After tk years as both a participant in and observer of the construction business in New York City and elsewhere, Samuel C. Florman, 88, has finally retired as chairman of building contractor Kreisler Borg Florman General Construction Co. Inc., Scarsdale, N.Y., but not before transferring firm employees and projects to Gilbane Building Co. and penning a memoir last year—Good Guys, Wiseguys and Putting Up Buildings: A Life in Construction—that recounts a colorful career and observations of some of the industry's signature achievements and lowest moments.
A civil engineer and businessman who's also a cogent observer and skilled writer, Florman's memoir follows his earlier work The Existential Pleasures of Engineering that argues for the the soulful, even artistic aspects of engineering but also for technology's place in society today. In his works and in a recent interview with ENR Assistant Editor Luke Abaffy, Florman challenges the popular view of the engineer as a stoic, cardboard caricature.
NOTE TO LUKE: YOU NEED TO HAVE A PHOTO (MUG) PUT INTO TEAMSITE. I CAN GET IT ON THE PAGE FOR YOU. ALSO ASK HIM FOR OLD ACTION PHOTOS HE COULD PROVIDE OF HIM FROM THE EARLY DAYS. WOULD HELP. DR
ENR: What is it that attracted you to engineering and construction?
Florman: It was the excitement. I was good at mathematics and growing up in the Depression years, it was the idea of having a line of work that was needed. Yes you could be a scientist or a mathemetician, but how could you make your living at that unless you were a teacher? The idea of being an engineer from a practical point of view was appealing
I had a chance when I was with the Seabees...to operate the equipment. I barely knew how to drive a car, and here I was with huge trucks, double clutching, doing concrete work and laying brick. You could never get that experience in college.
The fact is I was making my living as a contractor, as a builder. I loved to build; I really loved the work that we were doing. It was great fun. Very, very, very risky, which is fun when you're young.
Economically, construction is the most dangerous business to be in, other than the restaurant business. Physically, there are more people killed in construction every year than in any other industry....and also, some very reputable people have called the industry the most corrupt in the world.
So you have witnessed corruption in the construction industry?
Yes. Absolutely. There's no question that not only the Mafia in New York City and other major cities, but also crime in general...is certainly part of the scene. [Construction is] perhaps just small enough to go under the radar. It's not only gangs, but people in the industry, kickbacks and other corrupt activity.
We [at Kreisler Borg Florman] aimed to stay away from it and I think we did absolutely, because we decided early on we didn't want our names on the front page of the newspaper. We did believe in obeying the law. We were brought up to be good guys, but we lived in that milieu.