Cheryl McKissack Daniel is the president and CEO of McKissack & McKissack, the oldest family-run, minority-woman-owned professional design and construction company in the United States. She carries on a family legacy that traces back five generations to her great, great grandfather, Moses McKissack, a former slave who was brought to the United States from West Africa just before the turn of the 18th Century. Moses, who was given the surname of slave owner William McKissack, learned the trade of making bricks. At some point Moses was given his freedom, and he went on to sell his bricks to an eminent Nashville family which were used to build their mansion.
Moses passed on his knowledge and passion for building to his son Moses II who became a craftsman and carpenter best known for his spiral staircases and gingerbread finishes.
In 1905, third-generation Moses McKissack III and his brother Calvin founded and incorporated McKissack & McKissack into a construction firm in Nashville, Tennessee. When the company was created, architectural licensing did not yet exist, so they were able to operate it. Moses III and Calvin were master builders who designed buildings and began construction. But in 1921, the state of Tennessee instituted architectural licensing laws which presented a challenge for the McKissack brothers to obtain them, as Tennessee was not a racially equitable state. Despite that, they went to school and obtained architectural degrees, then they petitioned the state to get their licenses. Moses III and Calvin’s efforts were met with great resistance until they won favor with a board member of licensing who helped enable them to take the test. On May 27, 1922, the McKissack brothers received architectural licenses #117 and 118, becoming the first Black licensed architects in the United States.
As the 20th century progressed, the McKissack & McKissack firm grew, and in 1968 Moses III’s youngest son, William DeBerry McKissack, succeeded his uncle Calvin as president of the company. William led and furthered the construction business with a focus on innovative design and architecture until 1983, when a stroke forced him to retire. That same year, upon her husband’s retirement, William’s wife Leatrice was named CEO and from there she continued the business. Under her leadership, the company won major contracts for new buildings and renovation projects, including the design of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. In 1991 McKissack & McKissack opened their first office in New York City, and in 1993 their first office in Philadelphia.
In the year 2000, William and Leatrice’s daughter Cheryl, who earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in civil engineering from Howard University, was named CEO of the company. Today, one hundred years after her grandfather and uncle were issued their architectural licenses, Cheryl McKissack Daniel has both of these treasured original documents framed and hanging on the wall of her New York office.
As president and CEO, McKissack Daniel leads the firm with over 30 years of experience in all phases of the construction industry and project implementation. Many of the new high-profile projects that McKissack Daniel has led, and continues to lead, are at airports both inside and outside the New York metropolitan area – including Philadelphia International Airport, the Central Terminal Building at LaGuardia, and the Terminal One Redevelopment public-private partnership (P3) at JFK International.
The extraordinary link that McKissack & McKissack has to airport development and construction began in 1942 when the firm was awarded a $5.7 million contract to design and build the 99th Pursuit Squadron airbase in Tuskegee, Alabama, the training field for the famed Tuskegee airmen. This unprecedented contract was the largest federal contract awarded to an African American-owned company at the time.
LaGuardia Airport Central Terminal Building Replacement Project
When the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PANYNJ) embarked on the Public-Private Partnership (P3) to replace the Central Terminal Building (CTB) at LaGuardia Airport, it was one of the largest P3s ever undertaken in the New York-New Jersey region. As the former CTB was being removed, the P3 provided design, construction, financing, maintenance and operations of the new terminal in its place. Part of the consortium that invested in the redevelopment of the massive infrastructure project at LaGuardia was JLC Loop Capital Partners, a joint-venture between former Laker’s star, Earvin ‘’Magic’’ Johnson Enterprises (JLC Infrastructure) and Jim Reynolds, Jr. Chairman/CEO of the Chicago-based Loop Capital.
In 2017 McKissack & McKissack became a part of the LaGuardia Redevelopment Team and a major sub-consultant as construction managers. The firm also provided the compliant work and reporting on MWBE (Minority-Women Owned Business Enterprises) and workforce to the Port Authority, a significant undertaking, with a large, big data service provision. The Port Authority at the time had MWBE goals of about 17%, when Governor Andrew Cuomo was implementing a goal of 30%. Thus, with the changing of the goal, the airport initially thought they were operating under 17%, which was much smaller than the 30% requirement, and in the middle of the development, minority development partners were brought in at 5% to 6%. With the misunderstanding of the goal set for MWBE, the role of the McKissack company ended up being less than they had wanted it to be.
During a recent interview with Cheryl McKissack Daniel, she spoke of the completed LaGuardia Central Terminal B as ‘beautiful’, saying “The whole project took place while the airport never closed. If thinking about the traffic that goes through LaGuardia, it is amazing…restricted land, not a lot of space, the materials and equipment required for the construction…where does it go? Where do you lay down all this stuff and still have room to build a terminal? What it says to the world is that in New York, we can do just about anything! We work in small spaces. The bottom line is we get it done, especially when we have leadership that pushes through all the red tape to get it done. It’s unbelievable how New York gets any structure done, but we do it all the time.”
While the impact of the pandemic was undeniable in the delays of getting materials, the backlog of cargo delivery, pricing, working with Covid protocols and testing, the learning curve was steep, but McKissack learned to plan and manage those issues while getting through them, commenting “It’s part of doing business.”
Terminal One Redevelopment Public-Private Partnership at JFK International Airport
In 2021 the Port Authority of NY and NJ reached an agreement with the New Terminal One (NTO), a consortium of private financial sponsors to build a new state-of-the-art international terminal that will anchor the south side of JFK International Airport. The consortium of private financers includes Magic Johnson-JLC Infrastructure, Jim Reynolds, Jr. – Loop Capital, Ullico, and the Carlyle Group.
McKissack & McKissack was named as the program manager who will oversee the design and construction of the new Terminal One at JFK, valued at $9.5 billion. The company will provide MWBE and community outreach management services with MWBE and veteran goals clearly set from the onset of development at 30% participation. The project will include 2.4 million square feet of space to be built on the site of the existing Terminals 1, 2 and the former Terminal 3.
McKissack Daniel commented, “The government of New York is very serious about MWBE goals. With Magic Johnson and Jim Reynolds joint venture at the top of development of the JFK Redevelopment from the very beginning, they made it perfectly clear that through every phase and component of the project, that the minimum of 30% MWBE requirement be met and in lockstep with the PANYNJ.”
Additionally, “The impact to local businesses in Queens, MWBE and veteran’s services are going to have a long-term effect, building capacity for more MWBE firms,” McKissack Daniel continued.
Other services provided by McKissack & McKissack at airports were as the CM (Construction Management) for the expansion of Philadelphia Airport Terminal D/E; Project and CM and On Call Project and CM at Philadelphia International Airport; the Sub-Consultant for US Airways Commuter Terminal F and US Airways International Terminal in Philadelphia, and CM for the US Airways 165,000 square foot maintenance hangar, completed on a fast-track, 11-month schedule at Philadelphia International in 2001.
Playing a smaller role in the redevelopment of Newark Liberty International Airport, McKissack is currently pursuing a part in the revitalization of the AirTrain to Newark through the firm’s Transit Division.
On moving ahead into the future, Cheryl McKissack shared her thoughts on how to engage young people, and especially women in the trades and field of construction, architecture, and STEM education, “We have to let our young people know that we are a diverse community, and we are interested in every single one of them because I’m not sure that we’ve projected that to young people. I know that the events of George Floyd, the New York Building Congress, and now we have a diversity, equity, and inclusion task group, that we’re looking at how to engage every individual that could be interested in our field, because, yes, I think in the future we could have a problem. Even on the professional side it is very difficult to find people of color. We definitely see women, but people of color…it’s very hard. Now, women out in the field? That’s very difficult, very difficult.”
McKissack Daniel is glad to be on the board of non-traditional women for employment, where the whole focus is on training women in the construction trade. “The stories of these women are incredible,” she says, “they never felt that they could make the money that they are making in the construction field, and they have gotten a lot of support from the men out in the field.”
As far as young people in the field and the future of the firm, McKissack Daniel has been working to expand her brand by giving speeches, going to historically Black colleges, and just putting another face on design and construction, saying “I’m very much interested in creating entrepreneurship and Black ownership. That is why a couple of years ago we started Legacy Engineering to create Black ownership in mechanical and electrical plumbing and an HBHC design firm. And that firm is doing exactly what we wanted it to. We have several Black engineers, a Hispanic engineer, young Asian interns. We’re teaching them how to be owners, exposing them to business development and finance and everything that goes along with running a business, with the hope that in the future they can buy us out and take it over. It’s a great model that we hope that we can duplicate ten times over.”
Cheryl McKissack Daniel reflects upon her family legacy and on carrying the family baton in this age and time. “I definitely feel like their DNA is a part of it. There’s a lot of pressure with that when you think about what my ancestors have done. Moses, the first…. overcame slavery, Moses II and Moses McKissack, III dealt with Jim Crow laws in the deep South. They couldn’t drive at night, or even go into a restaurant or stay at a hotel.”
The long, strategic road that was planned since 1991, when McKissack & McKissack first opened their doors in New York City, was a challenging one. But being at the right place and time allowed McKissack Daniel to stay in focus with factors under the table. By taking advantage of Minority-Women-Business Enterprise programs and becoming sub-consultants with two or three of the best construction management companies in New York, McKissack’s clients eventually saw the outcome of their work and the company’s stellar business model. “We got to know our clients and learned the system because New York is the most complicated place in the world to build, from my perspective. We needed to know what we were doing, and we learned from the best, a great construction management company that was willing to teach, mentor and bring us along and are still strategic partners to this day. It was a simple strategy that took a long time. It’s been a very long road…of patience, endurance and perseverance,”
McKissack Daniel said, adding, “my mother coined it best when she said, it’s taken us 100 years to become an overnight success.’’
When McKissack Daniel thinks about advancing her firm in this day and time, she is grateful that she chose New York as the company’s homebase. She believes that opportunity in New York is the largest in the country with respect to construction, and that it has opened up other avenues for her family. One of those opened avenues is McKissack’s role as the developer and construction manager of the new ’Affirmation Tower’, to be located at 35th and 36th Streets, one block from the High Line, Hudson Yards and the #7 subway line. While the Tower’s RFP has been recently pulled back by the Governor to redefine what they want to see in the actual structure, McKissack is waiting for the RFP to come back out. “We believe it’s going to be built. If it’s not built for the State, it could be for the City… or it could just be private. So, we are pushing and forging ahead on making this project happen.”
On that note, Cheryl McKissack Daniel said, “To see that a slave’s (great-great) granddaughter can build a skyscraper, the first Black-owned skyscraper in New York City. I would feel like, okay, now, I’ve done what I needed to do for my period of time that I’m carrying the baton…and I could now sing my swan song.”
And it will truly be a soaring affirmation.