Ben Houston's 60-plus-year career has been filled with many remarkable projects, accolades and achievements, but he says he's most proud of the people he's worked with during his career.
Giving people credit for their effort has been one of his key tenants through his years in construction. "The people who really make the difference are the people who put the work in. Having a trusting relationship throughout the whole chain is by far the most important thing," Houston says. "The folks who put the work in place are the real heroes of our industry. So treating each other with something we call servant leadership and trusting one another I think is really key."
Houston, 78, graduated from high school at 16 and his first job that summer was as an air-conditioning helper. "It was just a first job, a first step. But 95¢ an hour looked like a whole lot of money then," he says.
Afterward, he went on to study mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also joined the Navy Reserve Officers Training Program. Houston was commissioned in the Navy's Civil Engineering Corps in 1958 after he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.
"When I started building with the Navy, that sort of nailed [my career path] down," Houston says. "We had these six mid-rise buildings to build in southern Italy, and I was assistant officer in charge of construction, and I think that cemented it. I liked to see things go up, to have the interaction with people, the owners, the engineers, the architects, and most important of all, the actual workers who put the work in place because, really, all the rest of us are just helpers," he says.
After serving in the Navy, Houston joined mechanical contractor TDIndustries in 1961. While working full time at TD, he went to graduate school at night and received his master's in mechanical engineering from Southern Methodist University. He has held a variety of positions at TD including president and chief operating officer. He is currently a member of TD's board of directors.
Houston's colleagues agree that he has boundless energy, he never takes no for an answer and his dedication to people and community are unparalleled.
"My first encounter with Ben Houston was actually when I got my first job offer from TD, about 30 years ago—and I actually turned him down," recalls Harold MacDowell, CEO at TD. "But the man has such incredible energy and enthusiasm that he just doesn't take no for an answer. He followed me through the parking lot all the way to my car telling me what a mistake I'm making—and I'm just a young, green engineer just getting out of engineering school. I sat there for a while wondering what just happened? The president of the company is telling me I'm screwing up and I haven't even gone to work for him yet."
MacDowell joined TD the following the year and witnessed first hand Houston's boundless enthusiasm and can't take no for an answer policy.
Bob Ferguson, current director and former managing director and executive vice president at TDIndustries, likens Houston to a figure "in a Western [movie]. Usually there's somebody riding on their horse and they'll be in a fight, get knocked off their horse, and then the other guy will ride back and save that person. That's what I considered Ben, what I call a 'ride back buddy,'" Ferguson explains. "There were many times when I thought I got shot off my horse, and Ben would ride back and help pick me up. I just appreciate having the chance to be here with him all these years."
Instead of seeing problems as problems, Houston would always consider them as opportunities. "Even when we had our toughest times, he would consider that just a golden opportunity," Ferguson says.
Jack Lowe, TDIndustries board chair and former CEO, adds that whenever there was a difficult project, "I'd ask Ben, go fix that, take care of it. He was just a warrior and he would take on a difficult situation or a great situation and make it better than it would have been."