“Leadership is fearing the right things.” H. Montgomery Martin knows a thing or two about risk assessment. As the founder, president, and CEO of Montgomery Martin Contractors (MMC), the former distance runner must measure and evaluate risk — and process any fears a client might bring — the moment his business partners with another. You’ve seen the results of MMC’s partnerships: the Shelby Farms “Heart of the Park” transformation, the Pyramid’s conversion to a Bass Pro Shops unlike any other on the planet, and the Kroc Center, to name just three. For 23 years now, Martin has led a transformation of Memphis, one carefully planned project at a time.
“We were kind of a 20-year startup,” Martin says through a chuckle. “We weren’t real corporate. Just bootstraps. We’d estimate well, get work, and start relationships. But we didn’t have a mission statement. A couple of years ago, we set out to determine why we’d been successful. What made us who we are? We create places where people thrive. That’s our purpose. It helps give us focus. And it informs everything we do.”
Martin’s father, David, was 14 years old and living in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Harold “Beauty” Martin — Montgomery’s grandfather and namesake — was a naval officer stationed on the island, overseeing a construction venture. (“He could get away with that [nickname],” explains Martin, “because he was an admiral.”) When asked by his family to see what the air activity was about that fateful Sunday morning, David needed but a glance outside his window to recognize trouble. The bombing of Pearl Harbor took place on the other side of a mountain from their house, but a Japanese kamikaze crashed only a few hundred yards away. It’s the kind of story — and narrow escape — that shapes perspective across generations.
“That’s why I’m here, in Memphis,” says Martin. “Granddaddy had tours of duty, in Philadelphia, Washington, Midway. He was always an air guy, a pilot. His last tour of duty was the base in Millington, where airline mechanics were trained. My dad would visit from Stanford, where he was studying architecture. My mother was at Hutchison. And they met.”
Martin enjoyed a comfortable youth, attending MUS (where he ran the 800 and mile for the track team) and later Auburn, where he graduated in 1978 with a degree in building science. Years of attending his father’s office — cluttered with blueprints and the tools of an architect’s trade — had ingrained Martin with a comfort level that made a career in construction feel like a calling.
“I always liked to tinker,” says Martin. “I’d go to my dad’s office with him at nights and on weekends. I went into pre-med [at college], but that was too hard. My brother showed up one morning at my fraternity house and said Dad had a proposition. He’d pay for my next semester if I’d declare a major. So I enrolled in building science, and it was like I already had the vocabulary. It was a walk in the park.”
Trust and integrity are words Martin emphasizes when asked about his growth as a leader. (Staffed with fewer than five employees when founded in 1995, MMC now has more than 120.) The company’s website describes one of Martin’s roles as ensuring “the company has the ability to make and keep all of its commitments.” But where does the CEO of a construction company start in making a commitment?
“Schedule,” says Martin. “It’s not an exciting answer, but everything’s time-driven. A bid is about time. People ask me when we’ll be finished on a building. My joking answer is, ‘When we run out of money.’ It’s a joke; we’re not done until the contract is completed. But how many man-hours will it take to lay brick? You’re the low bidder if you do things well . . . and fast. Quality is driven by the scope of work, and the scope of work has to be done in a given amount of time.”
Martin’s industry is impacted by two volatile dynamics: weather and people. Rain, sleet, and snow will delay a project. So will illness, injury, and neglect. “We have a CQS mindset,” he says. “Cost, quality, and schedule. As crazy and dynamic as our industry is, I’ve always had a philosophy of simplifying it as much as I can. Henry Ford’s assembly line was very predictable. You could figure out what it cost to manufacture a car. If you think of construction that way, anything you can repeat — get really good at — you’re going to be able to do better, cheaper, and faster.”
Montgomery Martin — the company — is typically overseeing between 10 and 20 jobs concurrently. Which means Montgomery Martin — the CEO — must lead a team of leaders that includes project managers and superintendents for every last project. And for each client, their project is the only one that matters.
How does Martin multiply his brand’s impact while maintaining long-established standards? He wants MMC to be the first company a potential partner thinks about. “Being indispensible is a crazy goal, so to do that, you must have a great company. My favorite clients are the ones that are educated and experienced in the industry. They understand what we do, and we have nothing to hide. We aim to be a value-added partner.”
MMC hires young talent, in part because the company’s standards and career growth synchronize. “It’s easier to train people than to untrain and retrain,” says Martin. “Teaching people to do things our way is a worthy goal.” As for the qualifications that open a door at MMC, Martin again emphasizes integrity. “Giving somebody a bid or signing a contract is making a promise,” he says. “That starts with showing up for work on time. We aspire to prevent surprises. We spend millions of dollars of other people’s money. They’ve got to trust our commitment. It’s a people business.”
Martin’s career has been one of devotion not only to cause but to place. “Growing up in Memphis and going through the tough times Memphis has had, combined with growing up as the son of an architect has formed much of my heart for helping rebuild the city,” says Martin. “I’ve been blessed. Most of the trouble I’ve had has been of my own doing. It’s incumbent on me — and this company — to give back.” MMC is a supporter of Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBE), among other agencies for societal growth.
Martin attributes any leadership skills he’s cultivated to his father, a man who built a career of impact after being an eyewitness to the most infamous attack on American soil of the twentieth century. “Bill Clark hired my dad [in the late Sixties] to be the president of the newly formed Clark & Clark Incorporated. Nobody does this, but Mr. Clark formed a construction company to build Clark Tower. Dad was respected by so many people. He was the guy everybody approached to solve a problem. I learned about building — really building — from him. As a leader, [he showed me] what it looked like from the top, to run a company. His was a quiet force of excellence.”
The father of two daughters and now a doting grandfather, Martin sees Memphis as already having the qualities that can attract young leaders of distinction. “Memphis has always been a little edgy,” he says, “a little different. We are leaders in music, in education reform, in workforce development. Can we overcome the fear of failure? Understanding fear is a good thing. Leaders in our industry have positioned themselves for such a time as this.”