After building Schueck Steel into a family of companies under the Lexicon corporate banner, Tom Schueck has developed a secondary career of sorts.
The Little Rock businessman has taken a shine to the world of boards and commissions as a political appointee and charity-tapped steward. The chairman of Lexicon Inc. serves as a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission, The Nature Conservancy, the Arkansas Industrial & Economic Development Foundation and the Foundation Board at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Schueck has done stints of local and statewide significance on the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission, Arkansas Parks, Recreation & Travel Commission, Little Rock Progress Committee and Arkansas Pollution Control & Ecology Commission.
But he’s hard-pressed to pick a favorite. “Oh, I don’t know,” Schueck said. “They were all enjoyable. It’s fun to serve, and it makes you feel like you’re doing your civic duty.”
He’s proud of the things that were accomplished during his 2005-15 term on the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission. His big-picture take: The state’s largest airport was transformed from a small, poorly financed organization into a well-financed organization, with money in the bank and no debt.
While it was gratifying to play a part in that, Schueck’s attention these days is on roadways, not runways. “The highway department is my big interest,” he said.
A front-burner item for Schueck is solidifying the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s financial footing. Before his term on the Arkansas Highway Commission expires in 2021, Schueck hopes to better position the department to maintain the pace of progress for the state’s ground transportation network.
He and other good-road boosters are looking at ways to come up with $500 million annually to devote to improving Arkansas highways, county roads and municipal streets.
Maybe that will come through an initiated act. It could be accomplished through legislative nips and tucks, too. Schueck mulls over some possibilities aloud.
Remove the exemption from the fuel excise tax at the wholesale level. That change alone would raise an estimated $250 million annually.
Increase annual registration fees for vehicles by $20. That’s another $50 million-$60 million.
Dedicate the sales tax on new and used cars to the highway program instead of general revenue, and that would put $228 million in play.
“The Legislature would have to find a way to replace that,” Schueck said. “As you can imagine, that’s a sensitive topic.
“My scenario is designed to see what we can do with the Legislature because we know we won’t make any friends going through an initiated act to get funding.”
He points out that all of those revenue sources are tied in some fashion to use of the state roadways.
His term on the commission will expire one year shy of the conclusion of the Connecting Arkansas Program. The $1.8 billion program is midway through its 10-year run of improving 200 miles of highways and interstates around Arkansas.
On top of that, counties and municipalities share in an additional $700 million-plus raised by a 0.5 percent bump in the sales tax. It’s the typical 70-30 state and local funding split that pays for road construction in Arkansas.
“What’s good for us at the highway department is good for cities and counties,” Schueck said. “When that stops, can you imagine what will happen? There’s a lot riding on this stuff.
“I get kind of revved up on that because we definitely need the money.”
He would love to see an extension of the program with a new menu of improvements to replace the 36 CAPS projects completed or in motion. The importance of presenting a list of specific projects for voters to see isn’t lost on Schueck.
“They like to know ‘This is what I get,’” he said.
Lexicon’s high-water mark for revenue was set in 2015 at $378.8 million, and employment has surged to as many as 2,500. Last year’s revenue totaled $253 million, supported by a core staff of 1,200.
Scores of project images line the wall of a central hallway at Lexicon’s 250,000-SF main building in the Little Rock Port Industrial Park. The pictures capture a sampling of the company’s fabricating and construction capabilities, including handiwork by its Custom Metals affiliate.
Most of the jobs are in mid-America, and work product has gone as far afield as the South Pole for research facilities.
On display is the installation of massive pieces of equipment and more to help build steel mills, power plants, convention centers, automobile plants, high-rises, arenas and rocket stands.
“We build a lot of steelmaking-related stuff,” Schueck said. “It’s big and it’s heavy and not everyone can do it.”
The 76-year-old executive makes his way from his office, past the resume mural to the front desk to complete a circuit through the corporate corridors. On this particular Monday morning, a couple of sports legends from the University of Arkansas are in the Lexicon house.
In the lobby entryway on his cellphone, Sidney Moncrief, All-American Razorback basketball great and five-time NBA All-Star, is waiting to see Schueck.
At the front desk about to leave is Billy Moore, All-American Razorback quarterback in 1962. Moore is going over travel arrangements to Canton, Ohio, as part of a Little Rock contingent to see Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jones and Schueck, both big Razorback boosters and former Pleasant Valley neighbors, also did business together to build the current home of the Cowboys: AT&T Stadium. Prospect Steel provided 5,000 tons of fabrication work on the $1.3 billion project nicknamed Jerry’s World that opened in 2009.
The grand stadium is a high-profile resume item to be sure, but it’s dwarfed by other jobs, such as 30,000 tons at the McCormick West Convention Center in Chicago and a pair of 40,000-ton projects for ThyssenKrupp in Alabama, a carbon steel plant in Calvert and a stainless melt shop in Mobile.
The door opener for those kinds of contracts was closer to home, a northeast Arkansas job that Schueck crowns as the most significant event in the evolution of the company.
“I can tell you exactly what it was: Nucor-Yamato Steel,” said Schueck.
“It changed this company into what we are today. Thirty years ago, that was our first big, big job that put us into other big jobs. We became a general contractor with a major in structural steel. Now, we’re probably the largest single steelmill builder in America.”
The company’s Heritage Links venture specializes in golf course construction on projects such as New Jersey’s Liberty National Golf Course, Washington’s Chambers Bay and The Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Tucson, Arizona.
Schueck has come a long way from being a steel products sales rep to starting in 1968 the company whose success opened the doors to the inner circles of the Arkansas business elite. Not many can say they were an honorary pallbearer for Don Tyson.
Operating his own business wasn’t even a dream, Schueck said. Early work on the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Little Rock, Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville and Dillard’s projects helped establish the company.
“You want to talk about someone who didn’t know how to run a company? You’re looking at him,” Schueck said.
His father was a St. Louis fireman who died while he was a grade-schooler. Work as a timekeeper for a road contractor after high school set Schueck on his path to heavy construction. “That was a fun job,” he said. “It was a great training ground.”
His exposure to the construction business led to night school in pursuit of a civil engineering degree at Washington University. That paper chase blossomed into Schueck becoming a full-time college student, although by his account, he had trouble getting out of high school.
His most important ingredient for success? “That’s relationships,” Schueck said. “You have to have them to go to the next level. Know your customer with the goal of knowing them personally.”