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Engineering grad builds a city in Saudi Arabia

February 27, 2019

If Mike Chihoski, ‘96, M.S. ‘08, could go back in time and tell his student-self what the future had in store, past-Mike would never believe him.

Chihoski, a double graduate of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, has traveled a long way since graduation day — as in all over the world. He has had speaking engagements in such exotic locations as Lebanon, Thailand, Egypt and the Philippines. He spent two years living in Saudi Arabia while leading the development of the world’s largest real estate project — King Abdullah Economic City.

“Not even the grad student version of me would have seen the international work,” Chihoski said. “Big projects didn’t scare me. But I never would have fathomed working on the international level.”


In Chihoski’s early career, he worked with health care clients of a national engineering firm. Over the course of a decade, he worked with more than 300 hospitals nationwide. He got married, settled down in Chicago and began pursuing his master’s degree in industrial management at NIU’s Naperville campus.

“When my wife was about seven months pregnant with our first child, I realized spending 200 days a year on the road was not going to be a good idea anymore, so I decided to work for hospitals full time,” Chihoski said.

He interviewed with the OSF health care system in Peoria and was blown away by its president, Sister Judith Ann Duvall, a 1972 graduate of the NIU nursing program and winner of the 2006 Outstanding Alumni Award. She persuaded him to take a job as a senior vice president, managing corporate engineering and real estate for about 200 properties in Illinois and Michigan.

“I was happy and I wasn’t looking to do anything more,” Chihoski said. “I had always been responsible for real estate on the development side, but now I was responsible for managing assets too, so I thought it would be good to learn more about that.”

Chihoski enrolled in the real estate program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design to learn more about managing real estate assets. While there, he met Fahad Al-Rasheed, CEO of Emaar, The Economic City — a mammoth Saudi real estate developer that at the time was planning to build the world’s first privately developed city on the coast of the Red Sea.

“They had started developing the project in 2007, but in 2009, the global financial crisis shut down everything,” Chihoski said. “They were in the process of getting everything restarted when they recruited me.”

At first, given his health care background, Chihoski assumed Al-Rasheed wanted him to coordinate the building of a hospital. But Al-Rasheed had a grander scheme in mind: He wanted Chihoski to be chief operating officer (COO) of the entire development, a city for 1.5 million people. It would be Chihoski’s task to revamp the city’s master plan and establish the infrastructure.


Chihoski was nervous about moving his young family to Saudi Arabia. He said he changed his mind when a friend told him that his children would one day compete in a global economy, and people who have lived abroad are likely to have an advantage over those who have not.

“My kids were 3, 5 and 8 at the time, and in particular the 8-year-old just thrived in an international school,” Chihoski said. “In a classroom of 25 kids, you might have 20 nations represented. I can see that global perspective in who they are and how they are developing. They have a greater appreciation for the world than I ever did.”

For two years, Chihoski worked on the city, introducing efficiencies to the original design that shaved $17 billion in infrastructure costs. In 2014, he and his family returned to Peoria and he launched Aristo Properties Group, a property development firm.

He also began consulting for international development firms, planning hotels, hospitals and cities across the globe. He is a consultant to Joint Commission International, a nonprofit organization that accredits health care organizations around the world and speaks internationally on the health care built environment.

“I do a lot of public speaking, and that all comes from NIU,” he said. “I took a class as an undergraduate on technical speaking, and I got a B because I just lectured and didn’t engage the audience enough. I took that to heart, and one thing people remark on to this day when I present is how much I involve the audience.”


When Chihoski came to NIU as a member of the wrestling team, he admits he “needed to grow up a little bit.” He came in as an undecided major and, through general education courses, developed an interest in technology.

When he was about five classes away from completing his bachelor’s degree in industrial technology, Chihoski received a job offer starting immediately.

Chihoski had interned with Kaiser Permanente, at the time the largest managed health care organization in the United States. KP was embarking on its first seismic upgrade in San Francisco, and it wanted Chihoski to act as the liaison between the construction and operations teams.

Chihoski wanted the job, but he also wanted to graduate, and this was long before online classes. His adviser Dr. Earl Hansen helped him work out an arrangement in which he could take courses as a student-at-large at the University of California, Berkeley, and transfer the credits to complete his degree at NIU.

“To have that customized program put together for me — I don’t know how many other universities would do that for a student,” Chihoski said. “NIU is a big school that acted like a very small school and made me feel very important.”

It also helped a scared 22-year-old kid moving halfway across the country to be connected to someone back home who was checking in regularly and creating a pathway for him to be successful. What Chihoski remembers most about NIU is not the lagoon, the library or even the beer nuggets — it’s the people.

“I’m still good friends with so many people I went to school with,” he said. “Even though we took many different professional routes, we’ve stayed in touch and continue to network and work together. These are people I can call on when I have a question or need to bounce an idea off someone. We have different professional backgrounds, but our common link is NIU.”


When Hansen retired, Chihoski and his wife Angela endowed a scholarship in his name.

“Of course it’s rewarding to be able to help students who have a need, but my gift to NIU was really about honoring Dr. Hansen,” Chihoski said. “He touched a lot of people. He was a professor who really took an interest in his students and maintained a network with us well after graduation.”

This article originally appeared in Northern Now. Written by Dana Herra, ’01 and Photography By Scott Walstrom.