Theodore C. "Ted" Kennedy, who pushed non-union contracting to new arenas as CEO of BE&K Inc., but worked with organized labor and owners to boost construction safety, productivity, ethics and image, died May 8 in Birmingham, Ala. He was 81.

The cause of death was post-surgery complications, says a spokesman for Kennedy.

Kennedy was the son of a union ironworker and accompanied him to jobsites as the teenage "water boy," later earning an engineering degree from Duke University.

He then espoused the open or "merit shop" labor approach in co-founding BE&K in 1972. After his co-founders departed in the 1980s, he led the firm as chairman and CEO until his retirement in 2003.

BE&K, which specialized in building and industrial work, went on to become one of the nation’s largest privately held engineering and construction firms before being sold to KBR Inc. in 2008.

"As chairman of BE&K Inc., Kennedy combined the flexibility of the merit-shop philosophy with the worker-oriented focus of a missionary to give the industry a cost-effective way to deal with escalating construction costs in the 1970s," said ENR in naming him in 1999 as one of the industry's top 125 leaders and innovators over the past 125 years.

BE&K's successes in winning work in organized labor strongholds drew union antagonism and sparked numerous and sometimes violent jobsite protests. ENR cited Kennedy in 1989 for his efforts to "preserve the contractor's right to manage its projects in the face of an almost unprecedented campaign by labor unions against his company and clients." He also had been cited in 1981 for his contributions to craft training.

Kennedy "was always a champion of craft workers," says T. Michael Goodrich, who later become company chairman. "His first question on any proposed change [at the firm] was how would it impact the craft worker in the field."

Kennedy's leadership abilities inspired fierce loyalty among BE&K employees. Says Dennis Schroeder, a former president of BE&K's engineering unit and 32-year company veteran, "There is not another person in the history of my career that had as much impact as he did. He used tough love and compassion."

Adds Jim Early, a former BE&K construction vice president and 35-year company veteran, Kennedy "had that quiet ability to command respect. He made you tow the line, but he would charm the clients."