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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 2 months ago

House call: Influential construction exec expounds on leadership philosophy

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Beck Group executive Mark House, whose fingerprints are all over some of Tampa Bay’s most iconic structures, has a simple strategy for success: Find and mentor people who can replace him.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Museums. Airports. Office towers. Medical facilities. Upscale restaurants. The Dallas-based Beck Group, led in Tampa Bay by Managing Director Mark House, has designed and built many of the signature buildings that define the region’s identity.

But what does it take to be responsible for projects that will leave their mark on the skylines of Tampa and St. Petersburg for decades to come? How does a person cope with the timeline pressures and personnel issues that accompany multimillion-dollar construction budgets?

For House, who celebrates 20 years with Beck Group in 2019, the ability to meet and exceed leadership expectations boils down to a simple strategy: “One, showing people that I care about them — and not just as an employee but [as] a person. And then showing them that I want them to succeed wildly. If their success means that someday they will take my place, then I want that to happen. If they’re better than me, I want them to succeed.”

People who know and have worked closely with House, a West Point graduate and former Army paratrooper, say his ability to lead the way on projects ranging from the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg to Tampa International Airport’s Airsides C and F springs from a natural selflessness.

“[House's] life is about service, and if you are in his path, you are very likely to be a beneficiary of that,” says Nancy Walker, president of Walker Brands, a Tampa-based firm that specializes in branding buildings and public spaces. “He is quick to pull out his pad of paper and jot notes when speaking with you. But what he’s writing down is not information for himself, but ways he can follow up and help you. It just comes naturally.”

In 2008, Beck Group built Walker Brands’ 8,700-square-foot headquarters building on West Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa. Although it was a relatively small-scale project by Beck’s standards, “[House] promoted it — and cared for it — like it was his own,” Walker says.

Unbeknownst at the time to Walker, House — cognizant of Walker Brands’ budget — went above and beyond in his efforts to resolve a schedule snafu caused by conflicting city and state requirements. “[House] stepped in and had his attorneys get involved to the tune of $20,000 in legal fees to get the project back on track,” Walker says. “I didn’t find out until afterward that he had pushed this through.”

MILITARY MIND

House, 60, points to his formative years in the military as the primary influence on what defines his leadership strategy. The journey began at West Point, which he says instills in its graduates much more than military theory.

“By the time you get to the Army, you know what your leadership philosophy is; you know how people will react in stressful situations," House says. "If you think about it, you're asking people to voluntarily do things that they may lose their life over. So you have to be able to be very convincing in your leadership skills to ask these people to follow you.”

Walker’s father, like House, was a paratrooper. She says there’s a unique culture of trust and responsibility for others that develops among soldiers who jump out of airplanes together.

“I have a picture of my father where he’s free-falling through the air,” she says. “I remember, as a little girl, asking him about it and [he] taught me this: When you pack your chute, it’s not for you; it’s for the guy next to you who’s going to jump. If he questions any of it, you have to jump with that chute. So at any given time, you’re packing the chute for your own life and your buddy’s life. [House] lives his life like that.”

“If you have delegation without any evaluation or follow-through, often you don’t get what you expect.” Deborah Sutherland, former CEO of the University of South Florida’s Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation

House, who held a part-time carpentry job in high school, also chose West Point because of the school’s strong track record in engineering. “Up until about 20 years ago, everybody graduated with an engineering degree,” he says. “And I was interested in architecture and engineering.”

After graduating from West Point in 1980, House entered active duty with the Army, serving as a master parachutist and ranger. He could have left the service after the mandatory five years but chose to stay for an extra year. At the time, junior officers like House were in high demand in Corporate America — “Procter & Gamble and General Electric were big recruiters,” he says — and he could’ve had his pick of high-powered management jobs.

Instead, House chose the construction industry and took a project manager position with a Tampa-based contractor. A few years later, in 1989, he went into business for himself, founding a construction company focused on building educational facilities. House says he immediately felt right at home in the construction industry, finding the work environment and culture closely resemble the military.

“The organizational structure is similar to the military,” he says. “You’ve got a platoon leader — that’s like a project manager — and you have your platoon sergeant, kind of like a superintendent. The organizational structures mirror each other.”

Deborah Sutherland, former CEO of the University of South Florida’s Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation (CAMLS), worked with House when Beck Group was designing and building the CAMLS facility in downtown Tampa. The three-story, 90,000-square-foot CAMLS opened its doors in 2012 as one of the world’s largest facilities dedicated solely to training health care professionals.

Sutherland says House’s military experience helped make him one of the best communicators she’s ever worked with. “I think the military helped him develop focus,” she says. “Mark is a very clear thinker, and he’s logical.” And like all good military strategists, she adds, he’s fully prepared to deviate from a course of action if it goes awry.

“Mark hangs in there and keeps plugging away,” Sutherland says. “If Plan A doesn’t work, he has a Plan B and a Plan C.”

House has also become a master delegator — a skill that can also be traced back to the chain of command at West Point and in the Army. Watching him work on the CAMLS project, Sutherland says she was struck by how well House coaches and sets expectations for his Beck Group team and also how good he is at following up and evaluating without micromanaging.

“He won’t just assign something and walk away,” she says. “It’s really clear what the expectation is. If you have delegation without any evaluation or follow-through, often you don’t get what you expect.”

ENTREPRENEURIAL EXPERIENCE

House sold his construction business to Shaw Industries in 1996. He remained there for three years and became president of its Tampa division. That foundation of entrepreneurship made House keenly attuned to business variables that affect design and construction.

“I learned accounting; I learned about SBA loans; I learned about living on a shoestring, living from paycheck to paycheck, paying your people first, and you get paid second,” he says. “I can relate to subcontractors when they come in to see us because I know that they're worried about making payroll.”

Mark Wemple. Mark House has led the Beck Group's Tampa operations for 20 years.

Running his own business also imbued House with a skill set and knowledge base he used as he moved up the ladder at Beck Group, first in Dallas and then back in Tampa. He started as director of integrated service and then became chief human resources officer before rising to his current post, managing director and director of strategic projects, in 2014.

“You have to be able to multitask,” he says. “One job is to sell and then execute and do all the operations. And you have your other job, which amounts to, ‘How am I going to finance this? How am I going to create the business side of the equation?’ There are so many things you have to learn, and that’s helped me a tremendous amount.”

BUTTON PUSHER

As Sutherland attests, House’s strength as a leader stems from his ability to communicate and connect with the everyone under his command. He says he has a simple yet effective process for helping new hires get started on the best footing possible. 

“I say, ‘Tell you what? This is what you can expect from me. This is what I expect from you. And these are my hot buttons. These are the things that really kind of get me going, positive or negative.’”

That clear delineation of likes, dislikes and expectations eliminates much of the second-guessing and mixed signals that can complicate workplace relationships.

“They know from very early on what to expect,” House says. “I’ve found that you kind of jump six months ahead on your relationship by just outlining these things. And most of the time people look at it, they read it, and they go, ‘You know what? This is exactly what I think.’”

Indeed, the process works both ways. House uses his “hot button” method to learn what drives new employees, not just make them aware of his pet peeves. “To have success,” he says, “you’ve got to know your people, know the way they think. You’ll get a lot more out of folks if you do that.”

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