While hanging out with friends in his California living room one day in 2006, HT Tran had an epiphany that changed the direction of his life. It led him to become a soldier in Iraq who later was severely wounded, co-found and run a fast-growing contractor, become a dedicated advocate of hiring veterans in construction and emerge as a standard-bearer for a new generation of industry leaders.
Hien Manh Tran, known as HT, was at the time the U.S.-born child of South Vietnamese immigrants who had a San Jose State University business degree, a promotion pending as a Macy's loss-prevention manager, his own apartment and, at age 26, "a decent life," he says. But as he and his buddies discussed whether, if any of them died that day, they had helped someone or effected change, "when the question came to me, I had nothing to say, and that bothered me," Tran points out.
The desire to change direction and leave something hard-earned to a country that offered Tran's family refuge in the late 1970s steered him to join the U.S. Army infantry, expecting to build a military career.
Fate curtailed that plan but not before it honed his teamwork and leadership skills as well as the endurance and will to recover from near death in Iraq and embark in a new direction as a construction entrepreneur—even though he had no technical training or family roots in the business and faced hurdles gaining government and peers' acceptance as a legitimate competitor.
With a $10,000 investment in 2010 and strategic partnering and hiring, San Francisco-based Anvil Builders Inc. has since grown to more than 85 employees, could exceed $25 million in revenue this year, is profitable and has growing prospects as the right kind of firm in a solid California market.
Tran, now 35 years old, also is focused on helping fellow vets benefit and add value to his firm and those of his peers. He has been key to success of a unique effort by United Contractors, a large Bay Area union heavy contractors group, to boost veteran hires with detailed outreach that covers everything from recruiting to handling post-traumatic stress (PTS) on the job.
"Tens of thousands of baby-boom leaders are on the way out, and the HTs of the world are inheriting our business," says Mark Breslin, the group's CEO. "If they have the same characteristics and drive he does, the industry will be in good hands."
For his tenacity and courage to recover from devastating injury and to envision—even with just one good eye—a future as a construction-industry CEO who can build San Francisco and careers for his employees and their families; for embracing the obligation and value in hiring veterans in his own company and inspiring peers to do likewise; and for embodying the qualities of what industry needs in its next-generation leaders, the editors of ENR have selected HT Tran to receive its 50th Award of Excellence in 2015.
Anvil's work ethic and mission, as defined by its CEO, have resonated with peers and clients. The firm is a trusted local subcontractor on the city's multibillion-dollar Transbay transit project. "Anvil has done a hell of a job on increasingly complex work for us, maintaining commitments and performing on them, " says Jess Pedersen, CEO of Webcor Builders, half of the project's construction joint venture. "When a firm is competitive and competent, it's a powerful mix." Anvil also joined Webcor Builders in Guam as a federal construction subcontractor.
Tran and company also have gained footholds on major city redevelopments planned in the next decade by developer Lennar Urban. Danny Cooke, its executive vice president for construction and a former Turner Corp. manager, was initially taken aback when Tran asked for a "chance on anything."
But Anvil has won roles on four contracts as Lennar reaches out to responsible, locally based, veteran-owned and other small and local businesses. "HT's strength is that, like all good managers, he recognizes that he has to surround himself with very competent, complementary skill sets," says Cooke. "He's created a business model that is sustainable and has challenged his organization to do whatever is necessary." Ann Hauer, Anvil's newly hired financial vice president, was at first concerned about working for a partnership but now enthuses, "I feel like I'm hanging onto the tail of a tiger."