Losing One of Our Best

Jan 06, 2003

It is a sad day as I write this. I am at Boston’s Logan International Airport waiting for a flight to Dallas-Fort Worth so I can attend the funeral of my long-time friend and mentor, Jerry Allen. Cancer claimed him at 4 a.m. on Saturday, December 28, 2002, barely 62 years old and looking 20 years younger than that right up to the end. At the time of his death he was CEO of Carter & Burgess, a company he joined as a young civil engineer back in 1969 when they had 40 employees. Jerry became Executive VP and COO of the company in 1985, back when I worked at Carter & Burgess, and was named CEO shortly after I left in 1988. The firm did phenomenally well under Jerry’s leadership, and today the company has 2,300 employees with more than 40 offices in 22 states throughout the U.S., in addition to a European operation. Jerry was born in Texarkana, grew up in West Memphis, and got his civil engineering degree at Mississippi State University. He was smart as a whip and specialized in structural engineering. His early life experiences prepared him well. Anyone who ever worked with Jerry could tell you that he was a very tough, no nonsense guy, who was also incredibly personable and very gracious. He was as strong of a leader as I have ever known— the master of the chess game of business. He was a long-range, big-picture thinker who was also extremely practical. He set the course for C&B back in 1989 with a simple vision of “2000 by 2000,” amidst considerable skepticism— and exceeded the goal. Jerry was also a tremendous athlete. He threw his pipe away and quit riding his motorcycles in the early ‘80s and began an intense physical exercise regimen that he maintained throughout the rest of his life. One of the last interviews Mark Grady, managing editor of The Zweig Letter, had with Jerry was conducted while Jerry ran on his treadmill! He was also a great skier and golfer who always did well in spite of very little practice. Even though Jerry was never my supervisor, he took me under his wing and gave me valuable advice on how to get my ideas across and create change in a multi-owner firm filled with strong personalities. Staying calm, having the numbers, doing your homework, setting a good personal example, and allowing others to save face were all components of Jerry Allen’s managerial philosophy that he tried to pass on to me. Jerry was also a very classy guy. An impeccable dresser, I marveled when traveling with him how he kept wooden shoe trees in his shoes to keep them in shape, even on the road! At the same time, Jerry had the spirit of a street fighter. When I left C&B to work for another company here in Boston and it didn’t work out, I had to talk him out of coming up here to punch out the guy I was working for. That’s the kind of friend he was. Jerry used to drag me along when he had meetings with important people as a part of my education. He took me to lunch with Bobby Valentine and introduced me to the CEO of American Airlines. We even met Sam Walton together at the grand opening of the first Sam’s Club store in Texas. No matter how busy he was, Jerry always made time for you. He would meet me every time I went to the Dallas-Fort Worth area if he was in town. I almost got us killed one night during one of my visits back there in the early 90s. After dinner at On the Border restaurant in Arlington, I pulled out of the parking lot in my rented Hertz Mustang GT (they used to rent ‘em), punched it, and did a 180 in the middle of the road! Didn’t phase Jerry one bit. Jerry was a great recruiter. He took a personal interest in every new hire the company made. He had high standards and didn’t believe in hiring anyone who didn’t have good grades or good communication skills for any role in the firm. Nor did he believe, however, that any employee who had been loyal to the company should be quickly cast off. He would go to great lengths to get people reassigned to roles that would make the best use of their talents. Jerry was fearless. When I last spoke to him and he told me his long-term prospects weren’t good, in typical Jerry Allen fashion, he wasn’t scared or bitter at all. I just got a note from Jerry along with his Christmas card. Too bad he probably didn’t have a chance to read mine. Jerry Allen leaves some awful big shoes to fill. The A/E industry lost one of our best— if not the best— when we lost Jerry. Goodbye, Old Friend.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.