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NC State professors and alumnus build global enterprise

Posted October 15, 2014

The following article was reproduced from NC State Engineering magazine, Fall/Winter 2014 issue, page 35.

Raleigh-based FDH, Inc., a global engineering and construction management company, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Its entrepreneurial roots lie in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering (CCEE) at NC State.

In the early 1990s, then-graduate student Dr. J. Darrin Holt and two professors of civil engineering, Dr. John Fisher and Dr. Robert Douglas, collaborated on a new technology to determine the length of in-place timber piles supporting transportation structures. That technology formed the basis of FDH, Inc., which was founded in 1994. Over the years, the company has honored its roots by giving back to the College and CCEE.

Fisher, now an emeritus professor, is a member of the FDH Board of Directors but has served as chairman of the board and president of the company. Fisher worked with Douglas in those early days to secure funding from the NC Department of Transportation (DOT). Holt, who holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in civil engineering from NC State, is chairman of the FDH Board of Directors and past president of the company. He worked on the project as Douglas’ graduate student.

Holt said, “At the time of the project, there were about 6,000 bridges supported by timber pilings in North Carolina alone, and thousands more across the country.”

He explained that, “knowing the length of in-place bridge piling is critical to evaluating both the scour susceptibility and capacity of these vitally important transportation structures. A non-destructive method for determining a pile’s length, without digging it up or taking it out of service, proved invaluable to DOTs in the US.”

It took two to three years to perfect the non-destructive technology in the laboratory and field, but eventually long hours of hard work resulted in a unique non-destructive testing methodology that used dispersive wave propagation, an area of stress wave mechanics.

“Once Bob Douglas and I published, we received a lot of phone calls wanting to know if we had really solved this problem and how it was done,” Holt said.

Recognizing a business opportunity, Fisher, Douglas and Holt started FDH as a non-destructive testing company.

Working out of his college apartment, Holt was the company’s only full-time employee, doing the marketing, fieldwork and reporting. Fisher, who had developed the business plan and provided part of the initial startup capital, handled the business end. Douglas, who has since passed away, served as Holt’s “springboard” for solving problems.

Twenty years later, the company has six offices in the United States, more than 65,000 projects completed in seven practice areas, three US patents and 285 employees.

“We evolved from a testing company in which we evaluated aging infrastructure to a true engineering and construction management company with the ultimate goal of being a program management company,” said Christopher Murphy, now president and CEO of FDH, and the next generation of NC State alumni assuming a leadership role at FDH.

Murphy, who received his master’s degree in civil engineering from NC State in 1999, joined FDH in 2000. Since that time, he has been instrumental in utilizing his expertise and background to grow the company into a professionally managed global entity that is highly regarded as the leader in each of its practice areas.

FDH has been supportive of CCEE, for example, funding the department’s annual alumni newsletter. The company also maintains ties to the department through participation on boards, research collaborations and recruitment.

The company recruits about 40 percent of its engineers from NC State. Fisher, Holt and Murphy all agree that recruitment is high because of the caliber of the students and the CCEE program and the proximity of FDH headquarters to the university.

“We know the type of education everyone is getting at NC State. It is not just open a book and follow the building codes,” Holt said. “It’s independent thinking. It’s innovation.”