Some 12 years ago, the entrepreneurial spirit in engineer Art McKinney steered his now 30-year-old full service design firm away from big box, high technology manufacturing and into the sophisticated challenges of the life sciences where there are demands for bio-safety containment.

These facilities have four bio-safety levels (BSL). At level one, something in the room might make you sick, but contamination is not fatal. Infectious agents in a level four room can be considered lethal.

With these new challenges in mind, McKinney completed his first BSL-3 facility in 2003, a $62 million public health laboratory in Virginia. BSL-3 labs are used for working with tuberculosis, HIV and similar pathogens. In 2008, he added a BSL-4 lab to his firm’s experience. There are only a handful of these in the United States.

McKinney’s vision to move into the life sciences was based on the evolving global economy and a belief that the most challenging professional work would occur at the intersections of diverse disciplines. The combination of manufacturing and life science has been most fully realized in McKinney’s design and construction of a $40 million insect mass rearing facility in Panama.

McKinney has quickly become a leader in the somewhat strange world of sterile insect technique (SIT) for agricultural control. This success has lead to new work in Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti. “A part of what we are also trying to do is to help third world countries in their quest for safe facilities for work with TB, AIDs and other airborne infectious diseases,” McKinney, chairman and chief executive officer of McKinney and Company, said. “There is no box” for this type of work, he added.

McKinney’s tenacity in moving his award winning firm into complex, critical facilities and non-traditional services has helped to carry them through the current recessionary times.

Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering has selected McKinney as its Distinguished Alumnus for 2009 and he will receive his award at the college’s May graduation ceremony.

“I have never been able to envision failure, it just doesn’t occur to me,” he said. McKinney attributes this mindset to his father. His dad never finished high school as he had to go to work when his father died. “Dad rose to the position of chief chemist for a dairy products company, learned to fly, did aerial photography, trained pilots in World War II, and sang opera in amateur productions as a hobby,” McKinney recalled. He points with pride to his family’s 200-year old roots in Pennsylvania.

A 1966 graduate of Virginia Tech’s then architectural engineering program, now civil and environmental engineering, McKinney entered the program as a member of the leadership-oriented Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. According to one of his former professors Don Garst, McKinney “was the honor system for two years.” McKinney explained this tribute, saying that as a fourth-year cadet he was drafted onto the regimental staff as honor council chairman, and as a fifth-year civilian he served the civilian honor system. “I took these opportunities to serve very seriously,” he said.

He left the university with a “sense of self-worth” that remains with him today. “People look at the glass as half empty or as half full. As an engineer, I just think the glass might be the wrong size,” he smiled.

Attending a guest lecture shortly before graduation, McKinney walked up to the speaker, Bob Carlton, also an alumnus of the department, and secured his first professional job. Carlton owned J. Robert Carlton and Associates in Richmond and served as a mentor to McKinney for 11 years. “We did some gee-whiz engineering and built some cool stuff,” quipped McKinney from the perspective of 43 years in structural engineering. “I guess I’ve bent the model a bit on what structural engineers are supposed to do.”

McKinney’s first work involved Department of Defense projects like the Aircraft Integration and Test Hanger, Naval Air Station Norfolk, and “big box” logistics projects for Whirlpool, Sears, and similar companies. Carlton eventually developed, owned, and operated distribution centers, hotels, and other projects, giving McKinney valuable experience and an owner’s perspective. His first occasion to serve as lead engineer on a project was the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, the playing venue for the Indiana Pacers for 30 years.

With Carlton, McKinney also started to develop international experience, opening a quarry and rock crushing operation and ready mix concrete plants in Nicaragua and helping start a shrimping operation in Ghana.

Originally intended as a simplification, his professional life changed in 1979, when McKinney and a co-worker, Ben Walker, also a Virginia Tech graduate, decided to form their own partnership. They rented inexpensive second floor area over retail space in the historic district of Ashland, Va. The firm quickly grew into a full service operation, eventually purchasing and occupying three buildings in Ashland, opening an office in Williamsburg, Va., and in 2000, opening an office in the Panama. The firm currently offers land planning, landscape architecture, geotechnical engineering, civil and environmental engineering, architecture, structural, mechanical and electrical engineering, program, project and construction management services, and construction materials testing.

The work in the Nicaragua created the opportunity to develop a practical understanding of concrete technology and the logistics work provided extensive experience in industrial floors. McKinney currently serves on four technical committees and as a national instructor for the American Concrete Institute.

Recent projects of McKinney include the Enterprise Solutions Centers in Chesterfield and Russell Counties, these data centers support the on-going privatization of Virginia’s information technology services, and the Northern Campus of the Division of Forensic Science and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. McKinney is also continuing to support start-up of the sterile insect production facility in Panama.

The Panama plant raises, sterilizes, and disperses up to 120 million adult screwworm flies a week. This fly is an obligate parasite of mammals and has caused billions on dollars in livestock losses. Releasing sterile adults into feral populations in sufficient numbers breaks the reproductive cycle and causes those populations to collapse. The program in Panama is a joint venture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the government of Panama and serves to protect Central and North America from reintroduction of this extremely damaging parasite by providing a biologic barrier. This project garnered a Grand Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies of Virginia.

“Part of this is dumb luck, part of this is about being old and not having screwed anything up too badly-but mostly this is about being open to the world-curiosity about interesting things.”

Another example of those “interesting things” was the design of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Vehicle Research Center. Regularly seen on television, this engineering research facility allows car-to-car or car-to-barrier impact testing under controlled conditions in a flexible environment. One of the unique features is a movable 320,000 pound impact barrier supported on air pads.

With all of his achievements, McKinney says he still believes that at the end of the day what is truly important is “touching other people’s lives. It is how you help each other that counts.” He is a past president of Ashland Kiwanis with 30 years of service. He and his wife, Jerry -- currently chair the on-going capital campaign for the Patrick Henry YMCA -- volunteer positions they have assumed for the second time. “This is about programs; there is a critical need for affordable after school programs for kids, particularly when both parents are working. We need the physical space to accommodate these needs,” he explained.

The McKinneys also support the American Cancer Society, Make-a-Wish, the Richmond Forum, and Richmond Symphony concerts at Randolph Macon College. At Virginia Tech, they are members of Ut Prosim Society and the Committee of 100. He is a member of the College of Engineering Advisory Board, serving as chair 2007-08. He is a past member of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department’s Advisory Board and is an inductee into its Academy of Distinguished Alumni. He was also an instrumental member of the alumni task force that helped launch Virginia Tech’s highly successful Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

The McKinneys live in Beaverdam, Va.

Share this story