There are many ways to show courage, and Jerry Allen showed real courage in his willingness to confront every single obstacle in his life.
It’s easier to run an A/E business when you are the founder and have all or the majority of ownership of the business. But how about when you end up at the top of a nearly 50-year-old, well-established company with lots of partners, and you are just one of them? It’s much more challenging. And that is the story of the late Jerry Allen.
Jerry Allen passed away from cancer at the age of 62 in December of 2002. But between 1988 and 2002, he was the CEO of Carter & Burgess, Inc., a broad-based architecture and engineering firm founded in 1939 by Gene Carter and John Burgess, based in Fort Worth, Texas. During Jerry’s nearly 14 year tenure as CEO, the company grew from 187 employees to more than 3,000. It was eventually sold to Jacobs Engineering Group in 2007.
I first spoke with Jerry Allen over the telephone in 1982 when I was doing some work for the firm as an executive search consultant. We then met in-person when I went to their Fort Worth headquarters in the winter of 1984/1985. I had been actively recruited to come to work for them by my one-time client when he was at another architecture and engineering firm, Russell Laird, who by 1984 was a newer partner in Carter & Burgess’ Houston office. Even though I was already an owner in another engineering firm in Memphis, Russell wore me down and I eventually flew to Fort Worth to meet a bunch of their partners. Several months later, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I went to work for them in Fort Worth as their director of human resources at the age of 27.
Even though he was not my immediate supervisor (I reported to the then-President, Wilton Hammond), Jerry and I quickly struck up a relationship of mentor and mentee. We both worked later and would talk at the end of the day. He had just been named executive vice president and COO of the firm prior to my arrival there. Jerry was an extremely direct communicator and an outspoken advocate for change, in what at the time was a somewhat stodgy and conservatively managed firm overly dependent on the land development market, that was starting to encounter some problems from the real estate recession that started first in Houston and later spread to the DFW area.
I will admit I was very impressed by the guy. He was, for all practical purposes, a self-made man. He was born poor in West Memphis, Arkansas, grew up mostly in Texarkana, and was educated as a civil engineer at Mississippi State. He was 45 years old, divorced, an impeccable dresser who worked out for several hours a day, and was incredibly laser-focused on making the company a lot better than it was. Over the next three years, we worked together to change the profile of much of our workforce, too many of which were non-degreed and unregistered designers and technicians with a narrow range of expertise. We started an award-winning engineering co-op program. We directly recruited the best people working for our competitors. Shortly after starting with the firm, I was also made director of marketing there, and thanks to the genius of a woman I hired from another local firm, Susie Peden, we implemented a marketing and promotion program that focused on a number of different market sectors and greatly diversified the firm.
I can admit I was very frustrated by some of the firm’s older partners. Change was not going to come easily to the firm. Everything was a battle for Jerry (and myself). Our staff size and revenues were on the decline. And while we were making some major headway in terms of HR and marketing, I wasn’t smart enough to see how the platform was changing and the stage was being set for future success. Unlike Jerry, I was impatient. And while I had a tremendous respect for him and confidence in his abilities to do what we needed to do, I didn’t share that for my boss. He seemed stuck in the past and stressed by our situation, and torn between the firm of yesteryear and a need to confront the old-timers in our principal ranks who were holding us and the rest of the people there back.
Jerry was the most vocal voice for change in the firm. He knew everything we were doing and fought to change the people, policies, and business practices that were negatively impacting the firm. But I couldn’t see how he would ever be named CEO. Some of the partners he was confronting were the largest shareholders of the firm. They weren’t going to support him, I thought. Our financial condition was worsening and the big bonuses we used to get were declining. I ended up leaving the company in January of 1988. Shortly after my departure, Jerry was (miraculously) voted in as CEO. The truth is, I may never have gone had I known that would happen.
Jerry immediately struck out a new vision for the company that became their rallying cry. It was “2,000 by 2000.” That meant 2,000 employees by the year 2000. Under Jerry’s leadership, the vision was achieved. They had 2,300 employees by the year 2000. In less than a dozen years the firm had grown by close to 1,200 percent!
The truth is that their meteoric rise was engineered by him. He had his long-term plan and was relentless in his implementation of it. He elevated newer partners over older ones. He filled in the organization chart with new disciplines and talents to make the firm viable in many new markets. He changed the accounting and reporting systems to clearly show what was working and what wasn’t. He was actively involved in every key hire and had vastly higher standards and expectations for any new employee who joined the firm. No longer was it acceptable to be just technically competent – people also had to have great communication skills, know how to manage other people, get the business stuff, and have a strong work ethic.
I was lucky enough to work closely with Jerry over the next 14 years. Carter & Burgess became the largest single client for our fledgling consulting business, eventually paying us more than seven figures annually in fees for a wide variety of help – mostly focused on recruiting, but also on mergers and acquisitions that we worked on together. We grew right along with them.
Jerry and I learned how to buy A/E firms together. I brought the very first company that they bought to them – a three-person, woman-owned architectural firm in Fort Myers, Florida. That was their first office outside of Texas, and started a stream of acquisitions focused on rescuing troubled companies. I got involved in all of them one way or another. Jerry was a big advocate for women in our business and was early to recognize the benefits of a diverse workforce. He liked companies that were in financial peril because, as he once told me, “Their employees are glad to see us and don’t resent us (as an acquirer) like they do in a successful company.” It made total sense. And it was the opposite orientation from how everyone else in our industry was doing things. They only wanted successful companies for their acquisitions. Plus, Jerry didn’t believe in keeping the name or policies of any company they bought. “Change everything immediately, and those who don’t want to be on our team can go right away,” he used to say. “Why drag it out?”
Jerry was a pioneer in growth through acquisitions. He transformed the firm from a Texas-only company focused on land development into a broad-based firm with an international footprint. And because he was such an honorable and trustworthy guy to deal with, our fee arrangement on successful acquisition prospects we brought to him was simple. I just told him he could pay us whatever he thought it was worth. That was fair and we never had a problem.
Watching someone like Jerry Allen – and the deliberate and methodical way he did things – along with his continuous learning and personal development – and ever-present willingness to go counter to conventional wisdom – was a tremendous education for me. More than anything, he was a big believer in the potential of the individual working together with other like-minded people – to achieve great things.
There are many ways to show courage. He showed real courage in his willingness to confront every single
obstacle in his life – including his own impending death. He worked right up until the end. The last time I visited him, we drove around Fort Worth and talked. We told old stories of life and work. He always told me how proud he was of my success and reminded me not be the proverbial “bull in a China shop” that I once was in my youth, and I will forever be grateful to him for the opportunity, guidance, and friendship he gave me over the years we worked together.
Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at email@example.com.