Each year, ENR and its regional publications shine a light on young industry members whose abilities leave indelible marks on their professions and who are poised to shape the industry’s future.
It’s fair to call them early risers. Each of ENR Northwest’s 2019 Top Young Professionals, six in all, hit the industry running, bringing enterprise, enthusiasm, expertise and energy to their firms and their professions. They also have made substantial contributions to their communities.
As a result, the six honorees, hailing from Washington, Oregon and Alaska, have ascended to positions of influence at a young age. At age 39, Jeff Richards, the eldest, recently was named president of Puyallup, Wash.-based Absher Construction Co. after being appointed chief operating officer with the firm at age 36—the result of his rapport with colleagues and keen perspective on all facets of firm operations.
The youngest, Natasha Morris, age 32, serves as associate principal with Seattle-based architect CollinsWoerman and leads the firm’s career development team. Ronald Lee McPherson, age 34, leads architect-engineer firm HDR Inc.’s Alaskan maritime and coastal program in Anchorage.
A panel of judges evaluated candidates on the basis of professional achievement, industry involvement, contributions to the built environment and community service. Judges included Joel Andersen, Andersen Construction Co., Portland, Ore.; Brett Earnest, vice president with Seattle-based Clark Construction Group; and John Schaufelberger, professor, department of construction management, with University of Washington in Seattle.
Judges had their work cut out for them. The region suffers no lack of talent, with gifted, young professionals flocking to the Northwest due to the wealth of opportunities available there.
On the following pages, ENR Northwest presents short biographical sketches of the region’s Top Young Professionals for 2019.
35, Construction Manager
Transportation expertise landed this professional on a fast track
Azzi, a civil engineer, knows how to get around, whether the project involves subways or bridges. Early successes on San Francisco Bay Area transportation projects prompted his employer, design and construction firm AECOM, to take notice. After completing work on a $52-million station for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, Azzi served as engineer on an $82-million seismic and wind retrofit for the Golden Gate Bridge.
His early successes prompted AECOM to relocate him to the Seattle area, where he was charged with developing business initiatives to secure projects amid a thriving market. Azzi currently is structures manager for the $321-million Sound Transit South Bellevue light rail extension, for which he oversees a staff of 14 full-time engineers and superintendents and a directly employed workforce of nearly 100 skilled union craft members.
Azzi spearheaded his office’s annual food drive competition for five years. For the past four years, he has led a team in raising funds for the Movember Foundation, benefiting prostate and testicular cancer research, in addition to other men’s health initiatives.
Azzi priorities a healthy work-life balance. “I establish a routine to help my mind and body prepare for daily tasks,” he says. “On difficult days, I push through by reminding myself why I chose this career path—to improve the infrastructure of my community and provide for myself and my family.”
38, Senior Superintendent
Exxel Pacific Inc.
This sustainable leader was already a superintendent at age 27
Christianson launched his career by pushing a broom and swinging a hammer for general contractor Exxel Pacific in the summer of 1999 between semesters while attending college.
Upon joining Exxel full time, Christianson wasted little time in distinguishing himself. In 2003, during his first endeavor as a project engineer, he successfully disputed three L&I citations by meticulous management of safety documents and a site-specific safety program. Two years later, as an assistant superintendent, Christianson assisted a client in filing an insurance claim and recovering $3 million in contaminated soil costs after accurately tracking truck manifests of offsite soil removal.
His diligence earned him the title of superintendent by age 27, with his first project cited as Residential Development of the Year by the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties. As a newly minted LEED accredited professional, Christianson managed Exxel’s first LEED project in 2009. In 2010, he managed the firm’s first mid-rise project.
Christianson currently serves on the steering committee of the AGC’s Washington Construction Leadership Council, working to plan the group’s educational, philanthropic and social activities. He also works with college students pursuing degrees in construction management, helping them prepare for final projects or competitions. Christianson additionally has aided AGC in recruiting high school students for careers in construction.
36, Safety Manager
JE Dunn Construction
His passion for safety prompted adoption of innovative initiatives
Recognizing that jobsite safety is a team effort, McKenzie provides hands-on, in-the-field training to less experienced trade partners, placing special emphasis on industry best practices and JE Dunn’s safety culture. Likewise, he organizes safety workshops on fall protection, excavation and unsafe behavior, frequently partnering with unions and other trade partners.
McKenzie continually investigates new safety techniques and imparts his knowledge to colleagues and industry members. New safety programs and initiatives include adoption of Autodesk’s BIM 360 Field, a program for analyzing jobsite safety data. Reviewing data trends assists McKenzie and staff members in identifying areas of concern when injuries or incidents occur on projects.
For a current $220-million undertaking at the Portland International Airport, McKenzie is leading a collaborative team, including the Port of Portland, project designers and construction trade partners in analyzing design from a safety perspective. The approach—known as Prevention Through Design—evaluates design solutions to reduce injuries both during construction and operations and maintenance. As a result, the project team specified prefabricated utilities to minimize elevated work during construction.
McKenzie recently was recognized by the AGC board of directors for promoting safety throughout the industry. His community service activities include volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity and the Oregon Food Bank.
RONALD LEE MCPHERSON
34, Senior Ports and Harbors Coastal Engineer
Engineer heats up activity for HDR’s Alaska market
McPherson leads HDR Inc.’s maritime and coastal program in Alaska. Among other activities, he oversees coastal engineering, port and harbor design, coastal planning and marine environmental services. A licensed engineer, McPherson has worked on more than 100 coastal and maritime projects worldwide, assuming the roles of project manager, designer and construction manager. His expertise includes harbor design, shoreline protection, beach nourishment, coastal ecosystem restoration, dredging and scour analysis. McPherson also is one of HDR’s lead numerical modelers for analysis of waves, tidal circulation, ship surge and other complex hydrodynamic processes, and he leads field data collection, including aggregation of wave and tide data and bathymetric surveying.
He relocated to HDR’s Anchorage office in 2015 to assume the role of maritime market sector lead. He subsequently served as procurement lead for the Anchorage Port Modernization Project and designer of record for two large shoreline protection projects as part of the Kodiak Airport runway extension in Kodiak. McPherson also was instrumental in securing a coastal engineering term contract from the Alaska Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities, cementing HDR’s position as the state’s leading coastal engineer. He is an active member of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association.
32, Associate Principal
This born leader has launched programs involving recruitment, BIM and opportunities for women
Morris is a top-performing designer, senior associate and project manager with architect CollinsWoerman, providing leadership on a range of office, mixed-use and residential projects. Her tenure also has included work on commissions involving health care, science and technology.
Morris also leads CollinsWoerman’s career development initiative team, responsible for advancing firm programs to recruit, develop and retain staff at all levels.
Among other undertakings, Morris developed an internal educational program for recent graduates as they transition into the profession. Morris also leads the firm’s college recruitment efforts, participating at multiple local and national career fairs. Thanks to her mentoring abilities, she’s proven herself a go-to person for many staff seeking advice and career guidance.
Upon joining the firm, Morris recognized the firm lacked building information modeling standards and protocols and implemented a firm-wide program that remains in use today. With the firm seeking to evaluate platform changes to Revit and Bluebeam, she immediately educated herself and assisted project team transitions while increasing internal efficiency.
She also leads an internal program that promotes leadership among women and focuses on mentorship, licensure and networking within the community.
39, President, COO
Absher Construction Co.
Rising star finds room at the top due to rapport with colleagues and a keen view of company operations
Richards found early success upon joining general contractor Absher in 2003 after receiving a bachelor’s degree in construction management from the University of Washington.
During the economic downturn in the late 2000s, Richards divided his time between field management, estimating and marketing to support the company’s needs, ultimately assuming the role of director of estimating when the economy began to rebound. From there, he quickly moved on to project engineer and project manager.
His rapport with colleagues and 360-degree perspective of the roles and functions of multiple departments within the firm prompted Dan Absher, then president of the company, to name Richards as chief operating officer in November 2016 and to president in January 2019. In his new role, Richards is charged with managing firm growth. He also oversees field operations, preconstruction, estimating, marketing, business development and IT.
Under his stewardship, Absher has been recognized for its community service with the AGC of Washington/Moss Adams Community Service Award. The firm also received the Champion of Diversity Award and the Safety Excellence Award from AGC of Washington. The firm was additionally recognized as Rebuilding Together South Sound Sponsor of the Year for Rebuilding Day 2018. Richards oversees Absher’s in-house charitable program, Holiday Lights, which supports local families in need.