When Bob Carlisle was 18, he made a decision that would have haunted most people for life; he quit college after a single semester. Neither Carlisle’s heart nor his head was in school. Instead, the lifelong Omaha boy wanted to go back to work at the Omaha Country Club – a place that had been a second home to him since the age of 11, when he learned to caddy at his father’s suggestion. For many people, Carlisle’s choice would have stifled his career
potential, but for Carlisle and his eventual foray into the construction world, it was what you would call “perfect timing.”
As his peers hit the books and the higher-educated watering holes, Carlisle began honing his managerial skills as an assistant manager at OCC, overseeing high school and college kids in the dining room and in the bar. He also spent a fair number of hours slinging drinks and picking the brains of some of Omaha’s biggest and most successful businessmen, including Peter Kiewit, an Omaha General Contractor who was renowned for building the firm that bears his name into a worldwide company.
In fact, quitting college may have been one of the best things Carlisle ever did in his life. It was at the country club that Carlisle met the man who would later give him his first construction job and it was at the country club that Carlisle learned he had a knack and a calling to be a manager.
“It’s ironic how timing is everything. I had a college math professor who always said, ‘If I could predict the timing of when things are going to happen, I’d rule the world,’" Carlisle recently recalled.
“I have thought of that many times over the years. The truth is, it couldn’t have happened at a better time (quitting college). It was perfect timing.”
Today, Carlisle and the company that he founded with Jim Meyers in 1987 is finishing its year-long 30th anniversary celebration. MCL Construction has grown from its initial days as a storefront startup into one of Omaha’s premier construction firms that routinely lands some of the biggest projects in the city.
Over the last year, the company has hosted a summer dance party, along with monthly stories on its website chronicling MCL’s history and the people behind its rise. Carlisle and his story officially marks the end of the anniversary series and the year that was 2017. But, anyone who thinks that either Carlisle or MCL plans to sit on its laurels, think again. Carlisle is already working on the company’s blueprint for the next 30 years – take that 2018.
And, let’s just clear this up right here and now; Carlisle may have tapped a successor for his company – Tony Fucinaro – but that doesn’t mean he won’t be around for the next anniversary. “I’m not going away anytime soon,” Carlisle laughs, noting that his father still works as a dentist at the age of 85.
So, before Carlisle gets too deep into 2018 and too deep into ensuring that his company lasts long into the future, let’s take one last chance to look back at one of MCL’s founders and the man who has been at the helm from the start.
Carlisle is an Omaha boy through and through. He was raised in central Omaha by two staunch Catholics who liked to have the priest come over for Sunday breakfast. His mother was a second generation Sicilian, while his father’s family had strong roots in Nebraska. (His grandfather was a former State Patrol trooper from Falls City.)
“My parents are very faith-driven people. It’s a huge part of their lives,” said Carlisle.
Carlisle was the oldest of six children. “It wasn’t a loud household, but there was a lot of conversation. There was a lot of interaction when it came to pizza, pasta, and bread. We were always talking about cooking” he smiled.
As the oldest, Carlisle was expected to be the Big Brother who helped with homework and with bedtime. “I would describe Bob as a leader. He made sure we all stayed on task,” said Mary Carlisle-Novacek, one of Carlisle’s two sisters.
“Bob sets goals for himself. He always has. I believe his company has come to fruition because he has always expected nothing but the best from himself and his company,” she added.
Like all of his siblings, Carlisle went to parochial school, attending St. Pius as an elementary student. He loved sports and played as many games as he could as a kid. He remembers spending hours in a gym on a weekend, shooting as many baskets as he and his teammates could, with the goal of reaching 1,000 tosses.
“Sports taught me a lot about how to manage a business. You can’t just roll out of bed and expect to succeed. You have to do a lot of preparation and practice,” Carlisle said.
Like his father before him, Carlisle went to Creighton Prep for high school. It was there he met his lifelong friend, Mike McGlade, who now works as a senior associate dean for administration at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“He was a driven guy, even from the early years. He was always the guy who had to have a plan and who followed through,” said McGlade. “On our intramural teams, he was very competitive. He always played hard. He was driven and he wanted to win.”
Many of Carlisle’s school friends remain his compadres today, and he has worked to maintain those connections. It’s not an overstatement to say that Creighton Prep and Omaha Country Club will always be a big part of Carlisle’s life. Friends from both the club and the school are still in his life today.
“He’s an Omaha guy whose strength is his friendships. Omaha is a "big" small town and Carlisle has connections everywhere. He’s just a tree with many branches,” said Paul Beller, an MCL vice president.
“Because of his connections, he has a pulse of what’s going on in this town. He does see ahead. He’s not just looking a year from now. He’s looking 20 years from now,” Beller added.
After high school, Carlisle followed his friends into college but it didn’t last long. After a semester at Creighton University, Carlisle decided to take a job as assistant manager at the country club – a job managing several hundred “egos.”
“My heart wasn’t set on college. I wasn’t into it. My heart was with the people at the Country Club,” Carlisle said. “I loved taking care of people, managing people.”
He doesn’t regret leaving college for a minute. Carlisle met a lot of influential and successful people at the club, pouring drinks and listening to their stories. He learned what makes a successful businessman tick, and he learned that financial success doesn’t translate into happiness. It is one of the reasons today that Carlisle makes sure that his life revolves around more than work.
“He is passionate about many things, not just business. He loves concerts. He loves sports. He’s a well-rounded guy,” Beller said.
Carlisle considers his years at OCC as some of the most productive of his life. He learned how to work with a variety of people, and he learned that most people, given the opportunity, simply want to do their best.
“I made some great friends there. I learned a lot about getting along with people. I learned there are people from all walks of life and that they put their pants on the same way we do, one leg at a time,” Carlisle recalled.
It wasn’t long, however, that Carlisle began to make a plan for life outside of OCC. After two years as the assistant manager, he decided to go back to school for marketing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
While going to school, he landed a “grunt” job at Hicks Construction. The owner of the company, Curt Hicks, was a good golfer and a regular at OCC and he made sure to give Carlisle the hours and the work he needed to survive.
Carlisle graduated in three years and he landed a marketing job with Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. The only problem was that Carlisle didn’t want to leave Omaha and, truth be told, Hicks didn’t want Carlisle to leave his company. He offered Carlisle a marketing position with Hicks Construction, saying he would never make as much money as he could in construction.
It was while working for Hicks Construction that he met Jim Meyers, his future business partner. The two men bonded despite their age differences and they developed a strong working relationship, with Carlisle working to convince prospective clients to narrow the bidding process to a few pre-selected companies before opening it up to bid.
“So, instead of bidding against 15 guys, we were bidding against four,” said Carlisle.
Carlisle and Meyers had no problems working with Hicks, but they began to realize that they were bringing in most of the work, while Hicks’ son was being groomed as the successor. To put it simply, they didn’t think they were being fairly compensated for everything that they were doing for the company and they decided the time had come to work for themselves.
“Nobody has ever been successful or made something work by being too conservative,” said Carlisle.
The two left and on their way out, they convinced MCL’s top superintendents and office manager to come with them and to start a new enterprise. Carlisle and Meyers had been planning their departure for a while, and the two had several jobs lined up before they left and set up shop in a small storefront office.
“They were up and running within a few days of leaving because they had the entire crew,” said Keith Basham, an Omaha architect who has worked with the company for years.
That was 30 years ago this year and here are two astonishing facts about MCL: the company never had to borrow money and it has never had to lay off a large number of people due to an economic downturn. There have been some worrisome nights but Carlisle has always worked to make sure his workers had a jobsite to go to in the morning.
“I never doubted MCL would survive. What kept me up at night was making sure people had things to do. What kept me up at night was finding the next job.” And, they found the jobs.
They began to do all the remodeling work for First National Bank – MCL still has the contract today – and they landed a big gig at Immanuel Hospital.
“We were always lean and mean. If our company needed 20 people in the office, we had 10,” Carlisle said.
He still loves his job. In fact, Carlisle still does project management work as well as sales and marketing work. “He’s out there grinding it every day, making that next business connection,” Beller said.
He’s managed to keep more than a few employees around for the long haul. People like Nancy Benson have worked with Carlisle for decades and are – so we’ve heard – have had trouble leaving the place. Charles Sachs even came out of retirement several years ago to work for Carlisle.
“He’s very honest. No B.S. I’ve worked with people who tell you one thing and do something else. Bob’s word is good,” said Sachs, who recently retired as an MCL superintendent.
Carlisle is not leaving MCL, but he is already thinking about the future. The man with a plan in high school – he said he always knew he was going to own his own business – still has a plan. He wants to ensure that MCL is around for decades – if not centuries – to come. That’s why he has chosen a successor in Tony Fucinaro, whom Carlisle is grooming to be the company’s next CEO.
“He’s looking out for the strength of the company,” Beller explained. “It’s more than just about Bob Carlisle; it’s about the people he’s hired and employed. He wants this business to be successful when he is gone.”
But, listen up Tony and MCL, Bob Carlisle is not anywhere close to retirement. He still has a few sales pitches left in him, and the passion to land that next job.
“I love what I do. I love going to work every day,” Carlisle said. “I love working with people. Seeing my people succeed and enjoying what they do. That makes me happy.”
Yup, don’t expect Carlisle to leave anytime soon. MCL needs someone to put its 50th anniversary together.
Can we say, “See You in 2037, MCL?”
30-Year Reflection Series
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