Eight months into his role as lead executive of the world’s largest producer of construction and mining equipment, Doug Oberhelman was meeting with an ENR Top 400 Contractor when an ENR reporter arrived for an interview. Oberhelman said to McCandless, “Have you ever seen one of these [media interviews] before?” McCandless replied that he hadn’t. “Well then, why don’t you stickaround and watch?”

Before long, Steve McCandless, senior vice president of Garney Construction, Kansas City, Mo., and a Caterpillar machinery buyer, became an impromptu part of ENR’s Feb. 10 interview at Caterpillar headquarters, located in Peoria, Ill. He had just finished talking shop with Oberhelman when our video camera started rolling.

What were they discussing before the cameras interrupted them? Were they sealing a major deal? Talking about top-secret technology innovations? In reality, it was quite the opposite.

“We had lunch in his office and just kind of kicked back,” McCandless recalled. There was no sales talk. “He was genuinely interested in what they [Caterpillar] were doing right, what they were doing wrong, what they could do better and what things we thought they could do to be a better partner.”

It’s one example of why the new CEO is quickly gaining respect among employees, investors, dealers and contractors as a high-caliber business leader with an approachable style, a mix that can be difficult to pull off. But Oberhelman, 58, has a way of bulldozing the stereotype of a high-powered CEO with his down-to-earth attitude and keen interest in building new relationships with the dealers and their customers that are crucial to the company’s success. Leading the iconic Cat brand is “a tremendous responsibility and a really humbling situation for me,” he says.

Echoing those comments, Cork Peterson, vice president of Peterson Contractors Inc. (PCI), Reinbeck, Iowa, and a longtime Cat customer, says Oberhelman is just a regular guy. When he met with Oberhelman in Iowa last fall, Peterson gave him a $7 clock with the PCI logo on it and said, “This is for your garage.” It’s now hanging in the CEO’s office.

In the Corner Office

Overlooking the Illinois River, Oberhelman’s office is filled with treasures from work in South America and Asia, an extensive die-cast model collection, photos of hunting trips with his wife, Diane, a successful real-estate developer, and a framed Financial Times story dubbing him the “CEO who gets down and dirty.” Oberhelman’s suit jacket and tie were draped on a chair next to his desk.

If his office appears a bit sparse, it is because Oberhelman—along with Cat’s senior leaders—is constantly on the road, visiting with customers around the world and listening to their needs in a quest to create the best tools to help them build new economic growth.

Since he took the post last summer, Oberhelman’s goal is to reserve at least one day a week in his very busy schedule for a Cat client meeting. This simple idea of regular customer contact is part of his larger vision of economic growth. “We came up with a plan last year in our executive office that should take us out into the next five years,” Oberhelman explains. The strategy hinges on “a handful of metrics, with our customer base making more money using our equipment rather than anybody else’s.”

People close to the company say this customer focus at the highest levels of leadership is creating new buzz about the yellow iron, infusing new life into Cat and boosting morale. “I’ve dealt with Cat for a lot of years,” says McCandless. “It’s a refreshing approach.” He goes on to compare Cat with General Motors, which later became a victim of its own growth and size. “Both have dominant market positions,” says McCandless. “And one just came out of bankruptcy at the taxpayers’ expense,” he says of GM.

“We came up with a plan that should take us out five years. It’s a handful of metrics, with our customer base making more money using our equipment rather than anybody else’s.”

An American Caterpillar dealer who preferred to remain anonymous says Oberhelman’s appearance on his recent road show was more than public relations, saying, “No. 1, he enjoys it. And he finds out things that he should have found out internally but didn’t.”

Oberhelman, who ascended the ranks at Cat on the finance side before his current post, also is creating a new culture of accountability among workers. “Doug is an operations guy,” says the dealer. “He gets involved in the nuts and bolts of running the company.” Previous Cat CEOs traditionally set policy, leaving the execution to others.

Oberhelman’s experience inspires a more hands-on style. He was raised in Woodstock, Ill., a working-class suburb of Chicago that was more rural in his childhood. His father sold John Deere equipment.

“To this day, I give him Cat presents at Christmas time, and he gives me John Deere presents,” says Oberhelman. His home today is near Peoria, on an 1,100-acre spread that he is gradually transforming into a nature preserve from an open-pit coal mine.

“Doug is leading customer focus by example. It makes it pretty hard for anybody in that organization not to be responsive to that mandate.”

“My goal out there is a zero-erosion farm,” says Oberhelman. “That’s kind of what my wife and I are into—restoration.” His equipment of choice are a Caterpillar D5 tractor and a 420 loader-backhoe for heavy lifting. “I’m not the expert operator that I would see around our customer base, but I can get through the day,” he says. “Unfortunately, my time on that equipment is pretty precious. But every time I’m out there and I hop in that cab, it’s pure heaven.”

A board director of the World Resources Institute, Wetlands America Trust and the Nature Conservancy’s Illinois chapter, Oberhelman calls sustainability his “weekend hobby.” However, inside Caterpillar, he is well known for his eco-friendly stance at a company whose equipment is more famous for knocking down forests and leveling mountains than for landscaping Mother Earth.