When the Great Recession hit in 2008, contractors everywhere scrambled to stay afloat. Some sought desperate measures. But how one person responds differs from the next, and for Tommy Turner, the solution was hard, but ever so Texan. He sold his cattle.
“If it hadn’t been for my cattle operation, I would have gone under,” Turner says.
That sale, 80 head to be exact, was enough to make his equipment payments and keep his company afloat. Now, Turner’s herd is about 200, and Turner himself is cruising toward retirement by training his sons and a new generation of young guns to do the work he’s done his entire life.
By the time Turner formed his own company in 2003, he had spent the better part of five decades in the construction business, working for big contractors throughout the Southwest. He started out at 14 working as a roughneck and roustabout in the oil fields in West Texas. “Back then they didn’t care how old you were,” Turner says. Eventually he learned everything there was to learn about natural gas, from pumping it out of the ground to putting it in pipes and finally metering it into homes and businesses.
After a stint in the Army as a paratrooper, Turner started doing utility installations. The jobs were big and challenging. Turner hung wire from helicopters and ran fiber under the Mississippi. As a construction manager, at one point, he had 750 people working with him. “We’d work all night most of the time,” he says, especially going through the cities. “Whoever got their fiber in first was the hero.”
But as the new century dawned, Turner felt the urge to start his own company. Turner and his wife, Romayne, had raised five good kids. And one of the middle sons, Will, originally showed interest in construction and came onboard. Then last spring his son Matt graduated from college and decided to take up a career in construction as well. Better yet, Will and Matt had strong ties to friends from Liberty Hill High School and persuaded a number of them to work for Turner Reed as well.
“Up until that point I was starting to lose heart. But we bought our own equipment with some help from my older son, Thomas, and started from scratch,” Turner says. “I figured I had one more push in me.”
Today Turner Reed focuses on dry utilities—underground electric, gas and cable—in the greater Austin area. Romayne is a 40 percent owner and does all the billing and office work. The company has three divisions: Turner Reed Energy, which installs gas infrastructure, Turner Reed for underground electrical and cable and Turner Reed Cattle.
Turner’s timing, starting the company in 2003, couldn’t have been better. Liberty Hill is just north of Austin, and with a slew of high-tech companies pouring into the area, suburbs were popping up everywhere and everybody wanted their utilities underground.
Turner has seen a long evolution in the design of construction equipment, including some of the first rock saws in the 1980s. “We thought we’d died and gone to heaven with the rock saws,” he says.
Today’s equipment has ses and minuses, he says. “The older machines were simpler and easier to fix,” he says. “Now you have to plug in a computer to diagnose it. There are switches everywhere. The days of climbing on it, turning the key and pulling a few levers are over.” On the positive side, he can see how many hours a machine idled and track production through the screen. That helps keep tabs on operators’ performance, too.
The labor shortage is another challenge. As a veteran, Turner actively pursues veteran hires, but he is staking the company’s future on his sons and the friends his sons brought into the business. Each of these young men is being trained in utility installations with the goal of each becoming a supervisor of a crew.
In addition to being the go-to guy for dry utilities, Turner, with his decades of experience, has taught almost everybody else in the area who does this work, too. The good karma seems to have circled back.
“The majority of these people have either worked for him or learned from him, even people in the public sector like inspectors,” says Josh McKay at Aken Industries. “Some companies will be protective of what they do. He’s not like that.”
This kind of generosity is nothing new in Texas; in fact, it’s as old as the West itself, a pioneer ethic that runs back many generations in the Turner family, which came to Texas before it was Texas—to purchase a land grant from Mexico. For Tommy Turner that same ethic comes with a healthy dose of patriotism, tempered by the loss of friends in Vietnam.
“There has been somebody in my family in every war since the American Revolution,” he says. “When I see anybody disrespecting the flag, in any form or fashion, it hurts me. It makes tears run down my face. Nobody takes a knee around here. If they do, I’ll go down to the field and drag them off by the ears.”
After nearly a half century in the construction business Turner has developed a unique philosophy on success.
“My concept now that I’ve gotten older is there really isn’t any boss on the jobsite,” says Turner. “There is a guy who knows the most and he directs the work, but I don’t have any superintendents riding around in their trucks in pretty starched shirts. I don’t like to see anybody sitting in a truck. Every bit of that draws from your bottom line.”
In the end, he says, it’s about people and humility. “The boss doesn’t make the company. The equipment doesn’t make the company. The people make the company. You can have the best equipment in the world, but if you don’t have the right people around, you’re not going to get the production,” Turner says.
And the key to long-term success? “You have to stay humble in the construction business and be honorable about what you do,” says Turner. “You can’t burn bridges. Younger men don’t realize that. Older men do. Whether you’re right or wrong, be diplomatic, and don’t burn those bridges. I learned that one the hard way.”