Leo A. Daly III

Leo A. Daly III stands before some of the Omaha buildings designed by his family’s company. The chairman and CEO says that his grandfather, the original Leo A. Daly, had “this master architect kind of philosophy. He devoted time and attention to one project at a time, high-quality craftsmanship, one project, one budget.”

Leo Anthony Daly III beamed as he stood on the downtown Omaha mall that his father championed, wearing his grandfather’s Cartier pocket watch and gold chain, the skyline behind him etched by the roofs of the buildings his family’s business designed.

Still a resident of Omaha — as much as anywhere, the well-traveled executive said — Daly also is at home in two dozen other U.S. cities, capitals of the Middle East, frenetically growing urban China and the seat of government and military power in Washington, D.C.

Yet Omaha is and, he said, will remain the headquarters city for the Leo A Daly Co. It has put its stamp on the city with a long list of public and private architectural projects since it began in 1915.

That’s when the original Leo A. Daly left his drafting table at the John Latenser & Sons’ architecture office to open his own practice.

This year marks the centennial of the company led, in turn, by Leo A. Daly Jr. and Leo A. Daly III, an unbroken line of family ownership and growth into one of the leading architecture and engineering companies in the United States.

It’s not the biggest — Daly Co.’s $140 million in annual revenue ranks 14th among U.S. architecture-engineering firms, according to Building Design Construction magazine. Omaha’s HDR is No. 5 on that list.

But the Daly firm has worked in 89 countries and maintains offices in 26 cities in the U.S. and six internationally, coordinated by its corporate office at 8600 Indian Hills Drive.

“We helped create the city with the clients we served,” said Jay Brader, chief financial officer and the only Omaha resident among Chairman and Chief Executive Leo A. Daly III’s top five lieutenants.

The company now has about 800 architects, engineers and other professionals in its 32 offices, growing from a staff of 50 when Leo A. Daly died in 1952 at the age of 62. Omaha is the company’s largest office, with 160 people, 135 of them professionals.

Scott Killinger, interim dean of architecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the company’s expertise in all facets of design and engineering “puts them on the level with other large firms nationwide that do significant projects in this country and abroad.

“Their stature in the architectural world is at the very top. They have been a stalwart in the architecture community for years and years.”

He said the Daly-Daly-Daly line of ownership succession is unusual in an industry in which companies more often merge or are acquired by others as they grow. “It’s worked very well there.”

In an interview, Daly III said, “When you think about it, it’s kind of natural growth. It developed organically.”

Omaha will remain the company’s headquarters, regardless of where its next CEO and its next owner or owners reside, he said.

“Everything’s here,” Daly, 73, said last week as he finished a round of Omaha meetings with top Daly executives and office chiefs from around the country and the world.

Omaha is the home of its finance, personnel, information technology and marketing departments and its health care practice. Omaha staff members also work on hospitality, aviation and corporate office projects. Some corporate officers are based in Dallas, Washington, D.C., and in some other locations.

“This is home,” said Christopher Johnson, managing principal for the Omaha office, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “We’ve got a lot of history here.”

Almost all of the office leaders started with the firm in Omaha. Five acquisitions over the years added important staffers as well, and the company hires foreign nationals to gain their talents and connections.

The global network started with the first Leo A. Daly’s designs of homes, schools, churches and single buildings. Early in his career, he became friends with Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan, setting a pattern of projects won in part through close relationships with decision-makers.

That pattern flourished under Daly Jr., one of Omaha’s prime movers and shakers for more than 30 years. Daly III has shepherded the company into the 21st century with a new phase of growth.

Grandfather Daly was strict and seemed humorless but loved breeding Great Danes and horses on his property near 102nd and Blondo Streets. 
“It was a big deal to go out to his country house,” Daly III said. “He had a swimming pool that was connected to an underground water source. It was very cold. We all jumped in and jumped out as quick as we could.”

Daly Sr.’s widow, Madeline, donated the property for a church that took an appropriate name: St. Leo Catholic Church — officially named after a pope, not an architect.

Daly III said architecture was a different sort of business when his grandfather started out. “He had this master architect kind of philosophy. He devoted time and attention to one project at a time, high-quality craftsmanship, one project, one budget. It was very focused.

“He developed this reputation for first-class work, and then out of that came expansion into commercial and institutional projects.”

In the 1930s, he took the pioneering step of adding engineers to the company, even though architects of the day were schooled to work independently from other professionals.

“This was unheard of,” Daly III said. “We developed this diverse team of architects with engineers,” leading to a groundbreaking philosophy of start-to-finish work for clients.

In the late 1940s, Daly Jr. took over the firm’s leadership, building on relationships that his father had forged and adding an international flavor.

He played host to Omaha’s leaders in his James Bond-style office — leather chairs, exotic artwork, hidden buttons for electronics — at the company’s headquarters, which opened in 1959 on former golf course property west of 84th Street and south of Dodge Street. (The office/apartment is Daly III’s Omaha home.)

In those private meetings, Daly and other city fathers hatched such ideas as a mall to enliven Omaha’s moribund downtown. The late Mayor Gene Leahy, a close friend, adopted the plan, and the mall eventually was named for him.

Daly Jr.’s contacts included President John F. Kennedy, who asked the company to work with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Brazil, Pakistan and India. (Presidents Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter invited the Dalys to the White House.)

The USAID projects “really exposed us to these new cultures and new traditions,” Daly III said, opening markets that Daly architects and engineers relished.

Daly Jr. and his wife, Rosemary, traveled extensively. On one trip to Paris, Rosemary (who died earlier this year at age 96) took her son along when she selected crystal chandeliers for the headquarters of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. The international work fit the Daly strategy.

“We had a certain spirit,” Daly III said. “Maybe it’s something about Omaha people being more curious about the world than other people. I run into Omaha natives all over the world when I travel.”

Daly Jr. married Rosemary Gaughan, the sister of Jackie Gaughan, a Las Vegas casino magnate originally from Omaha. The marriage brought the company a spate of design contracts in Vegas, including pianist Liberace’s wildly styled museum.

Grandfather Daly didn’t favor government work, but his son began capturing Cold War military construction that included underground ballistic missile silos, Arctic radar installations, the Strategic Air Command’s underground command post at Offutt Air Force Base and, during the Vietnam War, bridges and military bases in that country.

“They built everything,” Daly III said. “[Defense] Secretary [Robert] McNamara personally signed us to do that Vietnam project. That helped us become familiar with a place called Hong Kong and mainland China and lots of other places where we did find work in those early days.”

International work carries uncertainties. For example, Daly closed offices in Iran when the revolution deposed the Shah in 1979 and in Libya after Moammar Gadhafi became identified with terrorism.

But other international work has proved stable. Decades ago, Daly Jr. developed relationships with the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, and the firm is still working there and in other Middle Eastern countries.

One day in 1981 he left his Omaha office after work as usual, stopped to talk with the Catholic archbishop, went home and died of a heart attack, at age 64.

Leo III was in the Middle East when he got the call. King Hussein of Jordan, a client and friend, arranged a jet to London, where he caught the supersonic Concorde airliner, making it to his father’s desk in Omaha the next day.

He had been working at the company since he delivered coffee and ran errands at 11. “I graduated later on into erasing lines off linen drawings and helping re-draw them.” He had joined the firm as a professional after earning an architecture degree from Catholic University of America in 1967, as did his father in 1939.

Today the company has its first non-Daly president: Dennis Petersen, who joined the company in 1991 when Daly Co. acquired the Houston engineering firm Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc.

“It takes time to settle a new firm down, to reshape it to fit into our own company,” Daly III said. “Dennis was very helpful in that. He’s evolved into a tremendous leader. It was a natural progression that he should be named president.”

Petersen, who has industrial engineering and business degrees from the University of Houston, joined LAN in 1980 and became its president in 1997, six years after the firm was acquired by Daly Co.

In an interview, he said Omaha will be the Daly headquarters, no matter what.

“It doesn’t make sense to change it. There’s no need to,” he said. “All of our work is in ones and zeroes, so it’s very transferable across anywhere.

“We can be local anywhere in the world and use the resources that we have across the country to bear on whatever the situation is.”

Other architecture and engineering firms have similar multi-office organizations, he said. “It’s not unusual in our business at all.”

Petersen said Daly’s acquisition of Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, now 80 years old itself, retained the valuable LAN engineering brand and strengthened both firms’ expertise and geographic reach. “It was really a great opportunity for both firms.”

Along with the headquarters functions, Daly’s Omaha-area design and engineering work continues, including The Cloisters on the Platte, a Jesuit-inspired spiritual retreat center overlooking the Platte River southwest of Omaha being built by Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade of Omaha.

Ricketts wanted the Cloisters’ central chapel to have the “elegance and beauty” of Omaha’s St. Margaret Mary Church.

“So when I learned that Leo Daly had designed St. Margaret Mary and still had the original plans,” he said, “I met with the firm and loved their ideas about how to incorporate elements from St. Margaret Mary with new designs that made sense for The Cloisters on the Platte.”

He praised the Daly team’s “passion, imagination and vision.”

For the $25 million headquarters for SAC Federal Credit Union in Papillion, Chief Executive Gail DeBoer needed an experienced architect because it was the credit union’s first custom-built headquarters.

“I knew we had one shot at this,” DeBoer said. “You want to pick somebody that you really trust, if you’re going into something that large without a whole lot of experience.”

A credit union executive knew someone from Daly, and the firm had worked on the credit union’s branches on Maple Street and Ames Avenue in Omaha.

Lloyd Meyer, then head of the Omaha office, drove DeBoer around the Omaha area to see potential sites, focusing on Sarpy County. Daly’s people helped negotiate the land purchase and determine the building’s size and worked with the contractor, finishing ahead of schedule and under budget.

Clark Lauritzen, executive vice president of First National Bank and son of the bank’s majority owner and chairman, Bruce Lauritzen, said Daly did a “fantastic” job designing the First National Tower and seeing the project through to its opening 13 years ago.

“We have a long relationship with them,” Lauritzen said. “We’re a customer of theirs, and they’re a customer of ours.”

The tower brought together staffers who were working in five other downtown buildings.

“It became a pillar of the skyline and a symbol for the city,” Lauritzen said. “We wanted something that would be clearly modern but also would stand the test of time, and years from now would be seen as a classic design. They really accomplished that.”

Other domestic Daly projects include designing the National Ecological Observatory Network, a 60-location system that will gather climate, geological and biological data for the National Science Foundation.

The firm aims to keep professionals stimulated with a varied base of projects so that they aren’t doing the same things over and over, Daly said.

“We place a lot of importance on their professional development,” he said. An internal mentoring program helps develop leaders and connects younger and older professionals.

“We know how important it is to recruit and keep the best talent we can,” he said. “The clients know that. It makes for a very happy working environment.”

To keep its multiple offices and clients connected, Daly relies heavily on teleconferencing. But this past week Daly Co. leaders from around the world met in Omaha, as they do two or three times a year. A reception Thursday evening was partly a low-key celebration of the company’s 100 years, also marked by the publication of an internal photo book on the company’s projects.

At the reception, Daly took the microphone to start a program of testimonials from present and former clients. “I’m Leo A. Daly, and I’m 100 years old,” he said, getting a big laugh from the 300 people attending. “I’m loving every minute of it.”

Daly keeps his hand in the company’s projects and said he aims at having relationships with all the professionals in the company, as well as its clients.

“There still is a place for personal relationships between leaders of companies,” he said. “They’re trusting that we are loyal to them.”

One day Hong Kong industrialist Li Ka-shing, China’s richest man, called Daly and said, “Mr. Daly, I have this piece of land. I want to build a new headquarters for my holding company. I want you to be my architect.”

“I said yes,” Daly said. “If I had hesitated, it might not have happened. As it turned out, it was one of the most important buildings in Hong Kong.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1080, steve.jordon@owh.com, twitter.com/buffettOWH

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.