M.A. "Mort" Mortenson Jr., who transformed an $18-million local contracting business he inherited in 1969 into what now is a $4.6-billion diversified construction giant across the U.S., died in Edina, Minn. on Nov. 9 of complications of cancer, said M.A. Mortenson Co. He was 82 and most recently served as chairman emeritus.
The Minneapolis-based firm ranks at No. 16 on ENR's list of the Top 400 Contractors, specializing in commercial, institutional and energy construction.
"My dad loved construction and he loved the people with whom he had the opportunity to work alongside over the course of his nearly six-decade long career," said David Mortenson, who succeeded his father as chairman and CEO in 2015, the company's third generation of family leadership, along with siblings also in corporate management.
The pitfalls of competitive bidding troubled Mort Jr., and by the mid-1990s, he sought new business approaches before the firm “was hauled down by an industry not making substantial progress to change,” he said in a 2008 ENR company profile,
Seeing the Future
Mortenson propelled formation of the contractor's Center for Construction Innovation think tank, becoming an early adopter of then new approaches such as integrated project delivery and high-tech tools such as building information modeling (BIM) software that enabled the firm to build Frank Gehry’s complex design for the $275-million Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which had already undergone years of contracting upheavals.
“The project was so different that we would be forced to do things differently,” said David, noting that two key subcontractors dropped out because of execution fears.
Mort Mortenson also noted the complexity of building the $555-mlllion Target Field baseball stadium in Minneapolis, completed in 2010. “That was a 12-acre footprint on an eight-acre site built over interstate highways, city streets and an active railroad, ” he said in one online interview. "It was an amazing construction feat.”
The contractor also made an early entry into the renewable energy construction market, now about one-third of its revenue.
The low-key entrepreneur was a fixture at company jobsites, quoting Robert Louis Stevenson poetry to motivate salaried and craft workers and relishing his role as the company’s cheerleader-in-chief.
"While my dad often said he could never have imagined the heights the company would reach, he knew our singular focus on growing our capabilities and capacities would lead us to special and unique places," said David Mortenson. "His regular reminders to focus on being the best rather than being the biggest, set a course for continuous improvement and unleashed innovation and creativity."
Mortenson also was active in industry and community groups and causes. Along with his wife Alice and the company, he created a $5-million endowment at the University of Colorado-Boulder, from where he earned a civil engineering degree in 1958, to launch the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities. The university awarded him its University Medal in 2011 "for his lifelong dedication to the school and construction industry."