Building Relationships, and Much More
WHPacific is a full-service engineering, architectural, planning, and technical consulting firm headquartered in Portland, Oregon with offices spread across the Western United States. With $35M in annual revenue, and over 250 employees, WHPacific is an engineering firm to be reckoned with.
Construction in Focus spoke at length with Hal Keever, WHPacific’s Past President, and Tom Jones, Vice President of Oregon Operations about WHPacific’s origins, its evolution, projects, and the unique attributes that make this full-service firm a powerhouse in its industry.
WHPacific was originally formed as Wilsey & Ham, founded in 1968 by Earl Wilsey and Lee Ham in Foster City, California. In 1988, WHPacific separated from Wilsey & Ham, retaining the “W” and “H” to pay homage to its origins. In early 2000, WHPacific was sold to the Alaska Native Corporation (NANA). ASGC (Arctic Slope Consulting Group) was another engineering firm owned by NANA and in 2009 W&HPacific and ASCG were merged into what is now WHPacific.
The original company was a land planning and engineering firm, primarily dealing with public infrastructure and land development. One of its founders, Lee Ham, even wrote a book on new town planning. Seattle and Portland opened up developmentally almost simultaneously around 1968, dealing with infrastructure improvements, water treatment plants, public infrastructure and transportation. During those times there was a great deal of development on the West Coast, focusing on transportation improvements, land development and surveying – areas in which WHPacific specializes.
Since then, WHPacific has expanded throughout the Western United States, with offices in Alaska, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Arizona. In terms of areas of expansion, WHPacific has diversified its focus to include aviation, landscape architecture and environmental practices: “We have tried to diversify over the years. Aviation is a large part of our business that was not part of the original [Wilsey & Ham] founding fathers’ vision, but as we evolved into WHPacific, some of the partners brought in some new blood that had very good aviation experience, and we’ve grown that to a very good business line for ourselves,” notes Keever. “We’ve also branched out into landscape architecture – the Portland office is one of the largest landscape architectural firms in Portland – and we’ve also begun a robust environmental group as well.”
Tom Jones observes that WHPacific’s key strengths are what have supported its expansion and its continued success: “Being a full-service, multi-disciplinary firm, people look to us historically to take on the more challenging projects; the subdivision [designers], for example, that make cookie-cutter layouts – that’s not who we are. Our clients look to us to call on our multi-disciplinary strength, where we can add on if necessary. If issues come up during a project, we can address them quickly, in-house preferably. So being a full-service firm has been critical. And as we’ve evolved, some of the continuity in the seniority [has been beneficial]. We have people who have worked here twenty, thirty years, so stability has been important, as well as having a client focus and being a partner with our clients.”
As noted earlier, WHPacific is wholly owned by NANA Development Corporation, the business arm of NANA Regional Corporation, established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Acts (ANCSA) of 1971. NANA is a private, for-profit corporation representing the interests of more than 13,500 Iñupiat shareholders who are descendants of the first people to populate northwest Alaska over 10,000 years ago. The Iñupiat, meaning “real people,” are part of the Inuit, or circumpolar indigenous people of the world, whose traditional territory spans from Norton Sound on the Bering Sea to the Canada–United States border.
Headquartered in Anchorage, Alaska, the NANA Development Corporation employs 15,000 individuals throughout the United States and around the globe. NANA operations extend from the Arctic Circle to Australia, across the continental United States, to the Middle East and the South Pacific. NANA companies, of which WHPacific is one, focus on serving the Federal, Oil and Gas, and Commercial business sectors. Tom Jones explains: “Who we work for are the Iñupiat shareholders in Alaska. Our profits go to support them and to increase the dividends they derive. We aren’t working for a large corporation in an ivory tower; we are working for our native shareholders in Alaska to support their subsistence. It is one of the harshest environments in the world, where they live. That’s a unique story we can tell.”
Hal Keever points out the stewardship role that WHPacific plays in supporting the ancient Iñupiat culture: “Many people don’t understand that there are about 12 villages north of the Arctic Circle where our shareholders reside and it is a subsistence manner of living that they have had for ten thousand years; it is what they want to continue to do for another ten thousand years. They have entrusted people like us to diversify their portfolio so that they can continue to raise their families like they always have.”
“We also help to keep [the Iñupiat] employed,” adds Jones. “When we hire or have an open position, we open it to everyone but our shareholders do have preference. As an example of that, we have internships. This summer we had a young Iñupiat college student work for us, helping out with the biological assessments, wetlands delineations, and doing various things around the office. So employment is critical – adding skill sets and adding to the education of the shareholders.”
Being NANA-owned also benefits the company itself. Keever observes that this evolution has been greatly beneficial to WHPacific: “First and foremost, being 100 percent native owned is a door-opener to us with many of our Native American clients. There are over 500 different tribes in the continental United States and Native Americans tend to like to work with other Native Americans – it is standard operating procedure, so to speak, and in many cases there is a ‘Buy Indian’ Act, meaning if you are Native American-owned, you get preferential treatment with regard to proposals and things of that nature. So that has affected us a great deal – it is about 30 percent of our business. And this has evolved over time – it didn’t just happen overnight because we became Native American-owned, but through the mergers and acquisitions that we have done, that has helped a great deal.”
Being wholly Native American-owned provides value added for businesses that partner with WHPacific as well. As the largest engineering firm wholly owned by NANA, WHPacific is a certified minority business enterprise (MBE) through the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC). Its MBE status allows WHPacific’s clients to meet key corporate diversity commitments. For example, under the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), the current government-wide procurement goal is that at least 23 percent of all federal government contracting dollars should be awarded to small businesses (SB). In addition, targeted sub-goals are established which include small disadvantaged businesses (SDB). Under FAR, subcontracts awarded to WHPacific are counted toward the federal contractor’s subcontracting goals for SB and SDB. Ultimately, by choosing WHPacific, federal contractors get a highly qualified subcontractor and credit toward their SB/SDB goals at the same time.
Some of WHPacific’s most interesting and challenging projects to date include an award-winning public-private partnership between the City of Portland, Port of Portland, Portland Development Commission, Bechtel, and Trammell Crow Company. Cascade Station at the Portland International Airport is a 120 acre development where WHPacific was the lead consultant of the development’s Primary Infrastructure Development and Airport Way Overcrossing and North Access Interchange. WHPacific also completed the Airport Way Widening, North Frontage Road Relocation, and East Bike/Pedestrian Pathway Study. These projects have involved all levels of local and state government.
“We were under contract to Bechtel, as almost a design-build arrangement. Essentially, Bechtel was to construct, Trammell Crow was to own and operate – for a 99 year lease – 120 acres right near the airport, and in return, Bechtel would construct the 5.5 mile light rail line to the airport, finally connecting it to the existing [rail lines] and ultimately to downtown Portland, to the west, Hillsboro, and to the south, downtown Milwaukee. We were a team partner in its design. We took the lead on the surveying and the environmental permitting, engineering, and landscape architecture that set up that project to where it is today. It is now a home to IKEA, a large retail centre, hotels, offices, and the FBI headquarters. To me this was a great showcase project. We have been working on this continuously since just prior to 9/11,” notes Jones.
Another key project that showcases a host of WHPacific’s many skills is the Nike World Campus. “We’ve been involved with that campus for nearly 25 years – they have an exceptional world headquarters campus out in Washington County, and in Beaverton, Oregon. We’ve been able to work with them in all capacities, including a major expansion which is ongoing now. We’ve helped develop the north campus expansion, the completion of the ‘super block,’ and the expansion of existing buildings – doing site, civil, a variety of environmental, survey, landscape architecture, roadway engineering, structural engineering for bridges and the like. It is a very satisfying project to be involved with because it is a showcase of an international firm’s architecture,” observes Jones.
WHPacific also recently completed the design of the new McCarran International Airport Air Traffic Control complex in Las Vegas, Nevada. The facilities include the 32,773 square foot, 22-level Air Traffic Control Tower, adjacent 55,410 square foot, four-story Base Building/TRACON facility, state-of-the-art guard station, and a two level parking structure. “It’s a project that is very visibly noticed by many thousands of people. It’s about to open – it’s an icon for when you fly into Vegas. We were the architect of record on that project,” Keever explains.
In looking at WHPacific’s breadth and depth of work, geographic footprint, and certifications, it’s clear that the firm is a “one-stop shop” for its clients – a convenience that is hard to beat. “Our business is all based on relationships, and the further we can develop those relationships with our clientele, the better job we can do for them,” observes Keever. “One of the things involved in that relationship building is a high degree of customer service. I do believe that our ties to Native American communities also differentiate us quite a bit.”
WHPacific, however, is no different than other construction and engineering firms in terms of the challenges it is facing in regard to ongoing demographic shifts and the aging workforce. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find and maintain a skilled workforce both at the entry level and in management. “It’s still very difficult to find the skilled labor in this industry right now. Part of it is that during the great recession, a lot of people got out of the business. The construction and engineering industry was devastated, but when the market came back, they didn’t. So that added a lot to our problems,” explains Keever.
But WHPacific has some unique strategies to meet these challenges. “Succession planning is upon us. It is a very difficult process. And finding the qualified workforce is difficult, but there is a program that we utilize here called CECOP (Civil Engineering Cooperative Program) that has helped us,” says Keever.
Tom Jones went on to explain this challenge further: “I see right now in the workplace that the competition is similar to where it was in 2007 in the Portland and Seattle markets, where it is extremely hard to find good, talented individuals across the entire spectrum, whether it is succession planning or replacing our directors or managers, senior project managers, all the way down to entry level. And we have to have that skill set. Where we’ve been very successful in finding that entry level is the CECOP program. We were one of the founding members fifteen plus years ago. It’s a program that was initiated through Oregon State University but has graduated now over the years to include Portland State University and the Oregon Institute of Technology and others. It’s a neat program but I don’t want to tell too many people about it because it’s where we find all our young professionals!” CECOP is a one-year co-op program, split in half between a period with the public sector – for example, a municipality – and a private engineering firm. So students get a well-rounded exposure to the field. WHPacific contributes financially to this program and accepts a number of students for a co-op term annually.
Demographic challenges aside, it is clear that WHPacific’s winning differentiators are what set it apart from its competition – its multi-disciplinary, full service abilities, as well as its vast geographic reach, with offices everywhere from the arctic region to the northwest and southwest United States. “We can fulfill IDIQ contracts (indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity) everywhere from Guam, to Hawaii, to all the arctic environments, to the arid southwest, as well as to the northwest,” notes Jones. With the company’s one-stop shop approach to client services, combined with its unique focus on its Iñupiat stakeholders, WHPacific is sure to grow and thrive into the future as one of the most innovative and successful multi-disciplinary firms of its kind.