At the Helm: Deryl McKissack

By Patricia Olsen

A few minutes with the CEO of McKissack & McKissack, Washington, D.C.

Generation of family ownership: Fifth.

Company revenues: Approximately $30 million.

Number of employees: 140.

First job at this company: Founder, president, president of the board of directors, CEO and chief bottle washer. I broke off from the original McKissack & McKissack and started my own company with the same name in 1990 with $1,000, an OK business plan, and my family’s history.

At what age? 31.

Most memorable thing I learned from my father: To continue to work hard and be good to people. He was against getting handouts and thought you should be able to get work on your own merit. My father and our earlier ancestors grew up in a different time. He got projects that included black colleges and work from larger contractors. We were also more segregated then.

However, you can’t always get work based on merit, no matter how good you are. Often, contracts are awarded to companies that have long-term relationships and connections with decision makers. If you are not “members of the club,” it’s harder to get the work. Many minority- and women-owned companies are not given the same consideration. People are hesitant to change. At McKissack, we’ve worked hard to overcome these obstacles to build a great portfolio of work. If your company doesn’t have quality projects under its belt, you won’t get chosen.

Most memorable thing I learned from my mother: If you can believe it you can achieve it — and, by the way, being a woman is a plus.

Best thing about this job: The people part, which is in line with my purpose in life: enhancing the lives of others while building a business.

Our greatest success: Winning major projects that are significant to the country, including managing the construction of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and designing an addition to the George H.W. Bush Library in College Station, Texas.

Best advice I ever got: Hire people for where I want to be, and not for where I am.

Quote from our company’s mission statement: McKissack & McKissack, through agility, innovation and ­collaboration, delivers unique solutions to our clients, positively impacting the built environment and our communities.

On my wall: A photo of my grandfather outside one of his buildings. It reminds me of his strength, what our family has been through, and the discrimination he faced in the early 1900s. If he can overcome that, then what I face today is not that bad.

One of our greatest accomplishments: Working on the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It represents the history of America, not just African-Americans. People love every aspect of it.

Best thing about working in a family business: Getting to spend quality time with your family and really knowing the person you’re working with.

Advice for other family business leaders: Be proud of your legacy and be true to those who came before you, but also be confident in your ability to make decisions without feeling burdened by what others might think.

Philanthropic causes our family supports: My family is big on supporting education, such as the Living Classrooms Foundation.

Book I think every family business leader should read: The Ideal Team Player, by Patrick Lencioni.

I realized I had emerged from the previous generation’s shadow when … I achieved the salary I was making five years after starting the company.

Future succession plans: I have a great staff. I’m not sure my daughter wants to be me; she’s a teenager.

Words I live by: I walk by faith and not by sight. 

Copyright 2019 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

Article categories: 
May/June 2019

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