CKL Engineers paves path to success with help from Illinois Tollway Partnering for Growth Program
In 2009, after a decade of working as a civil engineer, Mae Whiteside Williams decided to bet on herself and launch her own engineering firm out of her home in Chicago’s Roseland Heights neighborhood.
“Some people will say ‘well, that’s ludicrous,’ but I just thought I could do it and believed in myself,” Whiteside Williams said, recalling how she started the business with $700 and a laptop computer.
Since then, CKL Engineers has grown into a successful small business with 28 full-time employees and two offices, providing construction management services for roadway, bridge and environmental projects across northern Illinois.
Whiteside Williams, who serves president and CEO of her firm, credits some of her success to her work with the Illinois Tollway—and particularly her participation in its innovative Partnering for Growth Program.
The program pairs smaller, diverse businesses with mentoring firms that have experience doing Tollway projects, helping them gain experience in following Tollway procedures and protocols while also learning new skills from the mentoring firm along the way.
“The Partnering for Growth Program is the one that actually got us into the Illinois Tollway and got us to where we are today,” Whiteside Williams said. “This has been a very fruitful, positive partnership for our firm.”
She initially began working for the Tollway in 2013 as part of a $1.2 million contract to help restore and improve the Pine Dunes Forest Preserve in Lake County, work the Tollway took on to mitigate land impacts related to its construction of the new Illinois Route 390 Tollway and the I-490 Tollway. The Tollway received the Social Responsibility Award for Recreational Trail Investments from the Illinois Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association (IBTTA) in 2020 for that work.
“That project was fantastic,” Whiteside Williams recalled. “We constructed trails, we put in timber bridges, we put in overlooks--things everyone would need as they were traversing the site.”
That project helped lead her into doing work on additional Tollway projects, which prompted her to join the agency’s Partnering for Growth Program as a way to continue developing her business by gaining expertise in other areas of construction and inspection services from the mentoring firms she assists.
After joining the program, her firm was selected as a subcontractor, or protégé firm, in 2017 to help conduct safety analyses on a proposed roadway project. Since then, her firm has participated in five other Tollway contracts through the Partnering for Growth Program, learning new skills from the mentoring firms in each of them, she said.
That broad range of work helped her decide to concentrate whenever possible on doing bridge inspections and construction.
“We gained a lot of important skills that enabled us to be positioned to do a lot of the bridge construction projects the Tollway has,” Whiteside Williams said. “I hadn’t done bridge construction or any reconstruction work until we got to the Tollway.”
That focus paid off when her firm last year completed work on a project that removed and reconstructed Deerpath Road Bridge over the Reagan Memorial Tollway (I-88).
With the experience gained from the Partnering for Growth Program, CKL Engineers in 2020 won a $4 million Tollway contract—its first as a prime contractor—to provide systemwide construction management services.
She likes the variety of the work—everything from constructing an access road to a new Tollway maintenance site to maintaining some of the overhead roadway signs.
“This is the best experience we’ve ever had as a firm,” Whiteside Williams said. “We want to build great infrastructure. The Illinois Tollway allowed us to do just that, build great infrastructure.”
Her firm took some of the skills it developed working on Tollway projects and used those abilities to win contracts for other transportation-related work, sometimes in surprisingly different venues, including at Midway Airport in Chicago.
After inspecting roadway pavements for the Tollway, Whiteside Williams said she uses now those skills at Midway Airport “to do pavement management inspections for runways.”
She recommends other small, diverse firms that are looking to grow and develop their expertise should consider the Partnering for Growth Program—and she’s eager to play a role in helping those businesses grow and thrive like hers.
“If you’re looking to get your start, seek out the Partnering for Growth Program. That’s where CKL found our space and now we’ve excelled in it,” Whiteside Williams said. “If you’re looking to do diverse projects, all types, whether it’s bridge, highways, the Tollway has it.”
And she added: “I’m hoping to be your next mentor.”