Jon Magnusson, senior principal with Seattle-based engineer Magnusson Klemencic Associates (MKA) and son of a civil engineer, recalls visiting the construction firm where his father worked and eyeing a 50-lb box of nails, whereupon the 8-year-old inquired if he could pocket a handful of them. Upon returning home, nails in jeans, he seized a small piece of wood and began pounding them into it.

The episode propelled Magnusson on an odyssey in which he spent much of his youth at construction sites and, later, studying civil engineering at University of Washington after considering a career as a builder. "I liked the idea of starting with a blank sheet of paper and deciding what was going to be built, which is a very different challenge than being handed a sheet of paper and being told what to build," says Magnusson. "Looking back, it was so exciting to see what we'd put on paper rising and taking shape in three dimensions on previously empty sites."

Today, it's hard to imagine a firm that has left a more indelible imprint on sites throughout Seattle than the enterprise bearing Magnusson's name. Among other achievements, the structural and civil engineering firm has had a hand in virtually every significant public building and arena constructed in Seattle over the past 20 years, including structural standouts such as Seattle's EMP Museum; Seattle Central Library; Safeco Field, home to Major League Baseball's Seattle Mariners; and Century Link Field, home to National Football League's Seattle Seahawks.

Perhaps no other U.S. engineer has received greater recognition than MKA, the recipient of 25 national awards from the American Council of Engineering Cos., the majority during Magnusson's 25-year tenure as the firm's chief executive officer. "That was all part of the Magnussonian regime," says Ron Klemencic, who recently succeeded Magnusson as CEO. "John possesses a unique combination of skills found in few, including world-class technical engineering abilities, a profound capacity to see the big picture and an unequaled talent in communicating business and technical issues in a manner understandable to all."

His ascent, by any measure, was meteoric. Upon receiving a master's degree in civil engineering from University of California, Berkeley, he joined MKA— then Skilling Helle Christiansen Robertson (SHCR)—in 1976, having enjoyed a rich and varied internship with the firm between undergraduate and graduate school. By age 30, he was a firm principal. He became CEO at 34.

"I absolutely loved the work and worked hard," Magnusson says. "Those were crazy times—I was traveling like crazy, doing whatever it took to make the firm successful. My professional advancement was a by-product of that. That's the advice I give to younger colleagues: If you want to advance, focus on your firm and your work, and forget about advancement."

John Skilling, principal during Magnusson's early years with the firm, held similar views. "[Skilling] was an amazing individual and mentor," says Magnusson. "His attitude was: It didn't matter how old you were, but what you were contributing to your firm and your profession."

To this day, the firm eschews conventional metrics. "At no point have we ever set the goal of being a certain size or billing a certain amount on an annual basis. Rather, we focused on what it was we wanted to do— the types of buildings we wanted to design, the types of firms we wanted to work with," says Magnusson. "I mention that to colleagues employed by other firms and they just can't believe it, but it's true. If you do the right thing, size and billings will follow."

Both have. With branch offices in Chicago and Shanghai, MKA has executed projects in 46 states and 53 countries, collectively valued at $87 billion. Projects have ranged from stadiums to convention centers to high-rises.

Magnusson took "a firm with a rich legacy of creativity in the 1950s and 1960s and leveraged it, propelling it to an even higher level," says Klemencic. "He polished it, focused it and brought in the talent required to carry that legacy forward."