Q&A with Jack Lemley: ‘All I wanted to do was build big things’

Jack Lemley talks to Sven Berg about building things.

sberg@idahostatesman.comSeptember 17, 2013 

Q: When you graduated from college, were you planning to be an architect?

A: No. I would have been a terrible architect. All I ever wanted to do from the time I was a small boy was build big things.

Q: You quit Guy F. Atkinson in the early 1970s and went to work for your father-in-law. What was it like being in the insurance business?

A: I hadn’t done that very long, and I realized that I was never going to be an insurance person. Every time I’d see a truck go by, or a bulldozer, I had to go see where it was going.

Q: There was a pattern in your career of fixing projects that were behind schedule or over budget.

A: Yes. All I’ve done for most of my career was complete troubled projects.

Q: Why were you so disappointed when Bill Agee was chosen as Morrison Knudsen’s CEO?

A: I don’t think a financial education qualifies you to be a contractor. I’ve been reading the diary of Ann Morrison, and it goes through the years of her and Harry’s courtship and then how they built that company. And then when you compare that with Bill Agee, there is no comparison.

Q: After you left Morrison Knudsen, you went into consulting. How did you end up on the Channel Tunnel project?

A: I was in Nepal, working for a Japanese contractor on an underground hydroelectric project, when the Channel Tunnel people called. (My wife) told me they were looking for me to talk to me. I just kind of blew it off. I didn’t think that was realistic at all.

Q: Why not?

A: The biggest Anglo-French project in history? They’d hire an American or somebody outside French or British industry? I ­couldn’t believe it.

Q: What happened when you interviewed with the consortium in charge?

A: The search guy said, “The consortium wants to hire you but they want you to take a battery of psychological tests and a physical examination.” ... They didn’t want somebody wild.

Q: What was it like once you got to work?

A: The tunnel was just in a horrible mess. After I’d been there a few months, I realized that I knew more about the tunnels than the people in charge. I’d go down there every day. I knew the people running the machines and each of the headings on the British side. That’s where the trouble was. The French side was on time and on budget.

Q: What problems did the British side have?

A: They didn’t have management systems that were common across the whole British works. The French did. We had probably the best French underground people in the industry in France, and that was good fortune, because I would never have been able to deal with the French like I did with the English, because of the cultures.

Q: How were the project’s financing problems solved?

A: Japanese banks had about 30 percent of the total debt, and their banking system was in trouble. They wouldn’t agree to the refinancing. That’s the only time we had the government involved. Margaret Thatcher called the Japanese prime minister, and they finally decided then that they could renegotiate.

Q: In your career of fixing projects, what made you successful? Why could you succeed where others couldn’t?

A: Common sense is one thing. And experience. I ­didn’t start out at the top of the process. I started out with a No. 2 shovel in the ditch. So I related to the working-man’s position. Hard work was a big part of it. The first year my wife and I were married, I flew 400,000 miles. I’d go around the world every three or four weeks.

Q: How did you end up deciding to retire?

A: Last August [2012], I resigned from the last major contract that we had, and that was to consult with the owner of the Istanbul Metro. I had been going to Turkey three times a year for seven years. Last August, it came time to go again, and I was too damned tired to go, so I just resigned.

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