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March 2010
The Right Thing
By Ellison Clary

     His only title these days is “grandfather,” but R.T. (Tom) Dooley laid the foundation for what later grew into a $306 million a year construction company.

     His sons, Bob Dooley and David Dooley, credit their father’s lessons in family values and community service, as well as his penchant for always doing the right thing, for helping them build on his success.

     Just last year the sons made the strategic decision to sell R.T. Dooley Construction to Balfour Beatty Construction U.S., a division of London-based Balfour Beatty plc, a construction, engineering and investment firm.

     Both sons continue to operate the firm from its 27,000-square-foot headquarters on Barringer Drive. That’s within three miles of Balfour Beatty’s Southeast Division headquarters.

 

A Faithful Example

     Tom Dooley was a long-time referee in the National Football League and is characterized by son Bob as “a rule nut.”

     “It’s just like life,” the elder Dooley says. “If you don’t follow the rules, then you fail at everything.”

     He and wife Nancy Wheeler Dooley are devoted to Christian principles, although son David allows that “the Christian side of my father is very quiet.”

     “We’ve always had a strong faith,” Tom Dooley says. “Jesus has been in our lives for a very long time.”

     For Tom Dooley, so has the YMCA. Charlotte’s Dowd Y is his home-away-from-home.

     “I eat lunch at the YMCA every day,” he says, adding that it’s usually with a group whose members have shared the mid-day meal around the infamous roundtable for decades. After work he returns: “Every night I go to the YMCA about five o’clock and take a shower, shave, put on clean underwear and go home.”

     Bob and David Dooley speculate their father hasn’t showered at home in 40 years, and Tom and Nancy Dooley say they’re right.

     “I like the Y so much because they are good folks,” Tom Dooley says. “I think you have a tendency to gather around folks like you.”

 

Honored by the Y

     For setting a faith-based example and giving back to the community, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte is honoring Tom Dooley with its John R. Mott Award. The honor is named for the Nobel Peace Prize winner who championed the cause of displaced prisoners in both World Wars.

     “I’m humbled about getting the award,” Tom Dooley says. “It’s undeserved. I was having fun. I was doing what I wanted to do.”

     In the early years, Dooley would close the office at lunch so any employee who wanted to could spend time at the Y. Today, his sons still encourage everybody in the firm to participate in the Y if they wish. The sons say it’s one of the core values RT Dooley shares with Balfour Beatty, which recently extended its discounted Y membership program for employees to cover 100 percent of the cost.

     Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dooley and the Rev. Leighton Ford, who served 30 years in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association before starting Leighton Ford Ministries, decided the Y needed to integrate. They began networking within the African-American community and identified youths to join the Y basketball squads they coached.

     Dooley, Ford and others didn’t stop with racial integration. They also successfully lobbied for females to become Y members.

     Even then, Dooley wasn’t through. He and Frank Dowd III of Charlotte Pipe and Foundry were instrumental in establishing Y branches in many parts of Mecklenburg County.

     Dooley has been a staunch supporter of the Charlotte Y since he gravitated to it in the early 1960s. “People know he’s genuine” Ford says, “and he’s been a great force for the Y.”

 

Growing Up

     The elder Dooley grew up around Salem, Va., in the Roanoke area, and he parlayed a penchant for football into an education at Virginia Military Institute. He was an offensive end and punter while earning a bachelor’s in civil engineering. He followed that with a master’s in engineering from Georgia Tech.

     After serving as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, Dooley arrived in Charlotte with a connection through a general to the F.N. Thompson Construction Company. He worked there for 16 years.

     Living first in Selwyn Village, Dooley hung out with the likes of attorneys Bob King and Ham Wade and bankers C.D. Spangler and Hugh McColl Jr. Wade got him involved with officiating youth football and he moved through the ranks to high school games and then college contests. The NFL hired him in 1978 and he officiated in Super Bowl XV.

     He was acquainted with well-known Charlotte NFL players such as Mike Cofer from Charlotte Country Day School, who became an acclaimed field goal specialist, and Dwight Clark from Garinger High, who starred as a receiver.

     Dooley liked officiating, son Bob says, because the three hours on the field each Sunday relaxed him. He was in a world of clear demarcations.

     Yet Dooley stopped officiating abruptly in 1992. For him, the decision was “just like I turn the light off. I came home and told Nancy I had notified them I was not going to work anymore. She thought I’d lost my head.”

     Ford offers insight. “Are you doing the urgent things or the important things?” he asked in a talk at the annual YMCA prayer breakfast. Dooley missed the breakfast but listened to the tape of Ford’s message in his pickup truck. When he returned from his trip, he called the head of the NFL referees and said he was through. He had decided his family and the Lord were most important to him.

     Dooley allayed his wife’s fears when he told her, “There’s no problem at all. I’m not looking back.”

     And he hasn’t, although he does watch NFL games on television and likes instant replays because they help officials correct bad calls. “If you make a mistake, you need to change it,” he says, “and in life that’s the same.”

 

In the Big Leagues

     At F.N. Thompson, Dooley made another abrupt decision. “I just woke up one morning and walked in and told Charlie Mikell, ‘I’ll finish all the jobs I have for you, but as of this day I’m leaving.’”

     “I was shocked,” Nancy remembers.

     The couple had talked about starting a firm, so she knew it would happen. But the timing was a surprise.

     “Absolutely,” Dooley answers, when asked if he’d handle the situation that way again.  “Because Nancy was 100 percent behind me, whatever I did,” he explains of his wife of 52 years.

     He started R.T. Dooley Construction in 1977, and quickly built a reputation for quality work and exceptional customer service. These hallmarks helped the firm grow quickly and remain a part of the RT Dooley firm’s core philosophy today.

     Well-known RT Dooley projects include the Johnson & Wales University academic center, headquarters facilities for the Lowe’s Corporation in Mooresville, Goodrich and Nucor corporate offices, and the corporate offices for Duke Energy. Additionally, the Dooleys have enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Bank of America and predecessors and Wachovia/Wells Fargo.

     RT Dooley also thrives in the mission-critical market and quietly builds major data centers for Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies across the United States.

     Bob and David Dooley, 49 and 46, grew up working in the family business. Although Bob once vowed he’d never make a career with his father and David toiled for a time with construction firm McDevitt & Street, both ended up at RT Dooley. Now David is chief executive and Bob is chief operating officer.

 

Carrying on the Tradition

     Together, Bob and David helped their dad grow the company while he taught them about life and business. David says he learned humility and the value of servant leadership.

     “Identify the problem, fix it and move on,” Bob remembers hearing. He also notes lessons from sports, such as learning how to lose.

     “The Y basketball experience was really a lifelong lesson in teaching me that you need to have sportsmanship, and you need to be a humble loser and a gracious winner,” Bob says. “Those attributes are deeply embedded in how we operate our business and they are part of our values as a family.”

     For his part, Tom Dooley takes pride in giving his sons and others the space and support to make decisions on their own. He’s never micro-managed.

     The brothers are bullish about RT Dooley’s future. They feel their business heritage of being nimble and scrappy, combined with the much greater resources of Balfour Beatty, will hasten expansion and growth while providing greater opportunities for their employees.

     “The value proposition,” says David Dooley, “is a world-class organization that gives us scale diversification and an elevated level of sophisticated service. This has been overwhelmingly positive. That’s not only for our employees but also for our customers.”

     In addition to their father’s business philosophy, Bob and David Dooley have taken on their father’s precept of giving back to the community.

     An RT Dooley engineering scholarship allows the firm to nurture the talents of students through internships and recruitment at UNC Charlotte, NC State, Clemson, Appalachian State and Georgia Tech.

     That’s another legacy from their father who established funds for what was dubbed the “Matthew 25 Scholarships” at VMI, Appalachian State and Penn State, among others. The scholarships are need-based and available to any student. The main criterion is that the recipient must bring positive recognition to his or her university or school.

     At 76, Tom Dooley answers only to the title of grandfather. Between Bob, David and their older sister Nina Dooley McLean, he has eight granddaughters, ages 11 through 20.

     A long-time member of the Leighton Ford Ministries board, and its treasurer for 11 years, Dooley stepped down last year. On the board or off, Dooley has been a solid supporter, Ford says.

 

Ritual Still Brings Enjoyment

     Dooley still enjoys what has become an end-of-year ritual at his company.

     “Everybody who works here gets a portion of their salary above what we pay them that they have to give away,” he says.

     Many don’t have a clue where to give and he instructs them to get out in the community and decide what groups they feel are performing worthwhile endeavors. Once they’ve made a choice, they have to justify it to their peers and bosses. And with their check, they must supply an accompanying letter.

     “It’s one of the most joyous things this company does,” Dooley says.

     The company also encourages its employees to get involved personally in worthy causes. “We’ve got people on boards and volunteering in great organizations all over town,” he says.

     For advice to a young person, Dooley is adamant: “They’ve got to get a soul mate to succeed.” Secondarily, he advocates strong motivation and a love for a chosen pursuit.

     The elder Dooley keeps a company office that he visits three days a week. Associating with the firm’s employees means much to him.

     “People are much more sophisticated now,” Dooley says. “Our company has grown and we had to hire other people who would do what we ask. But they had enough moxie that they ended up doing it their way. And their way is better.”

     Meanwhile, Ford offers the ultimate praise: “I’ve never heard anybody raise any question about the integrity of Tom and his company.”

 

 

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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