Tom Schueck, Lexicon Founder and Arkansas' 'Titan' of Steel, Dies at 78

Tom Schueck, Lexicon Founder and Arkansas' 'Titan' of Steel, Dies at 78
Thomas B. Schueck, founder and former chairman of Lexicon Fabricators and Constructors of Little Rock. (Karen E. Segrave)

Thomas B. Schueck, who founded steel company Lexicon and grew it into one of the state's largest private companies, died Tuesday morning. He was 78.

"Tom Schueck was a force to be reckoned with — both in business and in life," the Schueck family said in statement released by Schueck's son Patrick. "A titan of the steel industry, he approached every day with determination, melding blue-collar work ethic with innovative ideas to transform a fledging small business into one of Arkansas's largest companies." 

A 2017 inductee into the University of Arkansas' Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, Schueck's Lexicon Holding Co. of Little Rock reported $370 million in revenue in 2018, enough to put the firm at No. 32 on Arkansas Business' most recent list of the state's 75 largest private companies.

But he was also a public servant who devoted time to state and city commissions and boards. Schueck was chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission at the time of his death.

"Early this morning, the state of Arkansas lost a true leader in business and public service," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement. "Tom Schueck created jobs in Arkansas. He helped build the steel industry in our state. He was devoted to his family. He was a diligent and effective Chairman of the Arkansas State Highway Commission. His blunt talk and his wry sense of humor will be missed."

Former Gov. Mike Beebe, who appointed Schueck to the Highway Commission in 2011, said, “[He was a] consummate gentleman. He had a big ole heart; sometimes you didn’t know it. He could be gruff, but he was a good man who had a great, big generous heart. He was a really good guy and a really good businessman.”

Highway Commission Vice Chairman Robert Moore Jr. released a statement late Tuesday, on behalf of himself and fellow Commissioners Alec Farmer, Philip Taldo and Keith Gibson.

"Tom was never short on having opinions – and he voiced them. He could be tenacious, he could be stubborn, but he coupled that with a long-term vision and goal that, quite honestly, almost always resulted in success," he said.

"Tom always described himself as a fighter – he loved to argue and debate. And as Commissioners Farmer, Taldo, and Gibson will attest, we had some very ‘direct’ conversations on the Highway Commission; that’s just the nature of the job," Moore continued. "Tom reveled in that, he wasn’t afraid to push hard to make a point. But we all knew that coming from Tom, it wasn’t personal, it was business. He had that unique ability to cuss you and buy your lunch all at the same time."

He concluded, "We’ll get a new commission member, but there was only one Tom Schueck.”

ARDOT Director Scott Bennett, who is set to retire on March 20, also released a statement late Tuesday. "On the  commission, Tom combined the intelligence of an engineer with the inquisitiveness of a schoolchild. He had a great depth of knowledge, but he never quit asking questions. Let’s just say the commission meetings got longer once Tom became a member. But he kept all of us on our toes, constantly challenging us to make sure we were getting the best possible outcomes," he said.

Bennett also said he "learned a lot from Tom about leadership and how to handle tough situations. Whether he did it on purpose, I don’t know, but he was a great teacher."

Over a long career, Schueck created a family of companies under the Lexicon banner that today employs about 1,500 people, more than 500 in Arkansas. 

Lexicon companies build power plants, refineries and steel mills and handle steel fabrication. It helped build the state's three major steel mills in Mississippi County, including the $1.3 billion Big River Steel facility completed in 2017. Lexicon steel can found inside Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

"But above all, he was a public servant and philanthropist whose generous spirit helped countless Arkansans in their pursuit of the American dream," the Schueck family said. "No matter where he was, Tom captivated others with his larger-than-life personality, sarcastic wit and intellect, and he will be sorely missed by his wife, children, grandchildren and all who knew him."

In addition to serving on the Arkansas Highway Commission, Schueck served in various capacities with The Nature Conservancy, the Arkansas Industrial & Economic Development Foundation and the Foundation Board at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. 

He also held seats on the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission, Arkansas Parks, Recreation & Travel Commission, Little Rock Progress Committee and Arkansas Pollution Control & Ecology Commission. And he was a key supporter of Arkansas Children's.

All of it came from humble beginnings, and Schueck learned as he went along. 

"You want to talk about someone who didn't know how to run a company? You’re looking at him," Schueck told Arkansas Business in 2017 of his early days.

Schueck's father was a St. Louis fireman who died while young Tom was in grade school. 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.

According to the UA, Schueck married his wife Marge in 1965, and they moved to Little Rock, where he opened Schueck Steel Products. While serving as a factory representative for various steel products, he learned of his customers' other needs and decided to expand Schueck Steel. The decision set him on the path that led to Lexicon.

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."

Dan DiMicco, former CEO and chairman of Nucor Steel, said he'd known Schueck for at least 25 years. He called him a great businessman and entrepreneur and "a great friend to Nucor."

"His company grew with our company because of the quality work and the commitment that he and his team constantly gave us," DiMicco said. "And I've always known Tom to be a man of his word. And just like I said, I just can't say enough good things about the guy. … Just a class person, a class organization, and a good friend."

Gus Vratsinas, founder of Vratsinas Enterprises LLC and chairman of Bailey Construction and Consulting LLC, was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2017, the same year as Schueck. He said he's done business with Schueck since the 1970s. The two served together on the Arkansas Economic Development Foundation Board.

"Well, without question, Tom had his unique leadership style, and he was always on top of his game," Vratsinas said Tuesday. "Of all the people on boards and commissions, very few people studied and read all the information that was sent to those board members of commissioners."

Vratsinas said Schueck was dependable and always prepared.

"It wasn't that he just took up space. He was very intelligent in his decision-making process. … Most of the time he was 100% right on," he said. "The state, the community ... we'll miss him."

Like Schueck, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. was appointed to the state Highway Commission by Beebe. In an email to Arkansas Business, Scott said Schueck "embodied the daily example of strength and moxie, balanced with love and generosity. 

"I am forever grateful to be one of his close friends and beneficiary of his wisdom and counsel," Scott said. "My heart and constant prayers extend to Marge, Jennifer, Patrick, and the entire Schueck family."

(With reporting by Kyle Massey, Sarah Campbell-Miller and George Waldon.)

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