Hardhat utopia

Sixties social theory meets the building trade at Dallas contractor TDIndustries -- and it works

Jack Lowe Jr.'s response: "We are the biggest in the state. The proof is in the pudding."

In the '70s, the unions posed a potential threat to TDIndustries. The company's employees often had to cross union pickets to get to work. One time, Lowe told the Dallas Business Courier, unionized elevator operators turned off the power so TDIndustries workers couldn't get to a job site.

But since then the tide has turned, with some of Dallas' biggest names in real estate development, such as Trammell Crow Co. and Austin Industries, pushing for the change. Nonunion or open shops, as they are known, have taken over most Dallas construction sites. Partly as a result, Gibson says, "The wages in Dallas are way behind the rest of the country."

Typically these days, a few trade unions are represented at a site, but the majority of the workers are nonunion. At the Red Cross building, for instance, the ironworkers are union employees. Most others are not.

TDIndustries executives are a little defensive about the union issue today, even though it no longer represents a threat. "If one of our people wanted to be in the union, they certainly have the right," says Bob Ferguson, executive vice president of the company. "It was not our mission or goal to beat out the unions. We admire them for their craft skills."

As far as pay scales are concerned, TDIndustries competes with union rates, according to company managers. Journeyman union plumbers, for instance, earn $19 an hour--the same rate as at TDIndustries, whose top plumbers also have the incentives, the ESOP, and year-round work.

When Joseph told the roomful of applicants that if they became "partners" at TDIndustries, they'd get to visit often with Jack Lowe Jr., she wasn't exaggerating. Lowe, who takes his job as the Leo-like spiritual leader seriously, surfaces before employees frequently.

After newcomers pass their three-month mark with the company, for instance, they meet with Lowe at headquarters. He'll meet with them again sometime in the next two years when they share breakfast with him and 20 or so other workers. The sessions, known as "Breakfast with Jack," are designed to give employees an opportunity to air their concerns and differences.

Lowe--who won't let a reporter sit in on such a breakfast--has altered corporate policy as a result of discussions that started at those shared meals. He began to hear lots of grousing a few years back, for instance, about the company's health plan. Eventually, Lowe, who'd been making such administrative decisions himself, turned the program over for review to a committee made up of workers and management. They transformed TDIndustries' health plan into a less expensive one, Lowe says, and one employees prefer.

Lowe's father, Jack Sr., began the tradition of meals with workers in the early '70s, about 20 years after he started the company. The older man would have the workers to his house for spaghetti casserole dinners. It took him two years, but eventually the founder had dined with all of his workers.

His son now does the same thing, but does it continuously, so every two years nearly every worker gets a meal with the CEO. He conducted 15 breakfast gatherings last year.

Lowe took his father's place as CEO and chairman six weeks after the founder's death in 1980. He had worked for the company since 1964 after graduating from Rice University with an engineering degree. Lowe had originally planned to attend Harvard to get a master's degree in business administration, but the steep tuition brought him back to Dallas, and he asked his father for work.

"I asked Dad what he thought about me coming to work for him, and he said, 'Let me talk to a couple of people and get back with you,'" Lowe recounted to Ashley Cheshire, author of a company-sponsored history.

Another of the founder's sons, Bob Lowe, also works at TDIndustries. Some 14 years younger than his brother Jack, Bob Lowe, now 45, started in the business as a sheet-metal worker. Today, he has an operations supervising position. He is also among a roster of prospective candidates to take over Jack Jr.'s position when he retires as he's promised to do in six years. The company has set up a succession plan, informing potential leaders what traits they need to work on if they want to make the grade later on. One of the key attributes the future TDIndustries CEO needs, according to the plan: Empathy.

Jack Lowe Jr. has earned a reputation of being empathetic. But he earned it the hard way. Almost a decade after his father died, Jack Lowe led the company through its toughest time, a historical chapter that isn't quite as burnished as the one presented to plumber-helper applicants.

Jack Sr. founded TDIndustries in the late '40s with $10,000 he borrowed from an aunt. By 1952, way before such plans had become fashionable, he'd started inviting employees to buy stock in the company and share in the profits. "He just thought it was fair," his son Jack says. For years, the arrangement had always worked in the employees' favor. Then came the late '80s. The commercial construction industry nose-dived. TDIndustries, which had expanded greatly in the middle of that decade, began to see revenues drop. In 1989, the company lost $3 million. It was, at the time, a typical Texas tale of woe. Its bank failed, and the feds took over the debt.

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