From the ground up
Ask Chris Nieto what he’s currently working on and he gets giddy. As one of the youngest principals in the recent history of the prestigious architecture and design firm of Shepley Bulfinch, he’s overseeing high-rise construction projects.
Last year, Chris was recognized by ENR Southwest as one of the magazine’s “20 Leaders under 40” and one of the Phoenix Business Journal’s “40 under 40.”
Despite his professional accomplishments, the 32-year-old Tucson native remains deeply grounded. He rejects the idea of being a self-made business man; instead, he credits two generations of the Nieto family for providing him with meaningful learning opportunities.
The Nietos are an entrepreneurial brood with deep roots in Arizona. Santiago Nieto, Chris’ grandfather, founded NiMo Mechanical in Tucson in the early 60’s. In the mid-80’s, James Frederick Nieto, Chris’ father, founded Qualified Mechanical Contractors in Tucson and in 1996, JFN Mechanical Contractors in Phoenix.
Growing up, Chris spent summers working alongside his dad, first as a laborer and eventually in a management position at JFN Mechanical. After a brief stint as an undergrad at the University of Arizona, he had a major revelation. As he refers to it, “Rebecca happened.” “She just rocked my world and I wanted to start working full time and take care of her.”
Managing his father’s contracting firm on a full-time basis, he commuted from Tucson to Phoenix every day until he relocated to Phoenix in 1998. The experience proved fruitful. “He taught me everything I know,” says Chris. “My father taught me to do things right, or not do them at all; he’s an incredible businessman.”
By all accounts, Chris was a good disciple. In 2004, with the support of his wife, Rebecca, he co-founded the award-winning architectural and design firm, Merzproject, with Joe Herzog. Although Nieto had no experience in architecture, he steadfastly believed in Herzog’s talent and vision. “He’s one of those talents you don’t see very often,” he says of his business partner. The architectural establishment agrees; many of Nieto and Herzog’s projects have earned the team numerous awards.
In 2009, Merzproject became the Phoenix studio of the Boston-headquartered firm of Shepley Bulfinch. For Nieto, this milestone would not have been possible without the support of mentors like Sandy Werthman, a veteran in the construction industry.
His secret to success? “I’ve been a part of great things because I’ve been a part of great teams.”