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Kay puts Hammes Co. on aggressive growth plan

Rich Kirchen, The Milwaukee Business Journal

Apr 12, 2018

Chris Kay enjoyed his early-career experiences in architecture and building homes but his wife Paula’s extended exposure to the American health care system for a past illness led him to change direction.

“She received great treatment, but it was a very unpleasant experience in terms of the hospital facility,” Kay recalls. “Having an architectural background, I started to take notes. I decided on a life change and dedicated myself to health care.”

Kay launched a company in Houston in the early 2000s that was an owner’s representative for nonprofit health care systems on capital projects. He and his partners ultimately sold the company resulting in Kay, under the new owners, handling major assignments in the United States and as far away as Saudi Arabia.

When Jon Hammes of Hammes Co. contacted Kay about filling the Brookfield health care developer’s president and chief operating officer position, Kay was based in Houston. There Kay led the health care division of global engineering and construction firm Jacobs Engineering Group.

Kay said he initially wasn’t interested, but came around to the idea that the Hammes post fit his life’s work of creating people-friendly health care facilities.

Jon Hammes, in turn, is thrilled he recruited someone with Kay’s leadership skills and experiences to replace Richard Galling, who retired. In less than two years, Kay has nudged Hammes Co. in the direction of seeking larger projects including safety-net hospitals.

Due in part to those projects, Hammes Co. recorded 20 percent revenue growth in each of the past two years. The company completed health care facility real estate projects valued at $2.3 billion in 2017.

“He’s pushed us into — or exposed us to — some areas that we may not have fully committed our resources to,” Hammes said.

Hammes founded his company in 1991 after serving as an executive at Trammel Crow Co. in the Midwest. Hammes remains CEO and chairman and Kay emphasizes that Hammes sets the vision and strategic direction.

Kay and Hammes sit at adjacent desks in the company’s open-format offices in Brookfield Lakes Corporate Center. The company will move to downtown Milwaukee by year-end to a new $30 million headquarters.

As Hammes Co. prepares for the transition to its new offices, Kay is “pushing the envelope” on new service lines and project types, Hammes said.

“His metabolism runs at two to three times most people,” Hammes said. “He’s always thinking about how to maximize or add to our current network of clients.”

It’s not like Hammes Co. has a shallow network of clients. The company consistently ranks as the Modern Healthcare’s largest health care developer among design/build companies.

But some recent projects demonstrate the depth and breadth of the public sector health care industry and academic medical centers:

• MetroHealth public health care system in Cleveland — $1 billion project that includes a new hospital tower;

• University of South Florida Health Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute in Tampa, Fla. — $156 milliion, 13-story project;

• Mohawk Valley Health System in Utica, N.Y. — $480 million replacement hospital; and 

• Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children — north campus in Frisco, Texas.

Kay likes the fact that the Tampa project fulfills Hammes Co.’s “buildings for life” mantra.

The project will create an interdisciplinary health science and education building. Uses will include retail, residential, grocery, academics and clinical.

The Cleveland project will create 26 acres of green space and a park environment for the surrounding community downtown.

Kay said he is passionate about safety-net hospitals and pleased that Hammes Co. is pursuing such projects. His role at Hammes Co. allows him to make a difference in the way health care is delivered in the United States, he said.

“I believe that safety-net hospitals are very important to the overall health care system,” he said. “They keep things in check and provide truly a safety net for the folks who don’t have insurance.”

Kay established what he calls an aggressive five-year plan for Hammes Co. to continue its recent growth. The company is seeking projects that set next-generation goals of integrating health care delivery with academics, science and technology.

Kay calls joining Hammes Co. one of the best decisions in his 30-year career.

“If I can look back and say I was part of that group that helped bring about meaningful change to how health care and life science facilities are built, I am okay with that,” he said.

Still, for a man who commuted between Houston and Bahrain in recent years for Jacobs, relocating to Milwaukee represented a huge change. Kay misses Houston, where he lived since early childhood, and where he owns a home occupied by some of his young-adult sons.

Kay does enjoy Milwaukee and the people he’s met. He looks forward to the office relocation downtown and plans to become more involved with Milwaukee’s cultural assets and nonprofits.

“Everyone has been so friendly and open towards me,” Kay said. “Folks in Milwaukee remind me a lot of Texans. They are generous and down to earth, hardworking and enjoy the outdoors.”


  • Title: President and chief operating officer
  • Company: Hammes Co.
  • Education: Bachelor’s of architecture from University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College Of Architecture and bachelor’s of art history from Canterbury College in the United Kingdom
  • Family: Wife Paula, a photographer; four young adult and adult sons
  • Birthplace: Greece
  • Residence: Downtown Milwaukee
  • Age: 56
  • Proudest career achievement: “Participating in planning and capital development of some of the largest, most technologically complex health care and science research projects anywhere in the world.”
  • Career goal yet to be attained: “I came to Hammes Company to innovate and be part of a movement to help solve the health care delivery problem in this country. The buildings we design and build do matter.”
  • Career mentor: His father Nick, who “taught me that working hard is important but giving back is equally if not more important.”
  • Favorite movie: “Sleepless in Seattle”
  • Favorite TV show: “Top Chef”
  • Favorite sports to watch: University of Houston football and New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team
  • Favorite business book: “Jack: Straight From the Gut” by Jack Welch
  • Favorite fiction book: “The Son” by Philipp Meyer
  • Favorite activities outside work: Include hunting quail with his four sons in Texas

From the Milwaukee Business Journal: