Hardhat utopia

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

But at TDIndustries, unlike most other companies in the state, the corporate financial troubles directly impacted workers' nest eggs. The company could not afford to buy back stock from retiring employees.

"It was a very difficult time," Lowe recalls. "We had stockholders who couldn't collect. We were unable to pay out everybody. I don't know if it was legal or not; I sat in here and decided who was the most needy. I was a triage officer."

To assure the troops, the top executives agreed not to sell any of their own stock. Eventually, Lowe and others devised a plan to distribute monies from an overfunded pension account and ask the beneficiaries to contribute their shares back into the company's equity pool. Amazingly, the managers asked the workers for $1.1 million and got back $1.25 million.

The experience deeply influenced TDIndustries' CEO. "It humbled Jack," recalls Bob Lowe.

But in these flush times, most remember the event as a corporate-culture character builder. "It was a great triumph story," says Steve Saunders, a former TDIndustries executive. "The truth is, everybody did get paid. "

Adds Bob Lowe: "Sometimes the very worst things turn out to be the very best things."

Since those miserable moments in the late '80s, the company has adhered to a debt-free pledge--an unusual way for a construction company to operate. The company owes no money to anyone but stockholders. "That's something we embraced in the depths of our experience," Jack Lowe Jr. says.

Perhaps the most persuasive positive talk about TDIndustries can be heard from former employees.

Last July, Lowe followed through with strategic plans to sell off a 70-employee unit that provided residential air-conditioning service. The division was still making money, but TDIndustries wanted to focus on the commercial and multi-family dwelling sector. Attempting to do what's best for the employees, Lowe says, he offered to sell the division to them as a group. They took him up on the offer and made a bid of $1.5 million. Many of them planned to sell their TDIndustries stock to finance the purchase.

In the end, however, Steve Saunders, president of the resulting company now known as Tempo Mechanical Services Inc., says the workers couldn't come up with that much cash. So TDIndustries agreed to sell it for a lower price.

During the negotiations, Saunders says, his outside attorney seemed perplexed by the level of trust between Lowe and the employees in the unit. "Do you have this in writing?" Saunders remembers the lawyer asking. Saunders would say no, that he didn't believe he needed to get Lowe's promises on paper. "I know Jack Lowe," Saunders said he explained. "I don't need this in writing."

A few weeks after the sale was final, Saunders says, he had a sobering talk with his new group of employees. "They told me at a group meeting that they wanted to create a new place just like the one they left. That puts a lot of responsibility on me.

"I still remember the moment. It sent chills up my spine."

There are a few snags in the almost-too-good-to-be-true stories about TDIndustries' trustful relationships between workers and managers. In the foyer where all the photographs of veteran employees are hung, for instance, someone has drawn a mustache and a beard on one woman's face. Not a very servant-leaderlike kind of behavior.

More substantive issues exist. One obvious one: While the financial results for the company are issued to employees on a quarterly basis, the executives and top officers do not disclose their salaries and compensation. The employees know how much stock the officers hold, but aren't told how much they're paid or receive in incentives. "I think it's a legitimate question to ask," Bob Lowe concedes. In publicly traded companies--as well as even some closely held concerns--shareholders do learn how top officers are compensated.

Executive Bob Ferguson says that CEO Lowe earns less than $350,000, or less than 20 times the lowest-paid worker at the company.

Says Jack Lowe Jr. about the salary disclosure: "I'd tell mine if everybody else tells theirs, but nobody else wants to do it. They just want to know mine."

But the absence of precise knowledge about the directors' pay scale means the worker shareholders cannot judge the officers' performances against it and vote their stock accordingly.

For Maurice Kelly, however, the salaries of top executives make less of an impression than calculations about his own. A superintendent now, he started with the company 12 years ago as a plumber's helper. He now earns more than $43,000 a year, plus the bonuses he earns when he brings in jobs under budget.

Kelly also appreciates the openness at TDIndustries--even when it doesn't necessarily work in his favor. Recently, Kelly says, two of his subordinates who had less than two years' experience asked if they could switch to the service department and get away from the construction site. The two, like many, wanted the freedom of the service jobs as well as benefit of company vehicles. Kelly told them no.

But the two leapfrogged over Kelly and went straight to Lowe. The CEO gave them the go-ahead and switched them to the service department. "Lowe told me, 'Give them the opportunity,'" Kelly says with a smile, clearly unconcerned, as many supervisors in other companies might be, that the outcome might have reflected badly on him.

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