The entrepreneurial "enterprise within an enterprise" approach that Cary, N.C.-based Kimley-Horn first implemented more than 40 years ago is proving to be a perfect fit for today's business environment. Built around the idea of "practice builders"—specialists in various design disciplines who are given greater freedom to cultivate their own niche markets and service areas—the concept is contributing to the firm's growing share of the current market's crop of increasingly complex projects. It is winning over owners who demand a higher level of engagement and innovation from their design consultants.

While the Southeast's A/E firms as a whole posted gains in 2014, Kimley-Horn's revenue in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida rose 16%, or nearly $24 million, to $173.53 million. An increase of that magnitude is usually reserved for firms that have acquired one or more existing competitors.

Here, the firm's growth was entirely organic, with a diverse project portfolio that includes Baxter International's $1-billion manufacturing facility and corporate office in Walton County, Ga.; the Atlanta Braves' new 41,000-seat ballpark and related $400-million mixed-use development projects; a new north runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport; the $1.5-billion, 10-block Miami Worldcenter mixed-use project; the $135-million Spring Training Complex in West Palm Beach; and the I-75 Express Lanes in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Growth alone would seem sufficient to qualify Kimley-Horn to be ENR Southeast's Design Firm of the Year. But it's the way the firm handled these projects that has most impressed owners, particularly when having to address multiple, sometimes conflicting issues and challenges.

For example, Paul Morris, president and CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc., credits Kimley-Horn for helping forge a new project delivery approach in partnership with the Georgia Dept. of Transportation that contributed to the $43-million, three-mile Westside Trail project in southwest Atlanta being able to qualify for a critical $18-million federal grant.

"A multidisciplinary variety of skill sets is always needed when dealing with highly complex, fast-track, highly politicized projects," Morris says. "As the lead design firm, Kimley-Horn ensured that we would receive a gold standard of design excellence, with the responsiveness to keep the scope moving while also helping us deal with other issues. This kind of standard is now expected, and Kimley-Horn exceeded it."

Bill Cross, manager of planning and engineering for the South Florida Regional Transit Authority, agrees that responsiveness is particularly critical for projects involving public and private partners.

"If you're working with the private sector, you need fast turnarounds," says Morris, whose agency is working with Kimley-Horn on a two-mile crossing over the Miami River. It will connect a 72-mile rail corridor to the new Miami Intermodal Center. "Kimley-Horn is good at that," he says.

A Culture’s Core Values

These increasingly coveted design consultant capabilities are a direct result of Kimley-Horn's Practice Builder model, asserts strategic marketing leader Brooks Peed, who recently became chairman of the firm's board of directors.

"Practice Builders get to work on what projects they want, for the clients they want," Peed explains. "That helps them focus on providing exceptional client service, which in turn, creates high expectations about quality, responsiveness and creativity. That results in a better experience for the clients, and for us."

Since it is privately owned by more than 375 active employees, Kimley-Horn isn't pressured to grow at a pace and direction its leaders aren't comfortable with.

"We see no need to be acquired or show how well we're doing financially by having to acquire someone else," says CEO John Atz. "Those desires aren't important here."

And even if they were, Atz recognizes that the downsides of growth by acquisition don't always offset its benefits. "It's a struggle to bring in 100 people with their own culture," he says. "You wind up with several cultures, rather than a single one."

Instead, Kimley-Horn seeks to cultivate and reinforce its own unifying culture, which stresses combining good engineering and technical skills with business fundamentals such as effective communication.

"You could have a great idea, but if you can't communicate it to clients, it's not worth a lot," adds Russell Barnes, the firm's regional leader for Florida. "That's why we look for an entrepreneurial drive when we interview college students. We're looking not only for young talent, but also future consultants."

This synergy of left- and right-brain skill sets served Kimley-Horn well in gaining a reputation for successfully handling complex, often unique mixed-use projects. One example is the Atlanta Braves project, located on a 57-acre site in Cobb County, Ga., on a site long deemed too difficult to develop due to difficult soils and the presence of three major petroleum transmission lines.

With less than four years available to meet the Braves' 2017 target opening date, Kimley-Horn tackled the concurrent coordination of permits, utility relocations and site preparation simultaneously with the design and construction of diverse building types and infrastructure.