HOK Group, Inc. - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on HOK Group, Inc.

211 North Broadway, Suite 600
St. Louis, Missouri 63102

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History of HOK Group, Inc.

HOK Group, Inc. is one of the largest architectural and engineering firms in the United States, employing 1,600 professionals in offices located in North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. HOK's designs are visible in a number of different building types, ranging from airports and government buildings to sports complexes and transportation facilities. The firm provides design, engineering, interior design, program management, and planning services. HOK operates 12 offices in the United States, two offices in Canada, two offices in Europe, two offices in the Asia-Pacific region, and an office in Mexico City. Among the firm's most well known projects are Washington, D.C.'s National Air and Space Museum, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California.


HOK's longest-serving leader and its chief designer was cofounder Gyo Obata, a first-generation American whose career spanned more than a half-century. Obata was 18 years old in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, an act that provoked the United States' entry into World War II and ignited fear and suspicion toward Japanese nationals living in the United States and toward Americans of Japanese descent. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Obata was studying architecture at California-Berkeley, where his father taught painting and enjoyed a distinguished reputation as an art professor. By the spring of 1942, an ugly chapter in U.S. history had begun. Internment camps were being opened, and the Obatas found themselves pulled by the tide of paranoia. The night before Obata's family was to be moved to a camp, his father sent him to St. Louis. In the thinking of the day, Japanese-Americans were perceived to pose less of a threat if they lived far inland, a mindset that enabled Obata to continue his studies in St. Louis. Obata studied under the renowned designer Eero Saarinen at Washington University, where he earned his master's degree in architecture. In 1945, Obata was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to the Aleutian Islands.

After the war, Obata moved to Chicago and began his professional career as an architect. He was hired by a firm named Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where he met Minoru Yamasaki, who would later design New York City's World Trade Center. Yamasaki became Obata's mentor and asked him to join his own firm. At Yamasaki's firm, Obata was introduced to George Hellmuth, one of the firm's partners. Obata and Hellmuth, striking a partnership that would last for decades, worked together in the early 1950s in St. Louis, where they collaborated on designing Lambert International Airport.

Hellmuth and Obata worked for Yamasaki's firm until the influential designer's health failed. The firm began to flounder without its leader, prompting Obata to start his own firm in St. Louis. He invited Hellmuth and a colleague named George Kassabaum to join him in his fledgling venture. The three principals opened their office in 1955, marking the founding date of Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, or HOK.

Designing Its First Buildings: 1950s-70s

The new design firm started with 26 employees and the complementary talents of its three founders. The partners were well matched, each assuming a distinct role in the firm's operation. Kassabaum directed his energies toward project management. Obata focused on design. Hellmuth became the marketing expert, taking responsibility for HOK's most pressing need during its inaugural year. In search of the firm's first clients, Hellmuth drove his car throughout rural Missouri and Illinois visiting school boards, the first type of client targeting by the design firm. At times, Hellmuth was forced to sell bags of charcoal from his farm to pay for gas--an indication of the modest means of HOK at its inception--but his junkets paid off. Hellmuth brought in $750,000 worth of business during his first year on the road. In 1955, the first HOK-designed building was erected, a public school in a St. Louis suburb.

HOK spent its first few years in business designing school buildings, establishing itself in the St. Louis market. The firm's turning point occurred during the early 1960s, when HOK first showed signs of becoming a designer of major projects. In 1961, the firm won its first major university commission, the Edwardsville campus of the University of Southern Illinois. The Edwardsville project set the company up for its next job, a defining point in the development of HOK and a seminal moment in Obata's career as a designer. In 1962, when HOK's net fees eclipsed $1 million for the first time, Obata designed a new chapel for Benedictine monks in St. Louis. The Priory Chapel, featuring parabolic arches, drew national recognition to Obata, whose design work earned the esteem of his colleagues and put the HOK name in the minds of prospective clients.

In the wake of the Priory Chapel project, HOK began to display its talents in a variety of directions, completing projects that carved a niche for the firm in several different design categories. The company also began to expand physically for the first time, making the 1960s a decade of significant importance for the blossoming firm. In 1964, HOK designed its first corporate building of national prominence, creating the IBM Labs in Los Gatos, California. During the year, the firm also designed the U.S. penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, the facility that replaced Alcatraz in the federal prison system. During the second half of the decade, the firm began opening satellite offices, situating itself near customers in high-growth markets. In 1966, HOK opened an office in San Francisco. In 1968, the firm opened an office in Washington, D.C. The following year, HOK opened an office in Dallas, Texas. HOK ended the decade by securing its first shopping mall projects. The firm designed Neiman Marcus in Houston in 1969, which led to the firm's design work on the Houston Galleria.

By the 1970s, HOK was on its way toward becoming the largest architectural and engineering firm in the United States. Mergers, landmark design projects, and leadership changes highlighted the decade's activities. In 1972, HOK designed the Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport. The following year, the firm merged with Kahn-Jacobs, which enabled HOK to open an office in New York City. HOK made business history two years later when it was awarded the largest single design project in the world at the time. In 1975, when the firm merged with Mills-Petticord and expanded its Washington, D.C., office, it won the bid for the $3.5 billion campus for King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. The massive project helped the firm exceed $15 million in net fees the following year, when it landed a prized contract that would put its work on display for millions of visitors. HOK, with Obata still functioning as the firm's lead designer, designed the National Air and Space Museum, destined to become the most popular of the Smithsonian institutions. In 1979, the year HOK designed the Cecil H. Green Library for Stanford University, Hellmuth retired. The departure of the firm's marketing expert prompted HOK to restructure its operations, giving it a new managerial organization for the 1980s.

Sports Facilities and International Expansion Fueling Growth in the Late 20th Century

One of the most prominent executives of the post-Hellmuth era was Jerry Sincoff, the future leader of HOK. Sincoff joined HOK in 1962 as a design and production architect and was named a principal of the firm in 1973. He played an instrumental part in the creation of one of HOK's most lucrative new business areas in the 1980s. He recruited several influential architects for a new HOK group originally named Sports Facilities Group but better known as HOK Sport + Venue + Event. The sports group was formed in 1983 with a staff of eight people, its creation occurring at roughly the same time the demand for new stadiums and arenas was exploding. Sincoff also spearheaded the firm's expansion overseas, which began in 1984 when HOK opened an office in Hong Kong. "He (Sincoff) is not only big on expanding internationally," a HOK executive explained in a December 2, 1991 interview with the St. Louis Business Journal, "he causes it to happen."

By the mid-1980s, HOK ranked as one of the largest architectural and engineering firms in the United States. The firm's design work on the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco in 1981 and its design of the King Khaled International Airport in 1984 helped the firm eclipse $75 million in billings midway through the decade. Domestic expansion during the decade included the opening of an office in Kansas City and Los Angeles in 1983 and in Tampa in 1984. The first foray overseas with the Hong Kong office was followed by the opening of an office in London in 1988.

The 1980s were years of growth and change. George Kassabaum, HOK's project management guru, died in 1982, leaving Obata as the only founder still in control of the firm. As the 1990s began, Obata's influence over the company remained unchecked, but Sincoff took on an increasingly powerful role in the management of the firm. In 1990, he was named president of the firm, giving him the ability to express his penchant for international expansion. By the time Sincoff was named president, HOK had designed buildings in Indonesia, Singapore, Mexico, Malaysia, and elsewhere. New foreign office openings during the 1990s promised to increase HOK's international activities. In 1991, the firm opened an office in Tokyo, which was followed by the establishment of a series of satellite locations across the globe. In 1992, the firm opened an office in Berlin. The following year, it opened an office in Mexico City.


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