The first few years in the life of CORNELL, HOWLAND, HAYES & MERRYFIELD, A Partnership, were primarily “shakedown” years, years during which the team consisting initially of only the four founders, consolidated their resources, and quickly began the process of building a business that would support their families. They had dreams, of course, but they were cautious dreams, dreams that did not extend beyond a few years, and which saw the size and importance of their new firm attaining a substantial level. Business development was assisted by the fact that all partners were graduates of the only engineering school in Oregon (now Oregon State University). The first tentative steps started from the first day that Holly Cornell, newly released from his service obligations, returned to Corvallis, Oregon to pick up the threads of his interrupted plans. This, then, is how CH2M was born.
Holly arrived in Corvallis in 1945, and with Fred Merryfield started an Engineering Design Consulting business, headquartered in his home. From the outset, it was planned that James C.(“Jim”) Howland would be included in the operation as soon as he was released from his military obligation. In December 1945 the three partners decided to include Thomas B.(“Burke”) Hayes as a full partner.
Holly, Fred and Jim had talked and corresponded about forming a firm. Later while Jim and Burke were classmates at MIT, they talked about future possibilities. Burke and Fred were acquainted through family ties in Pendleton Oregon. These were the initial steps in the fulfillment of a plan that had been considered by all four of the partners for some time. It had been discussed at whatever opportunity had presented itself, and had been planned, designed, and massaged numerous times in the minds of each of them. This is where the creation of CH2M differed from most successful businesses–it did not just happen, it was planned from the very beginning as a joint venture of four idealistic, ambitious and energetic young men. It was a classic case of individuals who knew what they wanted, and this is the story of their efforts to make their dreams come true.
As soon as Holly got back to Corvallis he went to work at home and worked with Fred to get out projects that Fred had lined up. A two room office in the Smith Building was acquired shortly before Jim Howland arrived in January of 1946, and Burke Hayes shortly after. The Partnership name of CORNELL, HOWLAND, HAYES & MERRYFIELD was formally adopted. Thanks to Fred Merryfield’s extensive contacts, work was available in a fairly steady stream and the signs of future growth were in abundance. Numerous reservoir, waterline, sewer, electrical and solid waste projects were done in this first year.
The partnership became a legal entity in early January 1946. To it Howland brought hydraulics and soil mechanics expertise, Cornell brought structural and hydraulics knowledge, and Hayes contributed his electrical engineering talent. Merryfield offered the group mastery of planning for sanitary/hydraulic projects and his extensive connections throughout Oregon and along the West Coast.
During those early years, each of the partners did whatever was required in order to create a solid footing, financially as well as professionally, for the nascent organization. Initially, Holly Cornell handled the group’s finances, Burke Hayes the equipment and supplies and Jim Howland handled the staffing responsibilities. Later, in 1946, it was decided to have one managing partner, a position that was planned to be rotated between the partners every six months, as none of the partners really wanted to be the manager. Holly Cornell’s name came up first in the firm name of CORNELL, HOWLAND, HAYES AND MERRYFIELD, so he was selected as the first managing partner. Subsequently the position was handed over to Jim Howland, whose name was the second in the firm name. As it turned out, Jim served as the top executive year after year, both in the original partnership and later in the corporation, through 1974. Despite the structure of authority, all important decision-making was done by consensus amongst the partners. In 1975 Holly Cornell became president and CEO, and Jim Howland was elected to Chairman of the Board and Director of Regional Operations under Holly. An interesting note is that as Chairman, Jim ran the partnership and corporate meetings but did not have a vote. The reasoning here was that every person in the firm should have a boss.
In August, the operation was moved to larger quarters in the Rennie Building and the huge sum of $1,126 in time and materials was spent in renovating the 1,519 square feet of office space. Although work was fairly well available, money for luxurious office quarters was not, and the theme of creating adequate working conditions on a budget that demanded frugality was a lesson learned early and well.
Both Archie Rice and Ralph Roderick joined the firm in 1946, and over the years proved to be keys to the future success of CH2M. They were both strong sanitary engineers and were such an important and dynamic force that by the year 1948 they achieved partner status.
It was not long before the need for additional professional expertise in a number of disciplines quickly became evident. This need was met by bringing in to the operating leadership a number of proven and highly respected professionals. This “Executive Group” provided the much needed direction for the fast-growing company. Ownership of the company was divided equally amongst this group which became known as “CH3M2RALPHW”, using the first initial of each last name to create the acronym. Ownership of the actual partnership was now divided amongst 12 young, ambitious, dedicated, hard working Professional Engineers: Holly Cornell, Jim Howland, Burke Hayes, Fred Merryfield, Ralph Roderick, Archie Rice, Earl Reynolds, Bob Adams, Sid Lasswell, Bob Pailthorp, Fred Harem and Bill Watters. Over the following years this tiny group of leaders performed their magic in bringing CH2M to the forefront of the Consulting Engineer Industry
It seemed that there was no lack of engineering work in the Northwest area, and the group at CH2M worked industriously at obtaining a fair share of the available projects. The partners spent 90 percent of their time doing project work or obtaining it. Because of their training and experience, and Merrifield’s connections, they were able to offer innovating engineering techniques to city and county engineers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Studies led to design projects and successful, money-saving projects led to client referrals and as their reputation grew, the fledgling firm was being considered for increasingly larger contracts.
1948 was an extremely important year for the firm. Federal legislation, known as the Clean Water Act was passed. This act mandated improved wastewater treatment for municipalities located on interstate waters. (later all navigable streams and still later all waters) This helped provide a large and growing business opportunity that the firm was ready and poised to exploit. Also in 1948 CH2M designed its first major hydropower work, and by the end of the decade, the completed projects numbered 200, among them the first water treatment plant for the city of Forest Grove, Oregon.
During the same time period that the CH2M partners returned to Corvallis, OR and started their monumental journey into a bright future, a few hundred miles to the South, in Redding California, Clair A. Hill returned from 5 years of Army service. He immediately re-started his consulting engineering practice that had been interrupted by WWII. Jimmy Lonnberg, a Licensed Land Surveyor, who retained a small partnership interest, joined him. The Northern California area also proved to be fertile ground for engineering services, just as the CH2M partners had experienced in the Willamette Valley. As the Clair Hill organization gathered momentum in this healthy business environment, new staff was soon added. Professional Engineers Red Harris, Larry Daniels, and Lou Mieckle joined the staff in the 1948-1949 period with others joining the core group very soon thereafter. The Clair Hill organization which later merged with CH2M to form CH2M HILL, contributed heavily in subsequent years in professional expertise, outstanding staff members (including a future President of the combined firm, Harlan Moyer), and a work culture/ethic parallel to the one being developed by the founders of CH2M. The major difference between the two firms lay in management style. Whereas CH2M used a consensus style, Clair made the management decisions for his firm unilaterally. The tale of how the Hill organization grew is one that in many ways parallels the initial stages of the growth and development of CH2M and is an interesting and exciting tale by itself.