were international at that point!”
Her own father, William DeBerry McKissack, took over the company in 1968. He fell ill in 1983 and his wife, Leatrice Buchanan McKissack, succeeded him as CEO. “My mother had been a housewife for 17 years and had worked as a teacher, with a master’s degree in psychology. But her philosophy was, she wasn’t an architect, she wasn’t an engineer, but she understood business and she knew how to get business,” says McKissack.
Leatrice proved a skilled salesperson, increasing the company’s annual revenues from $30 million to more than $100 million in construction contracts by the early 1990s. One of her most important feats, however, was bringing her three daughters—Cheryl and twin sister, Deryl, both engineers and their older sister, Andrea, an architect—back to the company. At the time, all three worked at Turner Construction Co., one of the top construction companies in New York.
Back in the Fold McKissack returned in 1989 to face the daunting task of continuing the family legacy. She acknowledges her parents’ hand in her preparation. “My parents decided where I was going to college and my father decided what I would major in,” she says.
It has even been reported that William McKissack declared to his daughters that they could “go to college anywhere in the world you want to go, but I am only going to pay for one.” As he expected, all three graduated from his alma mater, Howard University.
The first few years back in the fold almost wreaked havoc in McKissack’s life with her then husband and two young daughters. “I was commuting from New York to Nashville every week. I would go down on Monday and come back to New York on Thursday, so I could stay home on Friday to work from home in New York,” she says.
Anxious to be in New York more steadily, in 1991 McKissack established The McKissack Group Inc., an architecture firm in New York. However, when her mother retired as CEO of McKissack & McKissack in 1999, becoming chairman of the board of directors, McKissack became CEO of the old firm. Beginning the following year, she launched spin-off businesses to focus on specific areas of the design construction business. McKissack & Associates was formed in 2000 as the designing unit and M&M Solutions L.L.C. was established in 2001 to tap into IT systems and Web-based technology.
Strictly Business McKissack drew upon an ethnically diverse pool of talented employees and encouraged partnerships with the licensed professionals that worked for her. By bringing these professionals on board as entrepreneurs, she eliminated their need to moonlight or potentially take away her McKissack clients.
“I try and set up departments of business so that people can really have their own business under our company name and under our company umbrella. They’re partnerships,” she explains. “When that happens, people become the head of their own corporation because they have skin in the game and they perform that way. McKissack is open to people who want to reach their maximum potential.”
Through this team approach, her overall goal is to be a full-service company, offering planning, design, engineering and all other related service through to actual construction. Current clients include The Philadelphia Airport, The Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the African American Burial Ground Memorial project.
One of her more recent collaborations is a joint venture with Turner Construction, in which The McKissack Group serves as the construction manager on a $155 million project for the new student services building and academic complex at Medgar Evers College, part of the City University of New York system. The student services building opened in the fall of 2005 and the academic complex is slated to be completed in late 2010.
At this stage of her career, McKissack knows well how to compete in an industry predominately run by men, specifically white men. She arms herself with all the magnolia charm of her Southern roots.
“I’m very comforting. I open myself up to people and this allows them to relax around me, so we can get to know each other,” she says in a soothing voice. “I’ve used the fact that I’m female to stand out, so my positioning and angling in business deals are very different than male-to-male interactions. So when they meet me, people are in unchartered territory,” she adds with a broad smile.
Once her charm has worked its magic, McKissack is all business. Magnolia morphs into steel. “I look at what I’m bringing to the table. I understand clearly what I’m asking for. And I haven’t had a problem, because I understand the bottom line of business: It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. A transaction is not built on air, it’s built on substance,” she says.
Her approach undercuts any potential negative stereotype, she says. “It’s strictly business,” she says.
Track Record Counts Her firm’s track record in the industry is a huge plus. A case in point is McKissack’s expanded role in Forest City Ratner Cos.’ $4 billion Atlantic Yards development project in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y. The project includes construction of an 850,000-square-foot sports and entertainment arena and the revamping of the decaying Vanderbilt rail yards into a viable transportation conduit to serve the arena and the rest of Brooklyn.
In 2005, The McKissack Group was commissioned as the construction manager for Phase I of the stadium construction, a $50 million to $60 million deal that entailed moving the Vanderbilt Avenue rail yards to a temporary location, before extra tunneling and shoring up of the existing retaining walls could be built. “Our work is the most critical [portion of the project] leading up to the construction of the arena. We have less than a year to get the first phase of our work done, so Forest City Ratner hits their target with the construction of the arena,” McKissack says.
However, Forest City Ratner subsequently tapped the group to manage the whole arena construction process, bumping its original involvement to a $280 million contract. “Cheryl and her company are renowned throughout the country for their skill and expertise and we are really pleased to be working with her on Atlantic Yards,” says Robert Sanna, Forest City Ratner’s executive vice president.
By Bevolyn Williams-Harold