Founders of Major Construction Firm Describe What It Takes to Form a Successful Partnership
The two men provided a striking contrast, but also a lesson in what makes a good partnership. One wore a conservative suit and tie, his white hair neatly combed. The other chose to go with leather jacket, open collar, and sunglasses, with a shaved head the same dark tan as the rest of him. The two men were Peter Lehrer and Gene McGovern, and together they built one of the country's most successful construction management companies—not despite their differences, but often because of them. "In forming a real true partnership, you need chemistry—something you almost can't describe, something that just clicks," McGovern said. "You get to the point where you know what your partner is going to say. There is no formula."
McGovern and Lehrer visited Yale SOM on April 26 to show and talk about Dream Builders, a documentary about the company they founded in 1979. Lehrer worked on getting clients, while McGovern handled more of the on-site work. Begun with only $10,000 in funds, Lehrer/McGovern quickly established itself as a respected manager of large construction jobs. But it was one project that helped launch the firm on its path to becoming an international giant. In 1984, Lehrer/McGovern beat out many far larger outfits to win the renovation contract for the Statue of Liberty. Other jobs soon followed: the renovations of Grand Central Station and Ellis Island; the construction of Canary Wharf business district in London and Euro Disney. "We gravitated to unique, highly difficult, and visible projects," said Lehrer. "We built hundreds of more routine projects, but any time there was something unique, we wanted it."
But while the pair came to Yale to discuss their success, they made a point of stressing how they nearly let it all fall apart. The rise of Lehrer/McGovern attracted the attention of the major British firm Bovis Construction, which bought half of the company in 1986, with an option on the rest in 1988. The pair said they saw no choice but to go through with the deal. After the agreement became final, McGovern surprised Lehrer by moving to London to head up the new entity's international arm. The two men didn't speak for years, allowing business to destroy a friendship. "What brought us together—the complexity of our own lives and perspectives—pushed us apart," Lehrer said.
At an event in Grand Central Station, the men noticed each other across the room. Rather than continue the feud, they approached each other, embraced, and put it behind them. "Often there is no reconciliation," Lehrer said. "It takes a major effort to say you screwed up and put it behind you."