Fifty-five years ago, Charles Nelson answered a newspaper ad. H.A. Lott Inc. was looking to hire a field engineer. Fresh out of Louisiana State University’s engineering program, young Nelson sought to answer the ad by going to a jobsite in Jackson, Miss.
The superintendent, thinking he was a trespasser at first, greeted him with a flippant, “What do you want?” to which Nelson answered, “I want a job!” The impromptu interview ended with an invite into the trailer to sign Nelson up for his first construction job. Thus began a tenure with H.A. Lott that started Nelson on a distinguished career path.
Nelson would go on to work for H.A. Lott for 34 years. “I was fortunate enough to get hooked up with them, and 25 years later, I was president of the company and I still wonder why,” he says, chuckling.
Nelson, 77, grew up in the small town of Monticello, Miss., but wasn’t necessarily aiming toward a construction career in his early days. “My granddad was a builder, primarily residential, a little bit of retail. I just enjoyed working with him and fortunately, my schoolwork was pretty strong,” he recalls. “I believe that God was guiding me toward this industry because of the wonderful, talented people that he placed in my life and my career. I believe strongly about that. So I didn’t have a revelation or an epiphany about becoming a builder, it just evolved.”
He lettered in four sports in high school (basketball, football, baseball and track) and earned a two-year basketball scholarship to a junior college, where he pursued pre-engineering. Nelson then enrolled at Louisiana State University to study engineering for the next two years.
He was also part of the Army National Guard’s 106th Engineering Battalion until 1969, for a total of 14 years.
From 1986 until 1995, Nelson was president of H.A. Lott and then went on to join Gilbane Building Co.
Thomas F. Gilbane Jr., chairman at Gilbane, recalls first meeting Nelson around 1995 in Providence, R.I., when Nelson was taking over the Penn State Basketball Arena project.
“He led our efforts to finish that job, and I was so impressed by his knowledge, his experience, but even more so his demeanor,” Gilbane says. “There’s not a project that Charlie has been involved with that he hasn’t had an impact. He is an extraordinary leader, but in a quiet, self-effacing way. Charlie cares, and people gravitate toward him. If people didn’t know what Charlie did, I don’t think they’d pick him as a construction person. They might pick him as a lay minister. He’s just as good a human being as I think you could probably meet.”
Nelson gained extensive experience as Gilbane’s project executive on many complex projects throughout the Texas region, particularly major renovations. He recently led the North Cypress Medical Center project and several projects over the years for Tomball Regional Hospital.
During his 55 years in construction, Nelson worked on projects in seven states, and he says that two experiences stood out among the most memorable.
The first was a project for Second Baptist Church–Woodway in Houston, the timing of which happened to coincide with him being elected president of H.A. Lott.
“I officed on that job just because [pastor] Dr. [Ed] Young and others requested it. There were relationships that were built there with the church and the architects and subcontractors that still are strong today,” Nelson says.
The second one Tom Gilbane recalled as well: the $200-million renovation of El Paso Tower (now Kinder Morgan Tower), completed in 2011. It was selected as the Best Project in the interior design/tenant improvement category in ENR Texas & Louisiana’s 2012 Best Projects competition.
“Charlie was very hands on and built a great relationship with our client, Hines Development, and with their client at the time, El Paso Gas,” Gilbane says. “Retrofitting an existing building that is fully occupied is a great challenge. We delivered the project on budget, on schedule, with an extraordinary safety record. Charlie cares about people, so he doesn’t tolerate anyone doing anything unsafe.”
Nelson recalls the renovation of the 32-story building in downtown Houston, which required stripping out the asbestos and 45-year old partitions, all while it remained fully occupied. “It just was a team-building event from the start,” he says.
Pat Kiley, founder of Kiley Advisors, says Nelson “is what I consider a true construction man in that he can walk on a job and assess where it is in just a walkthrough. There is no size job that he has not built. He’s the kind of guy that if there was ever a complicated job, a problem job, he would be the guy you would put on it.”
Nelson says that he had only one primary goal, other than making a living for his family, and that is helping others achieve their goals. “I realize that if I helped them achieve their goals, then my goals would be achieved. And you do that by building relationships, building trust,” he says.
He has helped mentor numerous individuals over the years and also gave back to the industry through volunteering with the Associated General Contractors.
At AGC Houston’s annual chapter meeting on Jan. 28, Jerry Nevlud, chapter president and CEO, spoke about Nelson: “Early in his career, while working on a project in Lubbock, Texas, for Texas Tech University, Charlie was asked by Mr. Lott to represent [H.A. Lott] in labor negotiations. And thus began his long association with the AGC. He would go on to serve on many chapter committees, the board of directors and eventually as president of our organization in 1993.”
Nelson has received many awards over his 55 years in the industry. Recent accolades include the 2013 Southwest Region Dave Chapman Award from Gilbane and in October 2015, AGC Houston’s Construction Leadership Council recognized Nelson as an icon in the industry.
“He is above all a man of faith and family,” Kiley says.
Outside the office, Nelson coached football and baseball at the Spring Branch Memorial Sports Association for 12 years. He’s the chairman of deacons at Tallowood Baptist Church. He met his wife, Ladonn, while working for H.A. Lott in Jackson, Miss. They’ve been married since 1965 and have two children and two grandchildren.
Just a week out from his retirement as senior project executive at Gilbane at the end of January, Nelson was named an Honorary Lifetime Member of AGC Houston.
“Over the course of his career Charlie has defined leadership not only for his business success but also for what he has given back to the industry and community, both in our local communities and nationally,” says Dan Gilbane, senior vice president at Gilbane. “For all he has achieved, Charlie has remained a servant leader—for many in our industry he has been the true measure of that description, a person as generous with his time as he is humble about his many accomplishments—and that is an incredibly high bar. He’s a true Southern gentleman in the old-fashioned respect.”
In accepting his lifetime membership from Houston AGC, Nelson told the crowd, “I’d be less than honest if I said that this honor was not on my wish list. Because it really was. Not because of what I’ve done for the industry or the AGC, but what the industry and AGC has meant to my life and my family’s life and my work associates for over five decades. I confess to you and I declare to you that the glory goes to God, because it was he who placed all these wonderful, talented inspiring and supportive people in my life, and I thank you.”