Kansas City’s Burns & McDonnell goes beyond engineering as it enters new marketplace

Kansas City’s Burns & McDonnell is expanding beyond its traditional engineering and architecture work with the launch of a new arm aimed at providing business, technology and security consulting.

Called 1898 & Co., the consulting operation already employs some 250 workers, said Burns & McDonnell CEO Ray Kowalik. While it’s still an arm of the company, 1898 & Co. comes with its own brand, logo and website to help it stand out from the design and construction side of the business.

“It’s not the traditional service that Burns & Mac is known for in the industry,” the CEO said. “It’s actually quite a bit different. And it’s a completely different skill set of people and talents. I don’t think that’s what the market is going to think of us. They think of us as the people that are going to build your project safely, on budget and on schedule.”

The firm has hired economists, business consultants, data scientists, software developers, and physical and cyber security experts to round out its expertise. Kowalik said it’s not a giant leap for the company: Burns & McDonnell is frequently hired to consult with utility companies on rate analyses and transmission planning and energy forecasts.

“We’ve been doing that for a long time,” he said. “But this is going bigger and outside of just the utility industry.”

The consultant arm aims to help companies and government entities make long-term decisions. Rather than helping to build one building, for instance, 1898 could study an organization’s physical infrastructure, create long-term plans and advise on specific building projects — even if that means recommending against building new infrastructure.

That can also help generate leads for the primary line of business, where relationships with clients are king.

“It’s the most important thing,” Kowalik said. “Customers pick somebody to do their projects for them that they trust are working in their best interests to help solve their problems and make them successful.”

Burns & McDonnell, ranked as one of the nation’s largest design firms, employs about 7,500 people total, including just over 3,000 in Kansas City. It’s currently expanding its South Kansas City headquarters campus and is on track to hire 1,000 new workers every year for the foreseeable future, Kowalik said.

Executives anticipate that the consulting business will grow by 80 % over the next five years. But even with its new arm, Burns & McDonnell will still target organizations in the world of infrastructure. They’re not going after financial services industries, for example, said Chris Underwood, general manager of 1898 & Co.

That’s also why the business was named 1898 — a nod to the year the engineering firm was founded.

“That is our largest differentiator,” Underwood said. “We’re advising on infrastructure and businesses that we are very well informed on because we’ve got 120-plus years of engineering and construction excellence in those businesses.”

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Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas