Thomas Schueck is a man of steel. He's chairman of Lexicon Inc., a Little Rock-based heavy construction conglomerate that he started from scratch 50 years ago with an office in a converted carport.
Lexicon now employs a couple of thousand people and Schueck estimates they'll put in about 3.5 million man hours this year. Through its subsidiaries, it handles construction management, fabrication, erection, mechanical installation and plant maintenance for heavy industrial, commercial and roadway projects. Its companies build steel mills, power plants, auto plants, convention centers, arenas, rocket stands and South Pole research facilities.
A montage of hundreds of pictures showing a half-century's worth -- Lexicon recently celebrated its golden anniversary -- of big jobs in progress covers a wall along a long corridor at the corporation headquarters in the Little Rock Industrial Park.
Schueck moved from his native St. Louis to Little Rock in 1965 to work for the company that was building Murray Lock and Dam. After a year or two, he decided to strike out on his own, with $800 in the bank and one employee -- his wife, Marge, who was pregnant with their first child.
"I decided I was going to start my own company, which at the time was called Schueck Steel Products," he recalls. "I was a factory rep and I sold steel products, like steel bar joists and metal decks.
"We converted our carport into an office, which also had the washer and dryer and served other functions. And after we had the kid [daughter Jennifer], it became rather noisy. Trying to run a company out of a noisy ex-carport, with the washer and the dryer banging away and you're trying to act like a real company -- it was kind of difficult."
Schueck grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood on St. Louis' south side. After high school, he worked as a timekeeper for a local construction company; the engineers he worked with on road projects convinced him to shift from night-school to day school while he worked on an engineering degree. But he didn't have a clue what he wanted to pursue.
"I took steel design courses in college, and I had some construction experience before I went to college, so I combined that and somehow they worked their way together.
"It's not a difficult path; some people are born to be artists and movie-makers and mechanics and they know it. Then there's us lost souls -- we run around and we've got to connect some dots and we end up being who we are."
Merriam-Webster defines "lexicon" as "a book containing an alphabetical arrangement of the words in a language and their definitions" -- in other words, a dictionary. Schueck defines it as "Latin for summation," or, in this case, "a summation of companies."
All the companies that have come and gone over the years under the Lexicon umbrella are construction-oriented. That one of them, Heritage Links, builds golf courses, well, that just sort of happened.
"We've been in that business for 12-13 years, maybe longer," Schueck says. "It was one of those accidents -- some guy came in and said, 'I build golf courses, I have some contacts. Are you interested?' I said, 'Sure, I'll give it a try.'" Heritage Links has built or remodeled more than 100 courses from New Jersey to Hawaii, including the Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, as well as in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.
Schueck, however, has never played on any of those courses: "I'm not very knowledgeable about the golf business, because I really don't like golf."
Though it's a small piece of the corporate mosaic, "it gets the most interest," he says with a rueful shake of his head. "We do some of the damnedest things in our other businesses. But the thing people get excited about is golf courses."
The roof of the AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, has been another attention-getter -- "We use it as a selling point," Schueck says -- but actually it was just another day at the office, so to speak. "It might be the biggest project as far as people talking, but as far as dollar value, no, and as far as complexity, no," he says. "It was just another steel truss job; we combined with another company and did the steel on the whole thing."
What should really interest folks, Schueck says, are the projects that involve lifting 2,000 tons of steel to a height of 200 feet, or moving whole plants from the United States to Trinidad.
"We moved a large DRI [direct reduced iron] facility from Louisiana to Trinidad," about 15 years ago. The company took the plant apart, "we put it on barges and took it across the Gulf [of Mexico], we took it off the barges and put it back in place. And made it operational. That, to me, was one of the finest projects ever done."
And most recently, they've been building warehouses for Amazon. "It's a big box," he explains. "It's a million square feet under one roof, with mezzanines -- spread it all out, it would be 2 1/2 million square feet. We fabricate it, we ship it and we install it. We've done four or five so far, and we're planning on doing more. It's a big job."
BUILDING A REPUTATION
Linking up with Amazon is "a reputation thing; everything in our business is. It's people to people. And repeat business is an absolute must, and [especially] in the steel world, which is really what our claim to fame is.
"About 30 years we got tied up with Nucor in Blytheville, [even though] we really didn't know too much about steel mills." They went into it even though both Schueck and his wife thought it was probably crazy, but it was a turning point.
"Today they're the biggest steel company in America, and we've hung on and we did wonderful things together. They consider us a partner, and we consider them a cherished customer." As more steel companies, including Steel Dynamics and Big River Steel, arrive in the market, "we get involved more with them, and our reputation gets out there, and other steel companies come [to us]. So in the last 30 years, 80-90 percent of any new steel mill that was built, we built something in that mill."
The mills provide the raw steel to Lexicon locations, including an enormous fabrication plant in Little Rock. "We modify it and custom build it to the needs of our customers, and then we ship it out to the job site and we install it," Schueck says.
Schueck believes in appreciating his employees. "We make a lot of jobs for a lot of people," he says. "We take care of our folks. We make a good living.
"We threw a big celebration here about three weeks ago and we made the emphasis on the people who work for the company. We believe that companies are made of people. Our customers are people. Management is people. We want them to understand that you're just like they are; you're just in a different position in life.
"We pay a very good wage; we do a good bonus for our type of business. At their 20th anniversary, regardless of position, we give them a $10,000 check.
"When people come to work here, we want them to stay here. That's important. We have a lot of people who've been with us 20 years and longer, we're talking hundreds; hundreds more -- probably over a thousand -- that have been with us anywhere from a year to 20 years. You see a young guy or young woman who comes in here, you know they've got it, your deal in life is to mature that and keep them. Longevity of employees is the stability of the company, and customers like to deal with a stable company."
And he also believes in public service. He's currently the vice chairman of the Arkansas State Highway Commission, due to take over as chairman next year. He has served on the board of the Arkansas Industrial and Economic Development Foundation and on the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission; the state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission; the Little Rock Progress Committee; and the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission. He's on the boards of the UAMS Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Little Rock Boys & Girls Clubs.
Last year he was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. "I never expected that to happen, but it did," he says. "People recognized whatever I have accomplished in the world of business, and that's a good feeling."
And on Sept. 11, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology, named part of their building after him: the Schueck, McCarty, Lexicon Inc. Auditorium. (The McCarty part is for daughter Jennifer McCarty and her husband, Mark.) "We gave [the money] 10 years ago, and this year they finally got around to naming it," he says.
BUILDING A CAREER
Schueck certainly wasn't born with a silver, or even a steel, spoon in his mouth. "I grew up in a single-parent home," he says. "I hated school; I worked selling papers and setting [bowling] pins and doing whatever you do from the fourth grade, fifth grade on, just to make spending money. That's not to say we didn't have a family -- we had a family, but we didn't have money."
He credits the engineers he worked with as a timekeeper as being his first mentors. Subsequent mentors include late Big River executive John Correnti and Nucor executive Norman Maero, "both great people -- they died way too young." And, "I developed a relationship with Don Tyson; we were really pretty good friends. He hauled me around to a lot of places I never would get to go, and I went in style. He taught me a lot. He thought enough of me that he put me on his family trust. That was quite an honor, that you have somebody of that stature who thinks enough of you to do that."
Retired Tyson Foods executive Archie Schaffer III, who continues to work as a consultant to the company and the Tyson family, met Schueck through Tyson 25-30 years ago. "Tom is a very interesting character as well as a successful businessman," Schaffer says. "He's a self-made man that is very talented and bright, and his accomplishments show that." They run into each other at Razorbacks sporting events, and the Tyson connection also brings them together in support of the Watershed Project, a Little Rock nonprofit best known for its food pantry and assisting low-income residents with utilities, that focuses on helping people help themselves.
Hot Springs Realtor Chris Polychron, too, describes Schueck's relationship with Tyson as transformative. "It changed Tom -- it really did," he says. "He became more benevolent than he had been, and he'd been pretty benevolent anyway. I think Don had a big, strong influence on him."
Polychron met Schueck in the late '60s and they clicked. "They say you only have five good friends, and he's certainly one of them. We just seemed to enjoy each other's company, and our wives enjoy each other, and we've gone on a couple of family trips together. We've traveled extensively a lot.
"I'm proud to say Tom Schueck is a very good friend. He's always there for you. And I hope I never have to ask him for much. You don't have to.
"I knew him when he was starting out, and watched him become whatever he is. He didn't change any. And I respect that in people.
"We've also done some business together, and he is unequivocally the most organized businessman I've ever known. He's a detail guy. I'll send reports, and I'll get a call back, 'What about this number? Where does this come from?' He reads what you send him. That's just his MO.
"He comes off as a gruff kind of a guy, but once you get past the cover, he's got a heart bigger than a watermelon. I can't tell you how many kids he helped go to school and do things they couldn't have done. He doesn't want people to know; he does it because he thinks it's right."
BUILDING A LIFE
Schueck's son Patrick is involved in the family business -- in fact, he's the president of Lexicon Inc. Schueck has five grandchildren.
In his spare time -- well, "I'm here most of the time," he says. "I don't play golf; I don't have vacation homes all over -- I don't do any of that. I do travel; I enjoy that, mainly cruising, I've been all over the world. And I find looking at other cultures to be extremely interesting.
"I go to the lake; I have a duck club. And I do horse racing -- I've had multiple money-sucking horses over my life."
He and his family are big sports fans -- witness the Razorbacks and Cowboys helmets, autographed footballs and other team paraphernalia outside his office. "But we like all sports, at all venues," he says. "We're sports people. Our kids play sports; our grandkids play sports."
However, "When I was growing up, I didn't play sports. I wasn't coordinated enough. I know a lot about sports because I sat on the bench a lot."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: March 22, 1941, St. Louis
• MY ORIGINS: Schueck is German-Dutch. But I don't know where I'm from. I've gone to that [Ancestry] website and, hell, I can't get past my mother and father.
• BIGGEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: You're looking at it: This [his company, Lexicon Inc.], and my family. And my age. I don't know how I ever lived to be 77.
• GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Michelle Pfeiffer, Vladimir Putin, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Paul Briscoe -- a personal friend; he died a few years back.
• MOST RECENT READS: The Arsenal of Democracy by A.J. Baine, The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose, Killing Patton by Bill O'Reilly, The Hunter Killers by Dan Hampton, Odyssey of Echo Company by Doug Stanton, Merchants in the Temple by Gianluigi Nuzzi.
• FAVORITE TV SHOW: Downton Abbey
• FAVORITE MOVIE: I never know what I'm watching or where I'm watching. I watch movies I think are great and I don't even know the names of them. Last night I was flipping channels and I watched one about P.T. Barnum (The Greatest Showman); it was a musical -- I didn't even know it was a musical.
• BEST THING ABOUT BUILDING A COMPANY IN ARKANSAS: We've gotten to meet some of the most interesting people, because it's a small state. And you get to a certain level in business and rub shoulders with people like the Tysons, the Hunts, the Murphys, the Dillards. You don't get to do that if you live in a big city like St. Louis or Dallas. And in the sports world -- Jerry Jones was my next-door neighbor for many years. Then he bought the Cowboys and moved.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Intimidating. I don't know why [people] think I'm intimidating, but that's what they tell me. Sometimes maybe it's just your position.
‘Some people are born to be artists and movie-makers and mechanics, and they know it. Then there’s us lost souls — we run around and we’ve got to connect some dots and we end up being who we are.’ -Thomas Schueck
High Profile on 12/02/2018
Print Headline: Thomas Schueck, self-described ‘lost soul,’ found himself and built a construction empire