Contracting Business 2015 Hall of Fame: Jack Lowe, Jr. — Servant Leader

Aug. 17, 2015
Jack Lowe, Jr. shouldered the leadership role at TDIndustries during a time marked by mixed emotions of sadness and gratitude. He valued the insight of many of corporate America's great consultants, including Covey, Baldrige and Peters.
Jack Lowe, Jr. served as the president of TDIndustries very briefly, from 1979 until 1980, when he took up the role of CEO at age 41, following the sudden passing of his father, commercial HVAC legend and TD founder, Jack Lowe, Sr. It was a time of conflicting emotions. The sorrow Jack felt upon losing his father, who was a major influence in his life and career, was combined with the immediate need to assume the top leadership role at the company, which required a laser-focus on the position’s challenges and responsibilities. Thankfully, Lowe felt somewhat prepared by the work he had been handling as president.
“There were two people who reported to dad besides me: the CFO and HR director. So all the operations had been reporting to me for a few years; it wasn’t as if there was all this new stuff I had never been involved with,” he recalls. “I had been president for short time, and within a year or two I would have become CEO, but I wasn’t in any hurry. But of course, when dad died, that was it. I found out later that quite a few people were anxious about me taking over! But I knew how lucky I was to have had him as my dad for 41 years. To feel like I had been cheated by losing him would have been ungrateful.” TDIndustries has been recognized many times by Fortune Magazine as one of the nation’s “Best Places to Work.” This is due in no small part to the company’s use of the “Servant-Leadership” model. Upon assuming the post of CEO, Jack Lowe, Jr. furthered his father’s legacy at TDIndustries and in the broader business community as a whole.Contributor to Space Program Among the fascinating events in the life of Jack Lowe, Jr., is that he was a contributor to the success of the NASA Apollo space program from 1962 to 1964. After graduating from Rice University with a degree in electrical engineering, he wanted to serve his country before entering the business world. He joined the Navy, and his engineering training qualified him to work for NASA, as one of a group of engineers assigned to provide technical support to the astronauts.The sorrow Jack felt upon losing his father, who had been a major influence in
Jack Lowe, Jr.
his life and career, was combined with the immediate need to assume the top leadership role at the company, which required a laser-focus on the position’s challenges and responsibilities.

He knew them all — Lovell, Schirra, Shepard, and the rest of those courageous pioneers, including that first moonwalk team of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. His specialty was guidance, navigation and control.

Two years later, he decided to enter business rather than pursue further graduate work, and a goal of someday leading GE. Not wanting any special treatment, he began as a “gofer” in the TDIndustries service department.

Lowe counts the savings and loan collapse of 1986 as bringing the greatest challenge he ever faced in his career at TDIndustries. The financial disaster had hit Texas hard, as nine of the state’s 10 largest banks failed. The smaller real estate developers went bust, and the larger ones had their debts restructured. He says it was an experience you never forget.

“We almost went broke,” Lowe says. “Six of the nation’s 10 largest mechanical contracting firms were based in Texas, and we were the only ones to survive intact. Our business was cut in half in six months. We owed the government $15 million, and our surety cut us off twice, for 90 days. That was tough.”

But TD held on, and made it through the storm, in part due to some quick thinking and generosity of the employees.

“Our defined benefit retirement plan was over funded, and therefore, the only way we could get the money was to terminate the plan, which held $5 million.

“We held a meeting of every employee who had been with us more than five years. I told the 150 people at the meeting how serious the situation was.

Lowe was among those at the company who feared what selling out might do to the company. In so many ways, they were right.

“It took $4 million to pay everyone back their individual values from the plan. We decided to terminate the plan to get the $1 million we needed to keep the company going. But we needed another million. The only way we could survive was if those who had been paid the $4 million to put $1 million of it back into the company. We figured out a fair share plan. Over the next few weeks I spoke to just about everybody in the company, and asked them for their support. Nobody would know who contributed or who didn’t. We raised $1.3 million and it saved the company. That was all built on trust," he adds.

‘No’ to Consolidation
When the HVAC consolidation movement came along, TD said “Thanks, but no thanks.”  Lowe was among those at the company who feared what selling out might do to the company. In so many ways, they were right.

“We talked to all of the consolidators, and we just weren’t comfortable with it,” he recalls. “The premium we would have gotten would not have been worth the sacrifice to the culture. Our culture of family was more important than a few of us cashing in. And by and large, consolidation failed.”

During his leadership tenure, Lowe prized the relationship-building and nurturing he experienced with employees and customers.

“I enjoyed planning out strategy, and seeing where we were going,” he says. Embracing TQM and Design/Build, getting out of some businesses, and getting into others.”

Lowe is happy that the employee-ownership model that was started at the firm in 1952 continues to thrive at TD. It’s not for every company, but when it works, it works wonders.

"There are employee-owned companies that are snake pits, and there are non-employee-owned companies that are great places to work. But I think employee ownership helps to reinforce our culture. But it wouldn’t make us who we are in and of itself. I don’t mean to understate it, but it’s not the foundation. Things such as Servant Leadership are more important than employee ownership.”

Leadership Mentors
Jack Lowe, Jr. was a devoted follower of many of the business world’s leading trainers and motivators. He brought the Malcolm Baldrige process of performance excellence into TD. Others whose principles have contributed to the firm’s success include Steven Covey, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker and Bob Greenleaf.

During Lowe’s tenure, TDI managers would attend Drucker’s annual, two-day seminars. In the early 1980s, 20 of them spent one day a month for an entire year with Steven Covey.

“That was a big deal, to meet with Covey," he says. "He’s visited our office, as has Tom Peters, and has spoken to our employees. We’ve had some pretty impressive people come through the doors.”

The late Steven Covey was Lowe’s favorite business teacher. “‘The Seven Habits of Successful People,’  Think Win-Win, Begin with the End in Mind . . . those books and principles all had a big impact. I still have one of Covey’s ‘golden eggs’ on my desk — he used those to remind you not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg, which is your firm’s productivity.”

Lowe says the ideas of those legendary consultants still apply to business management today, and there are also new ideas to try, such as lean construction and pull planning. They’re extensions of Total Quality Management, for the next generation.

Lowe believes TDIndustries has come to know the importance of looking outside the HVAC industry for examples of excellent management.

“We learned a lot from Toyota, from Southwest Airlines, and of course from our industry. But we’ve learned more by pulling back our blinders and studying Toyota or The Painter’s Store, and others.”

Lowe was also willing to alter his leadership style and disciplines, as the great ones learn they must. “The savings and loan crisis taught me to focus,” he says. “As the saying goes, ‘nothing so focuses the mind of a man than to know he’s going to be hung in the morning.’ We had to make something happen, fast!”

The other great change was in coming to know and promote among the company the value of Servant Leadership.

“At first we thought Servant Leadership was just ‘being nice to each other.’ But now, we know it includes accountability, too. At TD, we say we expect everybody to produce business results, whatever their responsibilities are; and, to help others around you grow. If you can’t do both of those things pretty well, you can’t work here.”

At TD, we expect everybody to produce business results, whatever their responsibilities are; and, to help others around you grow. If you can’t do both of those things pretty well, you can’t work here. — Jack Lowe, Jr.

His advice to other leaders: “Always be working on your deficiencies. People tell me a competitor did a job below cost. He did it below our cost, not below his cost. And he’s been doing that for 10 years! You visit a construction site, and you see people standing around, doing nothing. They’re not sure of what to do, or they’re waiting for someone to bring them something. There’s so much lost effort, lost potential and wasted time. So keep working on that. Never get complacent.”

“Jack Lowe, Jr. was and remains today an amazing leader,” says Steve Saunders, who worked with Lowe when TD ran a branch called Tempo Mechanical.

“At one time he was leading the board at TDIndustries,  the Dallas Independent School District and Zale’s Jewelry Stores. If you want to talk about leadership. That’s an amazing example of brains, character, courage. And could you possibly find three more diverse organizations to lead at one time?"

In 2011, Lowe was recognized by The Dallas Morning News for his service to the Dallas schools. He served as a trustee and board president of the Dallas Independent school district.

At the time, Lowe described public education as, “the most important mission our society faces. You get education right, and it impacts the economy, it impacts wages, it impacts crime, health, families, just everything.”

In June, 2015, Lowe received the 2015 Methodist Health System Robert S. Folsom Leadership Award, which recognizes those who emulate the achievements of former Dallas Mayor Robert S. Folsom, and display commitment and excellence in community leadership.

At 76, Jack Lowe, Jr. is still involved with the Dallas school district, which his father helped to desegregate, and will occasionally speak at colleges and other businesses. The rest of the time he remains busy, spending time with his wife Mary, their six children, and nine grandchildren.

That’s Jack Lowe, Jr. — always focused on people.

About the Author

Terry McIver | Content Director - CB

A career publishing professional, Terence 'Terry' McIver has served three diverse industry publications in varying degrees of responsibility since 1987, and worked in marketing communications for a major U.S. corporation.He joined the staff of Contracting Business magazine in April 2005.

As director of content for Contracting Business, he produces daily content and feature articles for CB's 38,000 print subscribers and many more Internet visitors. He has written hundreds, if not two or three, pieces of news, features and contractor profile articles for CB's audience of quality HVACR contractors. He can also be found covering HVACR industry events or visiting with manufacturers and contractors. He also has significant experience in trade show planning.