Alfred James “Jim” Clark, legendary builder of modern Washington, died March 20, 2015 of congestive heart failure. The company he headed for decades, now known as the Clark Construction Group, is one of the largest privately-held construction firms in the United States, and Clark was the tireless engine who launched its success.
Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1927, Clark moved to the Washington, DC area with his parents, Woodruff and Sallye (Wray) Clark, when he was six years old. He attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase high school and graduated from Devitt Preparatory School in Washington, DC. Clark matriculated at the University of Maryland where he studied civil engineering. It was the beginning of a relationship that benefitted both school and student in the decades to come.
Clark’s path to Clark Construction began with his hiring by George Hyman in 1950 as a field engineer for a job at the University of Maryland. A force in the Washington building scene since 1906, Hyman imbued his company with his own values of honesty, integrity and a passion for quality – traits that were shared by George Hyman’s nephew and successor, Benjamin Rome. Running the company in the 1950s, Rome recognized the same qualities in Jim Clark and entrusted him with significant responsibilities soon after he was hired.
Clark became the firm’s general manager in the early 1960s, and led its evolution from a local builder to a pre-eminent national contractor. From his first days at Hyman, Clark distinguished himself as a dedicated worker. He made a promise to himself when he started his business career that “no one would work harder than me.” As Hyman’s general manager, Clark would rise before dawn, drive himself to every company job site for a brief inspection, and finally arrive around midmorning to conduct a full day of work.
As general manager, he was a driven competitor, with a strong sense of right and wrong. One day in 1961, Clark drove by the site of a new project of the Oliver Carr Company and saw a sign bearing the name of a rival construction firm, even though Clark knew they had not actually secured the contract. He called Oliver Carr and soon had the job to build what became the Mills Building at 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. It marked the beginning of a business relationship, and friendship, that endured for the rest of Clark’s life.
Under Clark’s leadership, the George Hyman Construction Company gained renown as an innovator that could flawlessly execute cutting-edge projects. In the 1950s, Clark saw the potential for tower cranes, which at the time were a newfangled import from Sweden. Clark knew the cranes could reduce construction time and labor costs, thereby making the Hyman process more efficient. At Clark’s instigation, Hyman was the first builder in the Washington area to use tower cranes. When the Washington building boom started in the 1960s, the Hyman company was one of the leading experts in a technology that would revolutionize the construction industry.
In 1965, Hyman put that expertise to use upon being selected to build the first phase of L’Enfant Plaza in the Southwest section of Washington, DC – the largest privately-bid contract in Washington’s history at the time. The company ultimately built all three phases of the L’Enfant project, an eight-year undertaking that delivered 3.2 million square feet of space. “L’Enfant Plaza was a key to Hyman Construction’s success,” Clark said years after the project was completed. “It was challenging and big, and we learned plenty about the complexities involved in concrete construction. It made us number one in the city.”
Clark was named President and Chief Executive Officer of Hyman in 1969; in 1977 he founded a subsidiary, Omni Construction, to compete for projects that required non-union bids (the first project was the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown). In 1996, the George Hyman Company and Omni Construction merged to become Clark Construction.
Clark Construction, driven by Jim Clark’s ideals and vision, and led by Peter Forster and Dan Montgomery, transformed the character of the Washington area with a staggering list of building achievements. They include: 28 Metro stations, the World Bank headquarters, the Verizon Center, the National Museum of the American Indian, FedEx Field, the United States Institute of Peace, Nationals Park, the expanded Arena stage, as well as the United States Coast Guard Headquarters and CityCenterDC projects. Currently under construction are the National Museum of African American History and Culture and The Wharf projects in Washington, DC, the Dulles Metrorail Extension, Phase 2 in Northern Virginia, SalesForce Tower in San Francisco, and 150 North Riverside in downtown Chicago.
Clark took great pride in the reconstruction of the American Red Cross building and the recent construction of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Said John Strong, Clark Construction’s Vice President at Walter Reed, “Mr. Clark visited the job often, always asked the most pointed questions and wanted to ensure that we were delivering a superb facility for our wounded warriors ahead of schedule.”
Clark Construction also developed a national presence, opening its first regional office in Atlanta in 1970, followed by seven more in the next three decades, located in Chicago, Costa Mesa, Denver, Houston, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Tampa. Clark buildings soon spanned the continent. They included the Central Terminal at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport, the Ronald Reagan State Office Building in Los Angeles, and Petco Park in San Diego (home of the San Diego Padres). The company also developed major convention centers in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Nashville, while projects outside the Washington area included highway interchanges, libraries, and performing arts centers. The acquisitions of Shirley Contracting and Atkinson Construction greatly enhanced Clark’s ability to compete in the infrastructure market.
The personal values Clark adhered to throughout his life were the same values he inherited from George Hyman: honesty, integrity, a dedication to quality. Clark never wavered from these values as he grew Clark Construction into a national company with $4.5 billion in annual revenue. And he was deeply committed to recruiting people into Clark Construction who shared his values. “I believe in going after the best,” Clark once wrote. “I like quality. I especially like it in people. I want my companies to have the quality of product and people. To achieve this, you have to give people a place to grow.”
This commitment to quality is embedded in the people who make up Clark Construction. And as Jim Clark built the company he also made sure to groom future generations of leaders, including Peter Forster, Dan Montgomery, Robby Moser, and many others. “One of Jim’s great achievements was having the foresight to nurture a group of leaders who could seamlessly carry on the work he began,” said Ray Ritchey, executive vice president of Boston Properties and long-time client and admirer of Jim Clark. “The executive team at Clark Construction today is as capable as any in the construction industry and I have no doubt that they will be able to build on Jim’s monumental achievements.”
The values of honesty, integrity, and a dedication to quality were also embedded in Clark’s umbrella organization, Clark Enterprises. Founded in 1971, Clark Enterprises is the holding company for all of Clark’s investments, not only in construction but also in real estate, oil and gas, private equity and traditional investments. And just as in construction, he groomed a team of professionals, led by Lawrence Nussdorf and Robert Flanagan, who executed on Clark’s vision with precision.
Those who worked for Jim Clark valued this devotion. At Clark Construction, new engineers are often hired right out of college, and many employees have worked with the company for more than 30 years. Some, like Clark himself, have spent their entire working career at the firm, attracted by opportunities for advancement and professional education. Clark Corporate University provides the company’s employees with more than 100 courses focused on technical, management, and leadership expertise that fosters new skills and facilitates the achievement of career goals. As women and minorities entered the construction industry in greater numbers and started work for Jim Clark, they discovered that what mattered to him most was the integrity of the person and the quality of the performance. “Giving women and minorities an opportunity to succeed mattered greatly to Mr. Clark” said Susan Ross, Executive Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer of Clark Construction Group. “An honest work ethic and an appetite for learning were always his top priorities.”
Clark continued to visit job sites and build relationships and loyalty with those on the frontlines well into his 80's. His commitment to employee safety was absolute and uncompromising. While the company undertook some of the most physically demanding and challenging contracts, it continues to this day as an industry leader in job site safety.
His reputation for fair dealing was legendary throughout the industry. He often started multi-million dollar projects without a written contract; the building of FedEx field began with a handshake between Clark and then-Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke. Architect David Childs of Skidmore Owing Merrill, designer of the Freedom Tower in New York and a collaborator with Clark on projects valued at more than $1 billion, said, “There are those who see a mistake, build it and send their lawyers out to deal with it. And there’s Jim Clark. He would go through the drawings and find the mistake and problem-solve it right there.”
Jim Clark’s legacy in the Washington area, and the nation, can be found in his philanthropy as well as his iconic buildings. “I believe that if you make your money in a community, you have an obligation to give back to it,” Clark told Washingtonian magazine in 2010. His benevolence enriched communities, and he actively encouraged and supported employees engaged in volunteerism.
He had a passion for education, contributing time and significant funding to his alma mater. He strongly believed that engineers could help lay a foundation for economic growth – regionally and nationally. To that end, he was among the largest contributors to University of Maryland, and today the university’s engineering school bears his name. He was also generous to Johns Hopkins University, endowing the deanship of the university’s engineering school in the name of his mentor, Benjamin Rome. In February 2011, Clark made a multi-year commitment to The George Washington University to create the A. James Clark Engineering Scholars program, to recruit and train engineering leaders.
His charity extended well beyond the field of education. In the 1980s, as Washington’s homeless population grew, the Reverend Gordon Cosby asked Clark to visit Samaritan Inns, a refuge for homeless addicts. Clark was impressed that the organization took no government money, and thus was not dependent on grants. He saw that Samaritan Inns could be a model for dealing with addiction, and gave his own time and resources, resulting in an institution that returned 85% of its addicted clientele to lives of productive sobriety.
Though the structures he built are some of the most visible in Washington, Jim Clark kept a modest public profile. He served on a number of corporate boards, and was a strong supporter of the Republican Party. An avid outdoorsman, he loved fishing and hunting with friends and family at his retreat in South Georgia. And he cherished the friendships he developed through his membership in a number of clubs, including the John’s Island Club in Florida, the Bald Peak Colony Club in New Hampshire, the Burning Tree Club in Maryland, Rolling Rock Club in Pennsylvania and the Alfalfa Club and Alibi Club in Washington, DC.
The love and support of his life was his wife of 64 years, Alice Bratton Clark. The couple met in high school, and married in 1950 at the Bethesda Presbyterian Church. Their lifetime of devotion to each other was evident to all who knew them and an inspiration to their children and grandchildren. Alfred James Clark is predeceased by a sister, Jeanne Curren, and survived by his wife, Alice Bratton Clark; two sons, Paul Clark and wife Carol Parrish, of Mill River, Massachusetts and A. James Clark, Jr. of Bethesda, Maryland; a daughter, Courtney Clark Pastrick and husband R. Scott Pastrick, also of Bethesda Maryland; and ten grandchildren. Known as “Grandaddy” or “Grand”, his happiest times were when all ten were visiting, often at Thanksgiving on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.