University of Maryland
Clark (right) with fellow engineer and University of Maryland benefactor Jeong H. Kim at 2007 engineering building dedication.

In 1969, when he took over an old-line Washington, D.C.-area construction firm that now bears his name, A. James "Jim" Clark had a growth vision that differed sharply from its founder. Decades later, the successor set the foundation that propelled George Hyman Construction Co. to become today's national industry giant Clark Construction Group, and transformed Clark himself into a billionaire philanthropist.

Clark died on March 20 in Easton, Md. of congestive heart failure at age 87, the Bethesda, Md.-based firm said.

The building contractor he led as CEO until 1989, and as chairman until 1994, ranks at No. 12 on ENR's most current list of the Top 400 Contractors, with $4.26 billion in 2013 revenue. About 77% is in building construction, with one-third in construction management at risk. The firm said revenue now is $4.5 billion.

The Clark name is omnipresent in the Washington metro area, with the firm responsible for building what it says is some 1,200 projects during its former chief's tenure, including key sports, business, institutional, academic and entertainment venues. Projects completed during that time and after include the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, L'Enfant Plaza, Smithsonian museums and the National's baseball stadium.

The contractor also built 17 Washington-area Metro subway stations and is part of the joint venture for the $1.2-billion Silver Line subway extension to Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

Clark created the firm's current structure in 1996 when he merged the former Hyman firm, then a union-only contractor that he first joined in 1950, with its non-union arm, Omni Construction Group.

The firm also went national through both organic growth and acquisitions. More recently, it edged out seven competitors to win the $127-million contract last year for the 120-ft-tall, 68,000-sq-ft Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center in California and had been vieing for a $520-million convention center renovation contract in Miami Beach until the owner scrapped the current proposal competition last month due to cost issues after the firm and three other short-listed bidders dropped out.

In pushing the company to new arenas, Clark differed from George Hyman who wanted his firm to stay small enough to retain complete control, according to a 1982 corporate profile in ENR.

Said Clark at the time: "You can't keep top personnel if someone has to wait for the guy in front of him to die in order to advance."

Clark went on to create Clark Enterprises in 1971, a holding company for the firm's investments in construction, "as well as in real estate, oil and gas and private equity," it said. He remained chairman until his death.

In its obituary, the firm touts Clark's leadership in everything from making Hyman the first Washington area builder to use tower cranes in the 1950s to "being on the front lines" with employees and key clients "until well into his 80s."

The ENR profile noted Clark's personal ties to repeat customer Oliver T. Carr Associates, the largest developer in the Washington area at the time, and to lenders, designers and other business leaders. The Clark obituary said the former chief first sealed a 1990s deal to build D.C.-area footfall stadium FedEx Field in a handshake with former Redskins team owner Jack Kent Cooke, for whom the $250-million stadium was originally named.

Clark himself was "a very effective salesman," one industry source told ENR, adding that the former chief would learn about contract negotiating opportunities "early enough to offer cost-saving alternatives."

Clark also groomed key proteges, including Lawrence Nussdorf, who joined the firm in 1977 and now is president and COO of Clark Enterprises. Telling ENR in 1982 that the industry historically had "the mentality of a jobsite superintendent," the then executive vice president said the contractor had succeeded "in making the transition from a construction company to a business whose product is construction."

According to a Forbes obituary, Clark had an estimated net worth of $1.4 billion at his death. He commuted to the firm's office by helicopter from his 750-acre Maryland eastern shore estate, said The Washington Post.

But Clark shared some of his riches. His inability to afford architecture study at Ivy League Cornell University in the 1940s turned into a windfall for three Washington-area colleges.

The University of Maryland, College Park, from which he earned a civil engineering degree, named its engineering school for him in 1994 after a $15-million donation. He also endowed a $30-million undergraduate engineering scholarship fund in 2005 and is a benefector of a new $168-million, 184,000-sq-ft biomedical engineering building named for him, which is set for completion in 2017. Clark became one of the state university's largest donors, according to Clark Group.

Clark Construction is constructing the biomedical engineering building and had built the university's $48-million Kim engineering building in 2007.

The firm's former chairman also made major donations to engineering programs at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and to the George Washington University in Washington, and helped support Samaritan Inns, a refuge for Washington-area homeless drug addicts.

In contrast to his firm's high profile on construction sites and his own name on university buildings and attached to numerous board roles and philanthropies, Clark kept a very low public profile. He avoided press interviews and was not active in industry groups.

The company announced a planned memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral but did not set a date.

It said donations could be made in Clark's honor to the A. James Clark Scholarship at the University of Maryland, 3207 Kim Engineering Building, College Park, MD  20742.