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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Peter Lehrer

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-07-28

Peter Lehrer does them big.

He renovated America's global symbol, the Statue of Liberty. He built the facilities for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. He raised Euro Disney in Paris. He created Canary Wharf in London. He supervised the construction of the PanAm - now MetLife - Building. He did the restoration of Grand Central Station and of Ellis Island. He advised the builders of the new Bloomberg LP headquarters in Manhattan.

"I've been driven by ambition - combined with the fear of failing," Mr. Lehrer said. "I always expected to win. My company's track record was 8 wins out every 10 projects we bid for."

Then he paused, and said: "But why would you want to write about me?"
In view of his four-decade-long career as an internationally recognized leader in the construction industry - including his co-founding of the behemoth Lehrer McGovern Inc. -- that seemed like an unusual question.

The reporter realized that a response wasn't expected. Mr. Lehrer is self-effacing to a fault.

That quality may seem incongruous in a man whose company consistently had sales of more than $2 billion annually, making it among the top three builders in America's $100 billion commercial-construction industry. It may seem particularly out of place for a man who, since his graduation as an engineer from North Carolina State University, has been a key player in what's widely regarded as a tough and scrappy business.

Some of Mr. Lehrer's modesty is conveyed through his loose-limbed posture and quiet manner. Even when he speaks of professional accomplishments, he's quick to share credit with colleagues.

Such as when he said: "I always had tremendous belief in myself - but even more in the people I worked with, in my company ability's to deliver."

Or: "My colleagues and I simply never expected to lose. The secret of business success is good team work - and I've always had great teams to work with."

The first team was at the legendary Morse Diesel Inc., then headed by the mercurial Carl Morse. Mr. Morse gave Mr. Lehrer enormous responsibilities from the get-go, particularly during the construction of the PanAm Building. He also gave him frequent tongue lashings, but none more severe than on June 12, 1979, when Mr. Lehrer walked in for a special chat with his boss and mentor.

By now Mr. Lehrer had become president of the company. By now he'd gained a sterling reputation in the construction business. By now he was raring to hang his own shingle.

"Mr. Morse grew red in the face and told me that I had 15 minutes to get out of the building," Mr. Lehrer said.

He met that deadline, but not before persuading several colleagues to walk out with him. One of them was Gene McGovern.

Thus was born Lehrer McGovern Inc. The two founders each invested $5,000 in their company.

"From the very first day, we were determined to be the biggest and best construction company in town," Mr. Lehrer said.

That was a laudable objective, of course, but where would new business come from? The answer arrived in the form of a serendipitous assignment to build a new headquarters for General Foods in Westchester.

A host of other prestigious assignments followed: The Metrotech Center in Brooklyn, the New York Times printing plant in Queens, New York Hospital, numerous projects for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.

"The most important thing you have in any business is your reputation," Mr. Lehrer said. "You build for less money, you build faster and charge less than your competition - and you always stay personally involved in every project. We had surprisingly little difficulty in having people trust us with their projects."

Another kind of trust was forthcoming eventually from Bovis, a British company that bought Lehrer McGovern, and asked Mr. Lehrer to run it for a decade.

"When you think about it, construction of buildings is the same today that it was during Biblical times - it's a process driven by people," Mr. Lehrer said. "A leader has to be respectful of the people who work with the company. You can be a tough boss, but you also need to be fair and honest with your colleagues."

A lifetime of that philosophy produced a plethora of buildings on many continents. The sheer breadth of his accomplishments was captured one weekend not long ago when Mr. Lehrer was driving around Manhattan with his wife Eileen, and daughters Debora and Suzanne.

"Look," one of his daughters said, pointing to a series of handsome edifices, "Daddy built those."

"I was quite touched," Mr. Lehrer said, in another trademark understatement.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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