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125 Years Young

125 Years Young

Phyllis J. Tilley Memorial Bridge - Fort Worth, Texas

Fort Worth-based Freese and Nichols Grounded in History, Innovation

By Cindy Milrany

The day the City of Edmond, Oklahoma, raised the 2-million-gallon bowl of its newest water tower during the summer, dozens of residents arrived to set their lawn chairs out at sunrise, watch the action and chat with the Freese and Nichols engineers who designed and oversaw construction of the structure. It was like a community tailgating party, with company staff members handing out water bottles to visitors on a toasty July morning while celebrating this milestone with city leaders and staff.

This picture-perfect example of Freese and Nichols’ immersion in the communities we serve illustrates a key component of how our firm has thrived over our 125-year history. Engineering firms have the chance to make people’s lives better, and we take that challenge to heart. We’ve endured by adhering to a consistent philosophy defined by these main elements: take care of our employees, provide excellent service to our clients, invest in our communities, operate ethically and promote innovation.

Simon Freese and John Hawley, early leaders of Freese and Nichols, conduct “hydraulic jump” experiments outside Fort Worth’s Holly pump station in 1924.

Over that century-plus, we’ve diversified from a focus on water-related infrastructure to include broad-ranging services, such as major transportation projects, urban planning for cities large and small, and program management. Freese and Nichols’ projects range from the oldest water treatment plant in Fort Worth (one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States) to the newest renovations to DFW Airport (one of the world’s largest and busiest airports).

Being headquartered in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, we’ve spent decades delivering projects to meet the region’s needs — from lakes created in the 1910s to support for growing cities’ water supplies, to the Chisholm Trail Parkway, a key North Texas thoroughfare opened in 2014. But our work spans the state and beyond. Our long history in San Antonio, for instance, includes designing the Great Bend Cutoff Channel in the 1920s, which allowed for development of that city’s iconic River Walk, as well as the recently opened San Antonio River Authority Martinez IV Wastewater Treatment Plant and Collection System, which was the first wastewater treatment plant in Texas to receive the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure Envision Bronze Rating for sustainable design.

We are playing many roles in the development of Bois d’Arc Lake, a $1.6 billion project that spans 70 miles across three Texas counties and includes a raw water pump station the size of a football field. We’ve also helped coastal clients across the Southeastern United States deal with natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Harvey in Texas, and Matthew and Florence in the Carolinas.

Business longevity and resilience require learning from innumerable, sometimes difficult, experiences over the years. Here are key lessons from our history that can prove invaluable to others in the engineering field:

Embrace innovation

John Hawley started the company that became Freese and Nichols three years after he moved to Texas to design and build the City of Fort Worth’s first water treatment facility. His innovative approach to developing water supplies — he recommended water meters for all customers as early as 1894 — established a company mindset that continued under his successors, Simon Freese and Marvin Nichols, through to today.

One way we emphasize creative approaches is by funding ground-breaking research and development by our staff, which fosters an engaged workplace while yielding new solutions for clients. Our company also encourages innovative work with competitive awards that come with firmwide recognition and monetary prizes. These innovations might be a technically complex structure, forward-looking research or an internal company process improvement. Examples:

  • The Phyllis J. Tilley Memorial Pedestrian Bridge, which spans the Clear Fork of the Trinity River in Fort Worth, was the first arch-supported stress ribbon bridge in the United States.
  • At Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Atlanta, a large, multipurpose urban park that was designed to provide flood relief, protect a residential area from combined sewer overflows and use green infrastructure to improve water quality within a watershed.

Build relationships

How your business treats clients can influence their satisfaction with your performance as well as their willingness to partner with you again. That’s why we think in terms of relationships, not projects.

Building long-lasting client trust requires top-quality work but also responsiveness. Just as critical is providing solutions tailored to the client’s particular problem — instead of pushing a one-size-fits-all approach.

A good example of our specialized approach is a municipal bond program we were hired to manage. We helped the city streamline its processes and analyze delivery methods so that it could take over the program management — a solution that was financially sustainable for the city, even though it reduced their need for our services. In another case, as Hurricane Florence approached in 2018, a Freese and Nichols team worked 40 hours straight to provide hydraulic forecast modeling to help South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources decide where to strategically locate emergency resources.

We increasingly assist clients in securing state and federal funding for projects, especially for infrastructure and preparedness. And we regularly host clients at our in-house training classes on everything from professional ethics to dam safety to the latest modeling software.

It’s no accident that more than 90 percent of our business comes from repeat clients.

We also devote time and effort to building relationships with and among our employees. We want to be their firm of choice, too. An annual survey helps us identify issues important to employee satisfaction and well-being and how we can improve. We have an open-door policy with management, encourage team-building events throughout the year in all our offices, and provide benefits including financial support for professional development and education, flexible work schedules, and an annual bonus based on company performance.

Look toward the horizon

Longevity doesn’t come without periodic hardship. In 1995, right after celebrating our centennial, we had our first – and still the only – unprofitable year in company history. That wakeup call brought about a more systematic approach to planning, management and business development. We adopted a “continuous improvement” approach that involves developing and executing a strategic plan: monitoring measures of success, making adjustments as needed, focusing on employees and clients, and holding people accountable for meeting their goals.

Those changes led to Freese and Nichols in 2010 becoming the first architecture/engineering firm to receive the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award. The award goes beyond recognizing past business excellence and provides feedback to continue the performance excellence journey.

A focus on continuous improvement also creates conditions that incubate innovation. That might lead to adoption of new efficiencies, such as when we initiated widespread use of tablets on project sites — years before that became standard practice. It also might mean planning for the long term, such as expanding our work on alternative approaches to developing water supplies, including conservation, reuse and desalination. For instance, we designed and managed construction for the first facility in North America to blend reclaimed water directly in a raw water distribution pipeline. Operated by the Colorado River Municipal Water District in Big Spring, Texas, it remains the only operating direct potable reuse facility in the U.S.

Looking toward the next 125 years means continuing to anticipate client and employee needs and adapt to address challenges — while adhering to the practices that have sustained us.

Cindy Milrany is Chief Strategy Officer of Freese and Nichols, Inc.