Balfour Beatty Construction Chieftan Robert Van Cleave says his company “creates infra-structure for life.” Those are lofty words. But with projects that include Texas Stadium, the Omni Dallas Convention Center Hotel, the new Parkland Hospital, the NASA Space Center in Houston, and the Pentagon Memorial in Washington, D.C., he isn’t kidding.
Van Cleave joined in 1996 as president and CEO of what then was the commercial construction division of Centex Corp. Balfour Beatty acquired the group in 2007 for $362 million. Today the company is a nationally known conglomerate that generates $4.5 billion in annual revenue.
But its success can be measured in more than financial terms. Van Cleave’s emphasis on employee engagement prompted Fortune magazine to name Balfour Beatty one of America’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” in 2010 and 2011. Despite his achievements, Van Cleave, who says his pet peeve is “egos,” remains humble, true to his small-town, East Texas roots. “It’s all about how you live,” he says.
Title: Chairman & CEO
First job: My first real job was working at Whataburger. I did it all, from making shakes and burgers to ringing people up and cleaning the tables.
Worst job: Hauling hay for a couple of summers when I was a teenager. It was 100 degrees outside, the hay was so scratchy, and we got about 2 cents a bale as a crew.
Best part of your job: I love being inspired by our people as they go out and build custom, one-of-a-kind projects. They do it with sacrifice, dedication, and care for the client. We can get caught up in metrics, but when I see what people are really doing for projects like Children’s Medical Center or Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, it’s reassuring that this is the right place to be.
Corporate culture: How you see the parade depends on where you sit, but I think our culture is extremely engaging. People come in here and they work with their friends, they work with high performers, and they leave feeling fulfilled.
Management style: My goal is to create alignment around purpose and values, and remove roadblocks so people can do what they need to do.
Biggest pet peeve: Egos. When people get a self-inflated view about who they are, they remove themselves from the team, even just for a while. The construction industry can sometimes be a macho sport, a highly driven performance sport. But at Balfour Beatty we’ve done a great job at hiring people who are team players.
Family: My wife Sharon and I will be married 30 years next summer. We have a son, Braxton, 21, at Southwestern University, and a daughter, Bailey, 15, a sophomore at Highland Park High School.
Weekends: It’s usually family, chores, church, and, every once in a while, escaping to our East Texas property, Wavy V Ranch. It’s on the water. The V is for Van Cleave. When the kids were 6 and 10, they thought that was a good name.
Reading material: I’m a pretty avid and eclectic reader. I enjoy a lot of business strategy and purpose books, as well as those onself-improvement, and some biographies. It’s hard to beat Good to Great by Jim Collins.
TV: I am intentionally a non-TV watcher. If I do, it’s maybe sports with my son or Criminal Minds with my daughter.
Little-known facts: I dropped out of college after my first semester to work in the oil fields. I was so poor, I left school to go out and make money. But after six months in the oil fields, I had worn out all my clothes. I went back and graduated from Texas A&M University.
Changes in construction: In the early 1980s, it was more of an adversarial game; now it’s all about the right team. Technology has been another big change. The flow of information is the lifeblood of any project.
Best advice: I love the quote, “What you don’t change, you choose.” I think it’s applicable in both business and in personal life.