A Storied Engineering Firm Approaches its 100th Anniversary

The Nishkian Firms

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The Nishkian Firms offer consulting and structural engineering services for developers, contractors and architects. Based in San Francisco, the company has four branches in three states, a vast portfolio of high-profile, award-winning projects and a very positive outlook as it approaches its centenary.
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“We’re up to job number 7,800. That’s from job number one,” says President Levon Nishkian.

The Nishkian firms have worked on everything from aerospace launch facilities to residential buildings, office complexes, academic buildings, cultural centers, corporate campuses, prisons, ski resorts, parking areas, sports arenas and cement plants.

“I think, in the last ten years, the biggest sectors [for the company] have probably been residential and office buildings. We do all types of residential from 20-plus stories to wood-frame podium projects,” says Nishkian, adding that the company also has done a significant amount of work in office buildings and corporate campuses.

More recently, the company has been expanding its presence in the automotive sector, taking on structural engineering assignments for the likes of Ford and Tesla.

The firm was founded in 1919 by Nishkian’s grandfather, Leon Nishkian, a Turkish-Armenian immigrant and talented engineer. Under his guidance, the company worked on several famous projects in its hometown including the Castro and Fox Theaters and much of San Francisco’s large office buildings. Leon Nishkian was also widely praised for devising a floatation system to right an American battleship sunk at Pearl Harbor in 1941, so the remains of sailors could be removed.

Leon’s son, Byron Nishkian took over the firm after his father died in 1947. He too presided over a series of well-regarded tall building projects, and the company continued designing many Bank of America branches in the West, an engineering center at Stanford University and an earth sciences building at the University of California, Berkeley. Following Byron Nishkian’s death in 1987, the company reins passed to his son, Levon Nishkian, a structural engineer. The company at this point had gone through a pair of corporate mergers.

Levon Nishkian enjoyed working for this merged version of the firm but says he “had other responsibilities, so there were times I needed to do other things. So, I just had to move on and start our own firm.” He left the merged outfit to re-launch Nishkian as an independent company in 1989.

The rebooted firm, originally called Nishkian & Associates, grew steadily. There are now four offices within the Nishkian fold: Nishkian Menninger in San Francisco, Nishkian Dean in Portland, Oregon (founded in 1999), Nishkian Monks in Bozeman, Montana (founded in 2002) and Nishkian Chamberlain in Los Angeles (founded in 2007). The San Francisco office is also the corporate headquarters for the company.

The branches have certain specialties. Nishkian Monks excels at doing large, wood-frame projects. The Portland office, by contrast, has worked on rocket launch facilities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Part of the Cape Canaveral assignment involved “putting in an array of towers and wiring around Launch Pad 39B to protect the rocket area from errant bolts of electricity,” states Nishkian. The firm has also done structural engineering work at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Nishkian Chamberlain specializes in high-rises and is currently working on numerous tall building projects in Los Angeles.

Nishkian describes the four offices as separate entities which can come together collectively on some projects, even while maintaining their independence.

“The desire was to create firms where the individuals who were actually doing the work had ownership and a sense of responsibility. However, we work collaboratively all the time. On large major projects that are specific or unique to one of the offices, like the rocket launch work we do in Florida, we work collaboratively. Sometimes those projects need anywhere from twenty to thirty-five people involved to get it completed on time and well done. We just decide on an individual to be head of that type of project, and the rest of us just fall in to do the responsibilities that are requested of us, be it analysis or design or whatever. We get along very well,” says Nishkian.

Aside from assignments at Cape Canaveral, most of the company’s work is in the Western United States.

At present, the Nishkian firms have eighty-two employees, down from roughly eighty-seven last year at this time, says Director of Marketing Anchila Monks. This is part of the natural business cycle, with some employees “coming in as other ones are leaving,” she adds.

As for what the company looks for in a new hire, “the most important things are talents that don’t need education: willingness to do a project, willingness to listen, ability to work in a team environment. Things that don’t take technical skill are more important than where you went to college. We do like people who are highly educated along with those experiences, however,” says Nishkian.

Because the firm has four offices, the company culture can be somewhat diffuse but very spirited. “Our company culture has developed organically over time focusing on work-life balance. It’s challenging to get all employees together coming from three different states, so we do our own team-building activities for each office location, and it works quite well. Everybody also reaches out online or over the phone, whether it’s technical notes they need to share [or something else]. We have a good rapport among all four offices,” says Monks.

As a leading engineering firm, the Nishkian companies use cutting-edge technology when applicable. Nishkian himself, however, still appreciates some traditional touches. For example, even as his engineers use advanced business information modeling (BIM) software for various tasks, Nishkian still likes to see two-dimensional drawings to get a complete sense of a project.

Numerous architectural projects have earned honors for the firm, and individuals working for the company and its projects have won a slew of awards. Kevin Menninger, vice-president and managing principal of the San Francisco office, won the 2016 Special Honor Award presented by the Building Industry Conference Board (BICB). The award was presented November 10, 2016 at the BICB’s annual awards banquet, in San Francisco and recognizes outstanding construction and design professionals in the San Francisco Bay area. Project manager Chad Norvell of the Portland office was named one of the ‘Ten New Faces of Civil Engineering Professionals’ for 2017 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Nishkian and Monks cite several particularly noteworthy projects including “the first one that really initiated the [new] office in 1989,” which was the headquarters for tech firm Oracle Corporation in Redwood City, California, says Nishkian.

“It was really the first project between San Jose and San Francisco that made a difference. They were iconic structures. The project created a whole new sort of gentrification in the area between San Jose and San Francisco. Since then, there now are a ton of corporate campuses between those two cities, but that was pretty much the first one,” says Nishkian, of the Oracle HQ.

During that time, the Nishkian firms were working on a gargantuan project for another technology firm, Cisco Systems, Inc., in Silicon Valley involving five million square feet of space and over thirty buildings. “I think the Cisco main campus project is quite impressive as the longest-running project and one of the largest that we’ve handled. The Cisco San Jose campus extends over several sites – it’s so enormous that it spans three cities – San Jose, Milpitas, and Mountain View,” says Monks.

The company has also done the structural engineering work for the new Apple Campus 3 in Sunnyvale, California.

Monks directs the marketing department and handles much of the online promotion for the Nishkian firms. To this end, the company has a website and social media presence, and Monks writes regular blog posts. The firm also attends trade shows and conferences, runs advertisements in magazines and gets involved with the local communities in which its offices are based. That said, the company does not need to expend too much energy doing promotion because it has been around for decades and done consistently good work. “By the time I joined the Nishkian firm our client loyalty was already built. Most of our work comes from repeat business and recommendations. And while the firm has established a reputation for exceptional service, each year we improve upon our current practice through communication and personal interaction that builds relationships as well as intentional marketing strategies online, and offline or traditional,” says Monks.

As for the future, Nishkian is not opposed to opening more offices but has no plans to expand just for the sake of getting bigger.

“Our office locations have been driven by clients. If there’s somebody in Des Moines, Iowa that wants to hire us and needs our type of expertise, then we would do that. Right now, we’re kind of full-on with the four offices we have. The work we have outside our regions, we’re able to handle with the four offices we have. If I start doing a lot of work in Florida, then I’ll probably open another office there. If the City of New York wants to hire us, we would consider that. It’s more driven by demand from current end clients than it is from an aggressive desire to open another office,” says Nishkian.

Of the company’s looming milestone birthday, Monks says, “the entire Nishkian firm is proud that we’ve held our founding principles true to this day – exceptional engineering service, personalized cost-effective solutions, and expansive community involvement. Our success depends on the success of the communities we live, work and play in. We’d like to express our gratitude and big thanks to all our clients, partners, and supporters.”

“Of course we’ll make it to one hundred years. I think it’s time for a party,” adds Nishkian.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 19, 2019, 4:51 AM EST

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