AGC’S INCOMING PRESIDENT INTENDS TO ENGAGE THE MEMBERSHIP TODAY FOR PROGRESS TOMORROW
BY A.D. THOMPSON
Life is a highway, as that Tom Cochrane song goes (can you believe it’s almost 30 years old?). And as work continues in Washington over transportation reauthorization and AGC looks to merge new talent into its convoy of collaborators, incoming president Bob Lanham intends to “ride it all year long” to the benefit of the association.
Critical thought is an important element of leadership and Lanham, who’s spent the last six years of his three-decade tenure at Williams Brothers as its president, has learned from a myriad of AGC mentors about the delicate art of building consensus around an idea. And the spectacular influence of an organization when its message is honed and unified.
“I have witnessed the incredible power that AGC has when the stars align and in one loud voice we communicate and engage to affect significant change.” The issue doesn’t matter, he says. “It could be political, regulatory, judicial, dealing with customers and clients — the power that AGC has when it gets cranked up and engaged is a spectacular thing to see.”
And so, this proud Texan whom colleagues call folksy, thoughtful, wise, a good listener and whose managers have, over a 34-year career, tapped him for his energy, honesty and willingness to shake things up in committee has formed a theme for the start of a new decade: Engage today for a better tomorrow.
“Can we coalesce with our industry partners and with a singleness of mind move the needle on the issues most significant to our causes? I think we can.”
SALAD DAYS SOLDIERING
Lanham, who came from humble beginnings, is not an industry legacy but his father was a career DOT man who often found himself around construction projects. Young Bob would often accompany his dad to jobsites in the summertime.
“He wasn’t a college graduate,” says Lanham, “but he was a do-it-yourself-er. When we needed an addition on the house, we built it ourselves. I learned how to be hands-on from him, I learned how to work hard and my interest in construction stems from that early exposure.”
Lanham, who graduated high school at the top of his class, had dreams of pursuing higher education. It was two years after the fall of Saigon.
“The Army was desperate for officers. I had no money and plenty of time.”
He took Uncle Sam up on a four-year scholarship (in exchange for eight years of his life), enrolled at Texas A&M and decided on electrical engineering as a career path.
“They had just invented this thing called a handheld calculator,” he says, laughing. “Electronics were going to rule the world; NASA’s computers were all anyone talked about.”
It lasted just 12 months. After a summer internship with a draftsman, he changed tack.
“I had so much fun. I went back to school a week early just to change my major to civil engineering.”
Even then though, his aspirations were far from where he landed.
“If you cut me I bleed red, white and blue. College was something I had to do, but back then I thought I’d be a career Army officer.”
His engineering degree took him on military-spun adventures far and wide, before he and wife Pam (at press time married 36 years) decided to part ways with service life and settle into stability. Lanham traveled as part of a combat construction battalion, he volunteered for paratrooper training (though he only jumped five times to qualify), he deployed to Europe for NATO training exercises, then again to Central America — a hotbed in the mid-‘80s.
“I got to see and do a lot, work in some strange places under tough circumstances and learn to manage and lead people, which were all great skill sets for the business world.”
Back in Houston, Lanham spread his resume around to the waterfront oil companies, the design firms, even his father’s agency — the DOT — but found the tough economy (the savings-and-loan crash happened around this time) challenging.
“I got more interest from contractors than anyone else due to my Army experience,” he says. “My father had done work with many of them during his career and told me which he thought were good. I interviewed and got numerous offers, but Williams Brothers was here in Houston, which is where I really wanted to be, so I thought — let’s give this a whirl and see how it goes.”
ENTERING THE BROTHERHOOD
Three-plus decades later, it’s safe to say it went well — sometimes, Lanham might say, in spite of himself.
He started out as a project engineer.
“Logistics and materials and planning — just helping the jobs stay on schedule,” he says. “Anything that needed engineering support, I would do.”
It kept expanding, until Lanham was spinning all the plates for multiple jobs at the same time. Then a big project on the Houston Loop came up. “I wanted to be the project manager and Mr. Doug Pitcock said it’d be a good idea — but then we didn’t get the job.”
The next time the opportunity arose, the big boss balked.
“He said, ‘Nah, I have other plans for you. I really need you to come into the office and be an estimator.’”
Incidentally, estimating was where Pitcock’s own career had begun.
Incredibly, Lanham said no.
“I was having too much fun, going out and kicking dirt around. ‘I’d rather stay in the field, if you don’t mind,’ I said. And he said okay but I don’t think it was even 30 days later, the phone rings and he tells me, ‘I really need you to come in.’”
He chuckles at himself.
“I was young and stupid and having fun doing what I was doing. Being trapped in the office didn’t appeal to me and I was afraid that’s what was going to happen.”
Pitcock explained plainly — this would open doors, create opportunity.
“And he was right. He had some estimators who were nearing retirement. He wanted to promote from within. And the idea was that I would learn, and eventually become the bridge estimator and the chief estimator.”
But that didn’t happen, either. The dotcom crash did.
“That rattled the chief estimator’s retirement plans,” Lanham says, but it was a blessing in disguise. Not just for Lanham, but the industry, because while he was hanging around — trying to figure out which direction his career would go — Pitcock sent him a paper on AGC with a note: “If you want to sign up for something, go ahead.”
Lanham saw lots that interested him, five or six different ones. He went downstairs to talk to the boss.
“Sign up for whatever you think you’re man enough to handle,” Pitcock told him.
“He probably shouldn’t have given me that directive,” Lanham laughs. But really, it was perfect.
“So many different committees affect what we do!” he says, likely with the same excitement he felt the day he read Pitcock’s note. He joined and engaged. And that engagement grew.
Critical thought is an important element of leadership and Lanham, who’s spent the last six years of his three-decade tenure at Williams Brothers as its president, has learned from a myriad of AGC mentors about the delicate art of building consensus around an idea.
“This is what I love about outgoing President Dirk Elsperman’s University of AGC,” he says, invoking Elsperman’s theme for 2019. “Mr. Pitcock always described AGC as a training ground for young builders because you get into these difficult situations, committee meetings, managing agendas, navigating difficult and contentious issues. You end up becoming a committee chair. You participate in leading. These are all skills that prepare you for the business world, for your future.”
Pitcock watched as Lanham grew into the opportunities AGC provided and made him vice president. And not long after, executive vice president. In 2013, Lanham was made president of the company.
“All that confidence you build up through the years in AGC, these prepared me to be a leader, to be the person that Mr. Pitcock could trust to handle this job. Dirk nailed it when he made University of AGC as his theme.”
The University of AGC is precisely what took Lanham to the place where he’d have to come up with a theme of his own.
ENGAGE TODAY FOR A BETTER TOMORROW
“It’s not real catchy,” says Lanham, chuckling, but he believes in it, circling back to the idea that unified the AGC membership can get just about anything done.
One such issue — the highway reauthorization — is coming to a head as he ascends into the big chair. Lanham’s watching it all closely and it’s a top priority. One that Elsperman thinks Lanham will tackle with aplomb.
“Bob’s been politically active his whole career,” says the outgoing AGC leader “He brings the weight and the knowledge of that to this side of the business and he’s going to be really effective.”
He cites Lanham’s experience testifying before Congress in the past.
“It’s not a first-choice career for a lot of people, but I see glimmers that the cycle may be turning in our favor.” ~ Bob Lanham
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets asked to do it again in the coming year … and I’d be excited to see him up there, representing the 27,000 members of AGC.”
Workforce issues, too, loom large, but Lanham is hopeful.
“It’s not a first-choice career for a lot of people, but I see glimmers that the cycle may be turning in our favor. We never had to tell our story before. It’s taken us a while to learn how, but we’re doing it better. And every generation has something that transpires and forms their value set and their filter for seeing the world.”
The newest crop of high school and college grads, he believes, sees construction differently, more positively.
“There are people applying for jobs and coming to work for us at a younger age than I’ve seen in years past. Many of them are seeing that they can have financial and professional success without a college degree. Leaders are born, not trained. They have that magnetism. When they’re speaking, everybody else hushes to hear what they’re saying.”
Lanham, says Elsperman, has that in spades and in a down-to-earth way that folks find charming. So much so that Elsperman files away some of Lanham’s greatest in-meeting hits — “Bobisms” he calls them — on his iPad.
“He talks slow. He smiles big. He’ll be channeling all the wisdom of all the folks who have mentored him over the years. And he brings a great deal of his own to the table, as well.”
Many AGC leaders have made a mark on Lanham, he’s happy to point out. He cites — Pitcock, Mark Knight, Bob Desjardins, Jim Waltz and more — quoting them, shining a light on the things they’ve contributed to the person he’s become. His wife, Pam, and daughter, Jenny, sit at the top, shining their light on him.
“Bob and Pam have very complementary senses of humor: a little dry, a little folksy and very genuine,” says Elsperman. The humor plays well in committee where, inspired by another past president, Doug Barnhart, he believes in occasionally playing devil’s advocate to ensure decisions are thoroughly discussed before consensus stands.
“I’ve seen him take positions I knew he didn’t agree with, but it was too important an issue to just go around the room and rubber-stamp. He wanted to see some debate and discussion.”
Lanham believes in stimulating the right conversation and moving things only after the vetting’s complete. It falls neatly in line with one of Elsperman’s saved Bobisms: “Don’t confuse motion with productivity.” With Lanham at the helm, AGC’s likely to see quite a bit of both in 2020.