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VOL. 127 | NO. 123 | Monday, June 25, 2012

Fire Still Burning Strong For A2H Founder Askew

By DAVID ROYER

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Mark Askew’s engineering career began with a long, strange trip from Memphis in 1969.

ASKEW

But it’s the years of work he did after returning home that are paying off with high honors from his industry peers this year.

“My father used to say that everyone gets 15 minutes of being in the limelight,” said Askew, the founder of Askew Hargraves Harcourt & Associates (A2H). “I guess this was just my year.”

Askew, 63, has been the recipient of two major awards in 2012: Outstanding Alumnus by the Herff College of Engineering at the University of Memphis, where he serves on the college’s advisory council, and Outstanding Engineer of the Year by the 170-member Tennessee Society of Professional Engineers-Memphis chapter.

“The U of M award was by far the most humbling award I have ever received because of my longtime association with the engineering school,” he said. “The TSPE Engineer of the Year award was equally unexpected and it is quite an honor to be noticed by your peers with such an award. I think my parents would be proud and wish they could have been there.”

Raised in Midtown, Askew attended Central High School and grew up stocking and delivering light fixtures for his father’s company, Lee’s Inc., in what later became Overton Square. He began college at the U of M majoring in pre-med and later mechanical engineering.

But he took a fortuitous break from school in 1969, when he traveled to Australia to meet his brother Lee, who had been released from the Navy in Sydney.

Askew stayed for two years in Australia, where he found a low-level job at a dam construction site in the Outback, learned soil testing from an Australian college student, and discovered his passion for structural engineering.

“I said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to build things like this. I want to design things like this,’” he said. “That was a fire inside of me that lasted until I got my degree, and still to this day.”

He spent more time backpacking his way back to the U of M via Burma, India and Europe. After paying his way through a second college stint and graduating in 1976, he settled with his wife in Hawaii, where he found work at an engineering firm on just his third day on the island.

A trip home for Christmas in 1978 turned into a permanent stay and, after spending time with two firms in Little Rock and Memphis, he opened Mark Askew Consulting on Jan. 1, 1986, with “me, a drafting board, a coffee pot and a phone,” he said. “And a couple of maybe-clients.”

By that time, his brother Lee had founded Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects in Memphis and was assisting Mark as a mentor and sometimes business partner. Over the years, the brothers have tried to steer clear of competition over clients, Mark Askew said.

Askew scored a major early client in 1987, when FedEx hired his firm to design the Memphis International East Ramp Module, the shipping giant’s first international sorting facility.

The building remains the largest steel structure in Memphis, Askew said, and opened the doors to an ongoing professional relationship with FedEx. More recently, the firm worked with a California consultant to design Midtown’s popular new skate park.

The core of A2H’s business lies in the structures people often take for granted: roads, runways, bridges, water lines, sewer plants, surveying, lights and landscaping. Five years ago, A2H added architectural services, designing institutional buildings such as schools and churches.

The firm has also designed streetscape improvements and parks for several smaller cities in West Tennessee. That diversity is the key to the firm’s current success, Askew said.

Today, A2H employs 75 people in a 16,000-square-foot Francis Mah-designed headquarters surrounded by Stonebridge golf course in Lakeland, and in offices in Nashville, Jackson, Tenn., and Hernando.

While other firms have faced layoffs, A2H has hired 15 people since October, Askew said. The firm hopes to expand its main office by 3,500 square feet and currently is opening another office in Oxford, Miss.

A2H’s growth during an economic slowdown is what made Askew stand out among industry peers and cemented his award from the TSPE, said J.T. Malasri, past president of the Memphis chapter.

“I’ve seen his firm really grow and take off, even with a rough economy,” Malasri said. “That’s really a testament to his leadership and vision.”

Askew’s mentor attitude toward the next generation of engineers, both advising Herff College of Engineering and hiring U of M alums, helped him score the University of Memphis honor, said Herff College director of development Susan Armacost.

It’s also engendered loyalty among some longtime employees.

“Every step of my career, he’s played a significant role in my progression in our company,” said Logan Meeks, partner and vice president with A2H, who came to the firm 15 years ago as an intern. “His outreach extends beyond our walls.”

Askew, who lives in Eads, said his firm’s mission is to enhance the quality of life for clients and employees. At A2H, he’s cultivated an office culture that values employees and reaches out to the community, often staging art shows and concerts in his Lakeland office, treating employees to massages and indulging their creative side with exhibitions by his own engineers.

Some of his ideas, he said, are influenced by his children – a Memphis-based singer, an actress in New York and a biomedical researcher in California.

“You don’t think of engineers as being creative, but they’re incredibly good at solving problems,” Askew said. “To me that’s incredibly creative. That’s a formula for a very, very fun place to work.”

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