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By Richard Massey

What started in 1917 as a small public works firm in Omaha, Neb., has grown into one of the leading multidiscipline companies in the world. HDR Inc., a Top10 Engineering News-Record (ENR) firm, has a portfolio that spans continents, and a total workforce of 10,000 in 225 offices.

A 1917 newspaper ad for Henningson Engineering Co.

The first of HDR’s contracts, with Ogallala, Neb.

Still headquartered in Omaha, HDR is an employee-owned operation with a big appetite for massive projects. Designing a 10-building medical campus in Beijing? Sure. Design and delivery of the Rhine Ordinance Barracks Medical Center Replacement in Germany? No problem. And serve as the lead designer and subcontractor to Tappan Zee Constructors on the $3.98 billion New NY Bridge over the Hudson River in New York? It’s expected to fully open to traffic next year.

In April, HDR received the American Council of Engineering Companies’ Grand Conceptor Award — given annually to the nation’s best overall engineering achievement — for the State Route 520 floating bridge project that crosses Lake Washington near Seattle. The award marks the third Grand Conceptor Award for an HDR project in the company’s 100-year history.

The project included replacing an existing, 53-year-old floating bridge and reconstructing the rest of the SR 520 corridor, from Interstate 5 on the west side of the lake to Interstate 405 on the east side. The result is a larger bridge that, at 7,708 feet (about 1.5 miles), earned a place in the Guinness World Records as the longest floating bridge in the world.

Looking ahead, HDR sees no slowdown in its penchant for big projects, nor does it plan on taking a back seat to other firms when it comes to innovation. In its 100-year anniversary press release, the firm announced a continued commitment to understanding the effect that autonomous cars will have on infrastructure, mapping out strategies for coastal resilience in an age of climate change, and designing cutting-edge health care, justice, and educational facilities.

George A. Little, chairman and CEO of HDR

Even with an eye on a promising future, the firm is not shedding its historical roots. HDR still has plenty of public-sector clients, from the smallest towns to the largest government agencies, academic, and health care institutions. George A. Little, HDR chairman and CEO, said the common thread is doing what’s right for the client and community — values HDR has held dear for a century.

“A wastewater treatment plant in a small city is every bit as important as high-profile projects like the Hoover Dam Bypass or Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi,” Little said. “HDR has built a culture of bringing our best to each and every project, and to the communities where we live.”

While the size and scope of HDR’s projects can be epic, they still fit the original template created by firm founder Henning H. Henningson. When he was traveling the byways of Nebraska decades ago, what he saw was the need for public works — sewer systems, water works, streets, and electric plants. To this day, public projects, whether supporting the Air Force Civil Engineer Center in Afghanistan or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Virginia, are important parts of the HDR portfolio.

Henningson — a Montana cowboy who returned to his home state of Iowa to attend engineering school at Iowa State University, even though he didn’t have a high school diploma — founded Henningson Engineering Company in 1917. In that same year, Ogallala, Neb., was the company’s first client. The project was a powerhouse, and soon thereafter, the firm was working not only in Nebraska, but in Iowa, Illinois, Colorado, South Dakota, Missouri, and Kansas.

An early power plant built by HDR in Unionville, Mo., circa. 1921.

After WWI, the firm moved to a new location in Omaha, employing a dozen engineers who started at a salary of $125 a month. The firm grew in the 1920s, endured the Great Depression of the 1930s, and in the wake of WWII, offered Charles Durham and Willard Richardson partnerships in the company, making Henningson the president.

While Henningson retired in 1953, the firm continued to thrive, and by 1970 was working on projects as far away as Spain, South Korea, Brazil, and Italy. A watershed moment for the firm came in 1983, when Bouygues SA, France’s largest construction company, purchased HDR as part of its global strategy.

But that proved to be temporary. In 1996, HDR bought back the company from Bouygues, and by 2004 had completed the repurchase of company stock two years in advance. Just a year later, the firm completed one of its many landmark projects, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge in Charleston, S.C.

By 2010, HDR’s standing as a global mega-firm was cemented by the opening of offices in Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. In 2015, the firm cracked the ENR Top 10 for the first time.

For more than a decade, the firm was owned by Bouygues of France. At HDR since 1989, Little held a senior operational role with the firm when the employees bought the firm back from Bouygues. That was the right move, lifting the firm’s morale and competitive drive.

“Over time it has created a great team environment,” Little said. “It’s company owned. We’re all working together as one team. No silos. All business lines work together and don’t compete internally.”

Looking back at his tenure at HDR, Little said of the buyback, “That’s the biggest positive change I’ve seen.”

A sprawling company with offices worldwide, Little, chairman and CEO since 2011, does not have the bandwidth to visit each and every location. If he did, he would be on the road throughout the year. Instead, he conducts three face-to-face meetings with staff annually through webinars.

It should come as no surprise that HDR is entrenched in China, a country boasting the world’s largest population, second largest economy, and a robust infrastructure rollout. The HDR project list is impressive, and includes work in, among other places, Hangzhou, Kunming, Suzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Nanjing. A lot of HDR’s work in China is for sciences, academics, and research labs, and is mostly done for large developers, not the government.

In Beijing, where HDR has multiple projects, the firm completed the conceptual design/master plan for a medical city, the Beijing International Medical Center, a 10-building complex that, when built, will be the largest medical campus in the world.

“The thing about China is that there’s so many people there and projects need to happen quickly,” Little said. “The speed — it’s unbelievable.”

Little was quick to note that HDR does not half-step its attention to quality while working in China, which has fewer regulations than the United States.

“We don’t change the standard of care when we work over there,” he said.

Even if work in China and other overseas locations did not exist, HDR would still be extremely busy — and profitable. In the United States, HDR has offices in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam. The firm’s architecture division currently has almost 2,600 projects, transportation has approximately 7,000, Resources has about 5,400, the Water division has about 4,000, and Federal projects number about 400 (see Table 1).

HDR serves as the lead designer and subcontractor to Tappan Zee Constructors on the $3.98 billion New NY Bridge over the Hudson River in New York. Photo: courtesy New York State Thruway Authority

Marquee projects include the New NY Bridge; Proctor & Gamble’s research and development center at Mason, Ohio; program management of the Honolulu Rail Transit project; and a medical complex at the University of Pennsylvania.

For context on the sheer volume the company does, take into account last year’s revenue: $2.2 billion.

Being busy is one thing, but being responsible is another. And in that regard, HDR is hard to beat. The firm is a Top 20 environmental firm as ranked by ENR. The firm also includes an eight-point Environmental Policy Statement on its website, with one of the points being, “Reduce fossil-fuel use, water consumption, and waste generation.”

In its 100-year anniversary press release, HDR made it clear where two of its priorities are — autonomous cars and coastal resiliency, two fields uniquely tied to a changing environment and evolving technology.

With plenty of department of transportation (DOT) clients, HDR is well positioned to serve as a key consultant for autonomous cars, a subject that HDR’s in-house experts addressed in a 2015 white paper, Autonomous Connected Vehicles, Preparing for the Future of Surface Transportation. The industry, powered by an ever-increasing body of research and development, at some point will affect the transportation grid, and when it does, HDR will be ready.

Of the firm’s current role, Little said, “It’s mainly giving [DOTs] advice on how [autonomous cars] will affect them long term. It could literally increase traffic on the road. The firm puts models together on traffic flows and looks at impacts on infrastructure.”

As a firm with a stated commitment to environmental protections and that has environmental stewardship baked into its business model, HDR accepts climate change.

“It’s pretty obvious it’s happening,” Little said.

In a white paper researched and written by a team of HDR’s in-house scientists, Resiliency’s Role in Our Coastal Communities, HDR issued a dour warning: “Climate change is one of the greatest natural challenges to our coastal wetlands and the economic and social fiber of our coastal communities. Manifestations such as sea level rise, extreme temperature and precipitation events, and increased storm intensities pose unique challenges to the integrity of our wetlands.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated that in 2010, as much as 39 percent of the U.S. population, or 123.3 million people, lived in counties directly on the shoreline. That number, according to NOAA, is expected to increase by 8 percent through 2020.

A big piece of the workflow for HDR is in transportation across the full range of possibilities — bridges, highways, rail, streetcars, and ports. HDR is also heavily involved with military projects. Both are expected to be well funded under the Trump administration.

“I see both of those areas increasing in the future,” Little said.

Looking at the overall AE market, Little is encouraged.

“I think it’s really good,” he said. “Even if we don’t have major growth, there’s still basic needs — airports, rail, and bridges. What we do is the backbone of the economy. The major sectors we serve look good right now.”

HDR, Inc.

Established: 1917

Headquarters: Omaha, Neb.

Size: 10,000 employees in 225 offices

Ownership: Employee owned

Website: www.hdrinc.com

Primary services/markets: Architecture, federal, industrial, mining, oil & gas, power, private development, transportation, waste, and water


Table 1: HDR’s Active projects

Business group       Projects        Percent
Transportation        7,087              36%
Water                        4,058              21%
Resources                 5,398              28%
Federal                      401                  2%
Architecture             2,593              13%
Total Active             19,537             100%


Richard Massey is director of newsletters and special publications at Zweig Group and editor of The Zweig Letter. He can be reached at rmassey@zwieiggroup.com.

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