A Milwaukee native and structural engineer, John Kissinger was part of the GRAEF team that worked with Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava on the iconic addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
"When we were doing it we had no idea how it would be received," Kissinger said. "But we felt we were building a monument."
The Milwaukee Art Museum project is perhaps the most significant of many that Kissinger has worked on during his 27 years with GRAEF, a Milwaukee-based engineering firm.
Kissinger recently became the president and chief executive officer of GRAEF, succeeding Richard Bub. Previously, Kissinger was the company's chief operating officer for two years.
"I'm glad I didn't take over three years ago (during the Great Recession)," Kissinger said. "Rich Bub shepherded us through this choppy period. Hopefully we're primed for great things. I'm excited about it. I think it's a great opportunity."
GRAEF trimmed its operations during the recession, but still has about 250 employees, including 175 in Milwaukee. The company also has offices in Madison, Green Bay, Chicago and Orlando. GRAEF has annual revenues of about $30 million. Kissinger said he is determined to grow the company.
"We definitely need to grow, and we intend to grow," he said. "The only question is where."
The company could grow by opening additional offices or by acquiring other firms, Kissinger said.
"I'm not sure if this is the year for that, but I would love it if we could do that," he said.
GRAEF has added about 10 employees in its Milwaukee office already this year.
"For a long time we didn't hire any people," Kissinger said. "We have a need. We're running a pretty lean operation these days, as everyone is."
Like construction firms and architectural firms, engineering firms such as GRAEF were hurt by dramatic reductions in commercial and residential real estate development since the Great Recession.
In addition to economic challenges, engineering firms are facing challenges from changes in their own industry. The increase of high-tech engineering tools and of foreign competition have made the engineering industry more competitive and commoditized, Kissinger said. Customers expect higher quality at lower cost.
To respond to those market challenges, "We have to find clients with the most challenging, the most difficult problems to solve," Kissinger said. "Those clients will find value in what we do. What we provide is high-level engineering service."
The Milwaukee Art Museum project was a major challenge. Many engineering firms declined to bid on the job, apparently concerned about the level of difficulty.
"Some firms seemed scared of it," Kissinger said. "It was a difficult job, technically."
The biggest challenge of the museum design was the wing-like brise soleil sunscreen. Before it was built, many in the community, including people closely involved in the project, wondered if it would work.
"Everybody I would talk to was always really scared of that," Kissinger said. "They were afraid it would blow off the building or it wouldn't function."
However, the GRAEF team was confident that, based on their analysis, the design for the brise soleil was feasible.
"I wasn't worried about it," Kissinger said. "Fairly early on, we felt confident we could make it work. We were not concerned. But everyone else was."
Kissinger also did engineering work with GRAEF on the former Midwest Airlines Center project. He previously did work on several industrial projects, including projects for American Motors in Kenosha. Those facilities were demolished after American Motors ended operations there.
"I must be an old engineer," Kissinger said. "A lot of the buildings we designed and built have been torn down."
Kissinger was in a management role when GRAEF did engineering work for the last Lambeau Field expansion project.
The company remains involved in major projects in the area, including The Moderne, a 30-story residential tower under construction in downtown Milwaukee.
When asked if the company was working on the Kohl's Corp. corporate headquarters project, Kissinger said, "I can't talk about that." Kohl's has insisted that anyone working on the project remain silent about it publicly.
With an eye on the future, the company is working to expand its presence in water and energy projects.
"Water and energy are going to be the greatest needs in this country and worldwide," Kissinger said. "We're trying to get in those areas more."
Kissinger said he is optimistic about the future of the economy and the engineering field. In addition, the needs for improvement to U.S. infrastructure remain great, he said.
"As the economy improves there will be a need for our services," Kissinger said. "There will always be a need for facilities. I tend to be more optimistic about the future. I'm not saying everything is going to be the way it was. But, there are so many things that need to be fixed and engineers can help do that."