“The road to success is always under construction,” aptly quotes Cheryl McKissack Daniel, President and CEO of McKissack & McKissack, a New York construction company involved in many
major infrastructure projects.
In her position as company head, Cheryl Daniel represents the fifth generation of the oldest family-run minority and woman-owned design and construction firm in the country. For more than a century, McKissack family members have stood on the shoulders of the previous generation to build what is now a multi-million dollar company with 160 employees. In the last few years the company has been growing 17-20 percent in both revenue and clients.
The company was founded in Nashville, Tennessee in 1905 by Cheryl’s grandfather, Moses III (1879-1952). Cheryl McKissack Daniel’s father, William DeBerry McKissack, took over in 1968 and ran the company until 1983 when he suffered a serious heart attack. Next, his wife and Cheryl’s mother, Leatrice Buchanan McKissack, stepped in to effectively managed and grow the business.
Today clients include Columbia University, the NYS Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the NYC School Construction Authority, and in 2013, McKissack & McKissack was announced as part of the construction team that will be working on the re-build of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the 3.1 -mile bridge that spans the distance between Rockland and Westchester Counties and is a vital link across the Hudson River, carrying 138,000 cars per day.
The Family Story in the U.S. Began with Slavery
The tradition of working in the building trade dates to the first family member to arrive in this country. Moses was kidnapped from his home in West Africa; he was only 12 at the time. He was purchased by a Scotsman named John McKissack who provided him with a surname and put the slave to work in the brick-building and construction business McKissack ran with his son, William.
The story expands when William McKissack’s daughter, Susan, caught the eye of a French Huguenot, but the young man’s father opposed the marriage. All the other men in the family lineage had married a “Sarah.” Nathaniel Frances Cheairs IV’s father wanted his son to hold out for a woman with the correct first name. However, William McKissack felt the two young people belonged together so he offered an incentive: free bricks for a new home for the couple and slave labor to build it.
Susan and Nathaniel were married in 1841 but construction on the house did not begin until 1852 and was completed in 1855. The mansion now known as Rippavilla Plantation in Spring Hill, Tennessee, still stands and is open to the public as a museum and an educational site. (Leatrice McKissack is on their Board of Directors.)
At some point, William McKissack granted Moses his freedom. Moses married a Cherokee woman with whom he had 14 children, 12 of whom survived. His ninth son, Gabriel Moses II, picked up the building trade where his father left off. Gabriel worked out of Pulaski, Tennessee, and became well-known as a craftsman and builder. He was highly sought-after for his intricate work building spiral staircases and adding beautiful finishing touches to buildings.
Two sons of Gabriel’s were interested in continuing in the building trade — Moses III (born in 1879) and Calvin (born in 1890). This is the generation that started the family business that exists today. Moses III began work in Pulaski but started getting jobs in other locations, and soon moved to Nashville where he formally began the business in 1905. His first big commission occurred in 1908 when he was hired to build the Carnegie Library at Fisk University. He continued to obtained plum assignments, building the home of Governor A.H. Roberts, dormitories at Roger Williams University, the AME Sunday School Union Building, and many residences and other churches. Four of the Nashville buildings built by the McKissacks are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Younger brother Calvin started his own company in Dallas, Texas, and after building in both Texas and Oklahoma, he accepted a teaching position and came to Nashville where he devoted part of his time to helping his brother with the business.
New Requirement for Licenses in Architecture
The McKissacks were very much in demand, but in 1922, Tennessee — along with some other states — began requiring building designers to be licensed. (Up until this date, builders developed
designs and executed what they planned.)
Moses and Calvin began taking a correspondence course to learn the technicalities they would need to pass the exam. When they appeared before the state licensing board, the administrators did not want to permit the two men to take the test.
“After discussing it among themselves, the board supervisors reluctantly decided it wouldn’t do any harm,” explains Cheryl McKissack Daniel. “It was unlikely that the men would pass the test anyway, so why not let them take it and fail?”
Both men passed, sending the administrators back into a huddle. Now what could they do to keep the men from getting their licenses?
By that time, the national press had the story, and negative publicity about Tennessee was increasing, so the board of administrators decided to award the licenses. Then the board itself pushed for the men to be given licenses in 22 additional states.
Company Continues to Grow
Moses and Calvin were getting work throughout the South. As black businessmen, they knew the only safe time to travel was during the day, and they could not stop along the way because of Jim Crow laws. They had to carefully plan their travel and eating so that they could be at a friend’s or relative’s home by nightfall.
Both men were community leaders. Moses was director of the National Negro Business League of America and was a major stockholder in Penny Savings Bank of Nashville and the Universal Life Insurance Company of Memphis. Calvin was president of the Negro Board of Trade and was also a trustee at Fisk University.
In 1942 the men received national recognition when they secured what grew to be an almost $8 million contract to build the 99th Pursuit Squadron Air Base at Tuskegee, Alabama. At the time, it was the largest government contract ever awarded to African-Americans.
During the Roosevelt administration, Moses McKissack was invited to the White House to confer on housing issues. Their College Hill housing development in Nashville had come to national attention.
In 1942 Moses and Calvin were awarded a Spaulding Medal for operating the outstanding Negro business for that year.
At Moses’ death in 1952, Calvin stepped in. Calvin had no children, so when he passed away in 1968, Moses’ son, William succeeded him.
William had three daughters, Andrea, and twins, Cheryl and Deryl. Given the era, his initial dream was that the girls would marry and sons-in-law would join the business, but he and Leatrice clearly instilled in each daughter a can-do attitude and a strong work ethic. When he returned to work in the evenings or on weekends, the girls often went with him and were kept busy tracing documents or working with T-squares and rulers. Clearly, the underlying family message was one of equal opportunity.
In 1983, Leatrice traveled to Washington, D.C. where the twins were both graduating from Howard University. William had remained at home and was planning a big graduation party for the family’s return. In D.C. the family received a terrible phone call. William McKissack had suffered a very serious heart attack.
It did not take long for Leatrice to decide who was going to run the business — she would. Lea had been a homemaker, but she was well-educated and aware of the issues her husband dealt with as she frequently accompanied him on trips to various jobs.
Many relatives worked in the business or had money invested, and they were all concerned. When Lea and the girls returned to Nashville, a meeting was scheduled, and over some objections, Lea announced her plan. “My husband ran a wonderful business, and I often said, “The good Lord let me rest for 15 years and then put me to work.
“I found it more trouble being a woman than being an African-American,” Lea said recently in a phone interview. “I had four brothers; I was the only daughter. We were all given the same education, and my parents always told me I could be anything.”
She took the company in her control and ran with it. In 1990 Leatrice B. McKissack was honored by President George Bush with the award for National Female Entrepreneur of the Year.
McKissack & McKissack Today
Cheryl McKissack Daniel grew up knowing she would work in the building industry in some way. She trained as a civil engineer, and an early job involved working as part of the team building missile silos. After a couple of years at Weidlinger Associates, she moved on to the “estimate” division at Turner Construction, a job she describes as excellent training for anyone. (Cheryl was not the only family member to follow the family passion; older sister Andrea spent many years as an interior designer for Stickley, only recently retiring. Cheryl’s twin sister Deryl became an architect and runs McKissack & McKissack of D.C. The company provides architecture, engineering, program and construction management services in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles, and Deryl was the chief architect for the Martin Luther King Memorial, established on the Mall in Washington in 2011.)
Shortly thereafter, Cheryl, then living in New York City, decided she could ease the burden on her mother by commuting to Nashville to help out for a couple of days each week. After a couple of years of commuting, Cheryl Daniel set up a New York office. She began specializing in design and planning, but she soon found that she preferred construction. “The jobs span a longer time, and for that reason, they can be more profitable,” she says.
In 1999, her mother was ready to get out of the business, so Cheryl bought the company from her. Now her mother sits on her board of advisors, and the New York office is the hub of all activity.
Cheryl McKissack Daniel’s first big job was the Germantown High School in Philadelphia, and while the company still does some work in Philadelphia, the firm mainly works in the New York area. Over the last decade, McKissack & McKissack has been working to relocate the Atlantic rail yards in Brooklyn so the Barclay Center could be built. In the process, the company also had to move Carlton Street Bridge. The job started as $250,000 contract and is still ongoing and is expected to be about an eight-year project by the time the company completes the permanent installation of the new rail yards.
They also are part of the group working on the construction of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. The original commission was 48 months but they were retained to do more work, and the project has expanded to last six years. They are also among the subcontractors to Granite Construction for the re-build of the Tappan Zee Bridge. The 3.1 mile bridge project will be the single largest bridge project in New York’s history.
Being a minority and woman-owned business helped McKissack& McKissack get a foothold on certain jobs. “The challenge — and a place where we have succeeded — is converting that client contact into a long-term relationship,” says Daniel.
In 2005 McKissack & McKissack was hired to demolish Harlem Hospital in preparation for its re-building. They were kept on as a subcontractor for the construction phase. One of the issues Daniel felt strongly about was hiring workers from the community. As they began accepting resumés, Daniel saw that they had so many applicants that they could funnel workers to other businesses looking to hire. McKissack now has a Harlem office on 125th Street and still helps companies who are looking for qualified applicants.
While the midtown office is designed to impress future clients, Daniel’s designers, EcoChi, agreed with Daniel that a different atmosphere was important in circumstances where people are looking for work, so the Harlem office is set up to be welcoming and friendly. Among its features is a “green wall,” made entirely of plantings to offer a feeling of relaxation and nature for those who come in to apply for work.
Planning for the Future
Four years ago Cheryl McKissack Daniel knew she had to plan for growth. She set up a board of advisors to provide her with additional knowledge and as a sounding board as she grows the business. Her strategy has worked. This year the company expects to grow from a $25 million to a $50 million business.
“In the next three years, we’ll hit $100 million,” says Daniel.
This is quite an accomplishment for any business owner, but particularly notable because their success tells a particularly great American story.