When you read about business stories of success, there is often a common thread that runs through them – determination, hard work, passion, and a dream.
Ninety years ago, Fridtjov (Fred) Severud, an immigrant from Norway, came to New York with all of these things, and at the age of 29, he began his own structural engineering firm.
One year after he started his business, the Great Depression hit, and while many were unable to survive, Severud and his colleagues (many also of European descent) managed to stay afloat.
From the beginning, Severud and his partners wanted their company to be known for its high level of service and quality, and they invested heavily in their employees and their skills. The name of the company changed multiple times in its first six decades as the different partners rose up through the business, but in 1985, the partners decided it was time to go back to their roots and they became known once and for all as Severud Associates.
Under this banner, the team continued to focus on staying true to their values, focusing on the work itself and preferring the personal approach over aggressive growth, while staying big enough to compete with larger companies. “Our primary interest has always been in the work and that’s why we have maintained the size we have maintained,” said Brian Falconer, Principal at Severud.
The company has one main office in New York and a staff of 75 employees. Most of its projects are in the New York Tri-State area, but the firm also works in states from California to Florida to New Hampshire – more than a dozen in all – as well as in Canada and many countries all over the world.
For engineering students, getting hired by Severud is like receiving the golden ticket to job security. The firm hires 98 to 99 percent of its staff straight out of college, and only hires the best and brightest minds. Many of these employees will spend their entire career with the firm.
“When we hand pick our engineers when they come straight out of college – and literally, we pick them – we’re very careful,” said Cawsie Jijina, Principal at Severud. “Basically, our whole goal is to have the deepest bench humanly possible so that everybody can be involved at any time in any of our projects, and they will perform just as well.”
The five partners who currently run the firm are committed to growing the team from within, so employees can eventually become partners themselves. There have only been 19 partners since 1928. “This is my first and only job and I joined in 1979, so I’m 39 years here,” said Jijina. “This is Brian’s only job; he too came straight out of college.”
“I think that’s something our employees have chosen as well,” said Falconer. “You know everybody that you work with; they are not in some headquarters someplace else. It’s not like we have five floors of the building and you’ve never met the person that’s the CEO of the company. Everybody knows everybody; everybody knows who’s married and who has kids, and whose kids are going to college. We’re not really a family office because it’s not a family that owns it, but we choose to be an environment where we have those kinds of interactions.”
The majority of Severud’s clients have also stayed loyal to the firm, because its engineers have made it a priority to build relationships with them and really listen to their needs. As a result, they have had the luxury of being chosen to do many of the projects that they want to do.
“Here all five of us are working partners; we design together, and our clients, the owners of our projects, see us every other week,” said Jijina.
“A lot of times we end up competing against much larger firms,” said Falconer. “But people come here for a reason: because it’s the right fit for them, and that’s often why they are hiring us too. There can be an advantage if it’s the right size job for us; we don’t have the same overhead as some of the larger firms, so we may have a financial advantage over our competitors.”
The company’s engineers are a very tight knit group, and they pride themselves on the fact that every project is a custom one. There are no templates, and they like to bring interesting things they learn from one project into another one. “We’re not a cookie cutter office. Every building is different, every building is unique, and our clients know that approach,” said Jijina.
The firm’s expert staff has engineered thousands of projects, many of which have won awards from prestigious professional, architectural, and media organizations. In fact, there is no wall space left in the office and the window sills are fully stacked, as the team wins at least three to four design awards per year on average.
“There’s a lot of cross communication and cross pollination,” said Jijina. “The firm is divided into three design studios, but there is a lot of back and forth, and people within the three groups work together very fluidly. If there is something someone has special expertise in from another division, they will help them out. It’s very much a mentoring environment.”
The company also prides itself on specializing in extraordinarily challenging projects. “If it’s an easy building, you don’t come to us,” said Falconer.
“When people have something out of the ordinary, they come to us, but they also come to us repeatedly because of the consistent high quality of our work product” added Jijina.
Its iconic projects have included such landmark buildings as Madison Square Garden, The St. Louis arch, Denver International Airport, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Seagram’s building. “When you walk down the National Mall in Washington DC, I believe we account for the most buildings of any engineering firm there,” shared Jijina.
The firm’s unique projects also include designing structures to hold giant pieces of art and sculpture, or dinosaur and whale skeleton exhibits, like the ones it completed for the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum or the T-REX at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Some of its current projects include an 80-story building next to Grand Central Terminal (One Vanderbilt), the first tall building going into a newly rezoned neighborhood in Manhattan; Moynihan Station, which involves converting the original post office into an extension of Penn Station; renovating and expanding the Museum of Modern Art; constructing a new building at 181 Mercer for New York University on the Greenwich Village campus, which will comprise an athletic facility, a performing arts centre, student housing and a faculty housing facility all in one; and an extensive renovation at 390 Madison Avenue, which involves adding seven stories to the top of a 25-story building. The team is also working on two projects that they say are probably more complex than anything they have ever done before – one in Las Vegas and one in New York, but they are not allowed to discuss them publicly yet.
“You do what we do because of your ego,” said Falconer. “You want to point to something and say, ‘I did that,’ but you know there are a lot of people involved to get it done. I think that we’re lucky, because I would have to tell you personally I have worked on some great projects, and I am working on some great projects, and I’m going to work on some great projects.”
One of the coolest projects for Jijina was a small black box theatre that the firm designed to go on top of Lincoln Center five years ago, a project that won every national design award there was that year.
“We try as partners to foster a sense of excitement for new projects and ownership for the project,” said Falconer. “This is hard work, and there are long hours doing this kind of work, and there are cycles in the economy that you have to deal with… it’s not like it’s all just easy and nothing happens, but it’s back to that thing about your ego and taking part in something that’s bigger than you and being able to show there’s something bigger than you. And almost everything you do will outlast you,” Falconer shared.
As for future goals, the partners say they are happy where they are; they aim to continue the tradition and pass the firm down to the next generation. “We are the caretakers,” said Jijina.
Falconer agreed, adding that, “the firm is really a river and we’re all just getting into it for a while, and the river keeps flowing.”
Determination, hard work, passion and a dream. Fred Severud’s legacy has certainly not diminished in his successors.