Woman-Owned Engineering Firm Finds Right Design for Success

By Stacey Wiedower

Entrepreneurship was never in Nisha Powers’ plans.

Armed with a degree in civil engineering, Powers moved to Memphis in 1997 and followed a traditional post-college path: She sought and landed a job at one of the state’s top firms in her field. But after eight years in one small office, she was ready to explore new territory.

“Because it was not the corporate office but a branch office, I learned a lot and probably progressed faster than if I’d been in an office with 200 people,” Powers said. “I got to be involved not just in engineering but in the business end of things. I really had the best of all worlds in that sense.”

So when a loyal client suggested she consider opening her own boutique firm, Powers was at first hesitant to leave her comfort zone.

Nisha Powers is president and Steve Hill is chief operating officer at Powers-Hill Design, LLC, which provides civil engineering, design and consulting services.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Since I’d been there eight years, it was home,” she said. “The idea of going somewhere else and making it home was very foreign.”

Her client, though, offered to give Powers not just her first project, but office space to jump-start her firm. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“The more I started doing research about it, I realized a lot of people were looking for that type of firm – that size, that sort of individual attention with the types of services we provide,” she said.

That’s how, in 2005, Powers-Hill Design LLC got its start. The company is unique in that it’s one of few woman-owned, small-shop engineering firms in the Memphis region. The company offers such services as site engineering, grading and drainage design, traffic design, road design and utility design for clients in the public and private sectors.

Soon after launching the firm, Powers linked up with Steve Hill, a former co-worker and now her minority partner and chief operating officer.

“I think the thing that attracted me to doing this was that I’d been in the big corporate world for about 18 years,” Hill said. “One of the things I’d learned working for a large corporation is it can be restrictive on decisions and processes. Also, I had become an administrator instead of engineer, and I wanted to get back to doing what I love, which is solving problems and engineering design.”

One of PHD’s first clients was the city of Arlington.

“That’s been exciting, because Arlington has grown in the last five years from 7,000 people to more than 10,000 people,” Powers said. “We’ve served as their city engineer during that growth period, which means infrastructure development has been pretty intense.”

The company also does a great deal of work for the City of Memphis. Right now, for instance, Powers-Hill is working on the Overton detention basin, which is being constructed beneath a planned parking garage in the Overton Square redevelopment project to mitigate flooding in the area.

“Flooding in that area has been problematic for a long time,” Powers said. “The types of projects I love to do are projects that truly impact the community. When it’s something the community is really crying out for, when we’re a part of helping to address those needs, that feels really good.”

Along those lines, the firm recently worked to gain public participation in another current project, road improvements along Elvis Presley Boulevard.

“We’ve just completed a six-month process with the Whitehaven community and public at large to get input to go toward design improvements along Elvis Presley Boulevard,” Powers said. “When you get to be involved in that public process and you’re the face of the process, you buy into it in such a way that you feel accountable.”

Among its other projects, Powers-Hill Design has a contract with the Tennessee Department of Transportation for consulting work, and the firm works with private sector clients, as well.

Located in Downtown’s Brinkley Plaza, the firm is as committed to its staff and to the Memphis community as it is to its service ethic. The company provides 100 percent individual health care coverage to its five employees, and Powers said it’s a point of pride that Powers-Hill has come through the economic challenges of recent years with its team and benefits offerings intact.

“We took a real beating last year; it was our toughest test,” she said. “Our health insurance went up 85 percent. We said, ‘OK, how are we going to deal with this? Reduce the quality of what we’re providing for employees? Our principals decided to take that hit and maintain the same standard. Those are things we’re proud of, that we weathered the storm and didn’t have to lay anybody off, lower salaries or reduce benefits in any way.”

Hill said from the start, his values and Powers’ have been an ideal match.

“We wanted to do good work, we wanted to be hands-on, we wanted to service the community and be involved, and neither of us seemed to be driven by getting rich,” he said. “We’re doing what we enjoy and we’re doing the right thing. That seems to be what satisfies us, and that’s the way it’s worked out.”

Along that line, the company encourages community involvement among its employees.

“We provide engineering as our service, but we think of our firm as a component of our community and a component of the economic engine,” Powers said.