Editor’s note: This Q&A appears in the latest magazine edition of Talk Business & Politics, which you can read here.
In the years since earning a civil engineering degree from Washington University at St. Louis in 1965, Tom Schueck has formed and managed companies while always keeping the same mantra – provide superior service at a fair price.
He is chairman and CEO of Little Rock-based Lexicon Management Group, Inc., a family of companies that includes Schueck Steel, which specializes in structural steel erection, mechanical equipment installation, construction management and plant maintenance. Along the way, Schueck has served on numerous boards and commissions, including the Arkansas Highway Commission and the Little Rock Airport Commission. We caught up with him recently and asked his thoughts on – among other things – the economy, challenges facing the highway and airport commissions, and the late Don Tyson.
Talk Business & Politics: What’s your take on what you see going right in the economy and what you see going wrong in the economy?
Tom Schueck: What do I see going right in the economy … well, you know, after every bump in the road in the economy, there’s always a spike. You’ve got that, we’re in the spike right now, but our manpower situation … we talk about bringing all this work into America. Well, American manufacturing’s got a lot of work, there just aren’t enough people to do the work that’s here. That’s a problem we have. As far as what’s going on in the economy, it’s regulations. Regulations kill small business or any type of business in America. It’s a world-wide economic manufacturing basis, and a lot of these people, they have no regulations, and we have to compete against them.
A job last week, steel came from Thailand. I’ve never seen steel coming from Thailand. And you know, we did a job in Thailand and there are no rules there … no workman’s comp there. Those people get hurt, they don’t work; they don’t work, they don’t get paid.
TB&P: You are on the state Highway Commission and the Little Rock Airport Commission. What competitive advantages and liabilities does Arkansas have as far as infrastructure?
Schueck: The good part is the fact that we’re a small state. That’s nice. People know each other, and nothing we’ve got is mega big. Let’s talk about the airport. Our boardings are down from a million three to about 950,000. That’s a bad thing, and part of that is because we don’t have any large corporations with headquarters in Little Rock. We’ve got a couple smaller ones, but in the scheme of things, we don’t have the people that travel on business. So our mixture of pleasure and people who travel on business is about 50-50, whereas in places like Atlanta and Dallas and Houston, of course, you’ve got all kinds of business travel. So yeah, that’s a bad part. The other bad part is the price of the tickets – nobody ever really knows what that’s gonna be, so instead of flying to Dallas they drive to Dallas, ’cause they know they can get there, and that the price is gonna be a lot more reasonable for a few hours of their time than driving to Little Rock and flying to Dallas. Those are the bad things, of course.
TB&P: And regarding highways, Arkansas voters OK’d a 10-year, half-cent sales tax to improve highway and infrastructure projects throughout the state.
Schueck: That really helped a lot. And I think you’ll see that in the large metropolitan areas, which is here [Little Rock], Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas, once we get these intersections where the six lanes meet the six lanes, the interstates meet the interstates, once we get those interchanges in good shape, kinda like we’re doing with the Big Rock interchange, I think you’ll find that the traffic will flow much better and then all we have to do is kinda straighten out other roads. One of the biggest things in my life right now is trying to toll Interstate 40. I know you mention toll and everybody gets excited …
TB&P: One way or the other…
Schueck: But the only way it’s ever going to be affordable for us to put another lane on Interstate 40 is to toll it. Otherwise, I don’t know how it’s going to get done. If we could do it without tolling, I’d be all for it. But … if we toll it, all the money we’re spending now on interstate 40, just to maintain, would be taken care of with the toll money, and we could use that money to upgrade other highways throughout the state.
That would be extremely helpful. Also, most people don’t know that the Highway Department gets very little money from the state. So, last year, we tried to get the sales tax on anything that’s road related – tires, batteries, cars – that’s what’s done in most states around the country. But, we were unsuccessful. I think we’ll probably keep going after that.
TB&P: You’ve got 10 years to try to get it to happen, so …
Schueck: Yeah, and then you got I-49, which connects New Orleans with Kansas City. We got a big hunk missing right in the middle of the state of Arkansas. It’s gonna cost a couple billion, maybe 3 billion. We don’t know where that money’s gonna come from. We got I-69 which comes from the East Coast, cuts across the center of Arkansas, goes to the Texas coastal area … that’s another 3 billion that we don’t know where it’s coming from. We don’t have it. We don’t have that kinda money – we just don’t have it.
TB&P: You serve on the Don Tyson Family Trust. How did you meet the late Don Tyson?
Schueck: Don was a remarkable man. I don’t know exactly where I met him, but there’s a good chance it was in a bar. To do what he did with a company is just remarkable. There’s nothing that scared him. From a business standpoint, he’d go after somebody twice his size … to buy – and he did it twice! You know? And, he was just extremely intelligent, that whole Tyson group is – hey got that super gene that just makes you real smart. But there’s a certain amount of gambler, and they’re not afraid to put it out there. As you can see, they’ve built a hell of a company. And the company today is even much, much bigger and better than when Don left us. Still miss that man.
TB&P: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever given or received?
Schueck: Well, I’ve been asked that question before. My own advice is brains. Brains’ll win every time; I believe that. As far as just in this business, I don’t believe there’s any real sound advice other than take care of your money. You know, making money’s one thing, keeping it is something else. I forgot who told me … I think it was Don Tyson.