Property/The McGovern Family; This Time, Father
and Son Get to Build on the Name
is hard to believe they are related. Eugene McGovern,
52, is big, brawny, blustery. His head is shaved,
his speech peppered with slang and salty phrases,
a cigar firmly ensconced in his mouth. His is the
middle name of Lehrer McGovern Bovis, the huge construction
management company that he co-founded.
33-year-old son, Eric, is also big, but conventionally
clothed and coifed, quick-witted in the most correct
English, and, his civil engineering degree notwithstanding,
looking like Hollywood's idea of a businessman.
Not many people remember MI Construction Consulting,
the short-lived company he started in 1992.
difference need not breed animosity. To hear Eric
tell it, the two have always been best friends.
And now they are something else: business partners.
April, Eric and Gene -- no one calls him Eugene
-- McGovern formed a new construction company, GMO
International. (Peninsular & Oriental Steam
Navigation of Britain owns Lehrer McGovern and the
rights to the McGovern name.) Gene is chairman,
Eric is executive vice president and another son,
Daniel, 31, is a project manager. But GMO, literally
and figuratively, is Gene McGovern's Organization.
minute P & O stops using my name, it goes on
the door," Gene McGovern said.
its name, GMO faces harsh odds. "Gene's got
a real challenge," said Richard M. Kielar,
a senior vice president of Tishman Realty and Construction.
"He's starting up when construction volume
is down and competition is extremely tough."
GMO is starting off well. It has been hired to build
HRO International's planned building on Madison
Avenue and 47th Street, Skyline Multimedia Entertainment's
virtual reality tour of New York in the Empire State
building, and five floors of retail space at 1540
Broadway, on 45th Street.
bad for a company that is not yet nine months old.
But then, the McGovern reputation goes back a lot
longer than that.
deja vu all over again," said Larry J. Wyman,
head of HRO, whose building at 767 Third Avenue,
on 47th Street, was Lehrer McGovern's first job.
"Eric and Gene are about the best construction
talent in town, and as a new company, they will
not have to divide their focus among many, many
L. Silber, Skyline's president, is equally effusive.
"Eric can sing through a nightmare construction
job as though it were his alma mater," Mr.
two McGoverns came to such praise via different
routes. Gene McGovern's father died when Gene was
in his teens and, as the oldest of seven children,
he helped support the family. He took construction
jobs, married his high school sweetheart and got
a degree in civil engineering at night.
the time Eric was in high school, Gene McGovern
had a steady job at Morse-Diesel. Eric and his two
brothers, Daniel and Derek, 30, worked their way
through college as summer laborers on Morse-Diesel
projects. Their sister, Phyllis Jean, 26, did not
have to. "As the youngest and the only girl,
P.J. got pampered," Eric McGovern recalls without
a trace of resentment.
McGovern met Peter Lehrer at Morse-Diesel, and they
formed Lehrer McGovern in 1979. The two partners
quickly divvied up the duties. Mr. Lehrer got the
deals. Mr. McGovern, with his perpetual cigar and
cowboy boots, handled the construction crews and
the operational details.
forte was at the job site," recalled Stuart
Koshner, a former Lehrer McGovern executive and
now a partner in R.C. Dolner, the Manhattan general
contracting firm. "He not only appealed to
the macho in every guy on the job, but he could
figure out any engineering problem."
McGOVERN did well from the first. But it was not
until 1984 that the firm got the assignment that
Eric McGovern, who joined it in 1982, refers to
as "our Shangri-la": the restoration of
the Statue of Liberty. The project was a media darling:
a world-famous statue, championed by Lee Iacocca,
and the specter of a huge penalty if Lehrer McGovern
did not bring the job in on time. It did, and "suddenly
we were on the global map," Eric McGovern recalled.
the mid-80's, Lehrer McGovern had some 400 employees,
and such high profile projects as Euro Disney and
appeals to the Brits, to the Chinese, to the Malaysians,
to the Germans," said A. Eugene Kohn, a partner
in the architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox. "He
doesn't couch his words, and you wonder how he gets
away with it in these different cultures."
Then Mr. Kohn answers his own question: "He
can talk costs, process and schedule, and that appeals
to anyone who wants facts."
surprisingly, Lehrer McGovern got noticed by Peninsular
& Oriental, which owned Bovis Construction and
wanted an American arm. In 1986, the company bought
half of Lehrer McGovern, with an option to buy the
rest in 1988.
two partners felt they had little choice but to
sell. They wanted to expand into general contracting,
particularly for mega-projects. Most of those require
construction companies to post huge completion bonds,
and Peninsula & Oriental had access to that
kind of bonding power. (Indeed, after the merger
the company was hired to handle Olympia & York's
Canary Wharf development in London, and St. Luke-Roosevelt
Hospital's two Manhattan sites.)
of course, there was the money. Gene McGovern won't
quote numbers, but he makes it clear the sum was
high. "Bovis U.K. seemed to be a compatible
partner, and its chairman was a gutsy, down to earth
guy," he said. "But if they'd offered
me $3, I would certainly have walked away."
fact, he almost did. Sir Frank Lampl, Bovis's chairman,
persuaded him to move to London instead. At Mr.
Lampl's urging, he took Bovis International, the
company's in-name-only international arm, gave the
new company the Canary Wharf and Euro Disney projects
that Lehrer McGovern had brought to the deal, and
soon expanded it into a company that was doing more
than $5 billion in annual sales.
1989, Eric McGovern joined his father overseas.
McGovern fils spent the next year "flitting
around Europe, checking on Bovis projects in general,"
and then heading a team of troubleshooters at Canary
the Bovis connection was no heavenly match for either
man. There were reports to write, procedures to
the company's running you and you're not running
the company, it's just not any fun," Gene McGovern
said. "When it gets boring, it is time to move
Eric McGovern quit first. In 1992 he returned to
New York and formed MI with his two brothers. MI
got some business -- a $25 million upgrade at 75
Pine Street, some small interior jobs for Citicorp
and the AIG insurance company and some work on Barney's
Madison Avenue store. And, in fact, MI got the Skyline
seemed the best of all worlds," Mr. Silber
said. "Eric had Gene in back of him, but this
project is too small to get Gene's full attention.
Eric really wanted it."
Eric was in constant touch with his father. "My
father is the library, and I would take out a volume
whenever I had a question," Eric McGovern said.
the real-estate market was in depression, and, Eric
McGovern candidly admits, Mr. Silber's preference
for him was an exception. For most potential clients,
his name did not carry his father's clout.
tough being in the shadow of an icon," Eric
McGovern said. "I was always viewed as Gene's
son, and I had my nose dragged through the dirt
quite a few times."
when Gene McGovern did quit, about six months after
his son, he and his two oldest sons started talking
partnership. (Derek now manages a ranch his father
owns in Wyoming.) There was one problem: Gene McGovern's
contract with Bovis forbade him from working in
the United States for two years after he quit.
spent much of those two years in Kuala Lumpur, as
a consultant on the building of two office towers.
And he formed a new construction management consulting
firm, which got the assignment to build a third
office tower in the same complex.
April 1, Mr. McGovern's non-compete clause ran out
and GMO was born. And, says Eric McGovern, it quickly
developed a specialty: projects with seemingly insurmountable
do you hoist huge flight simulators into a landmarked
building," he asked, an excited grin spreading
across his face. "How do you build an office
building above an active Metro-North railroad? How
do you build retail space in an occupied building
without disrupting tenants? This is fun!"
GMO has grown to 17 people in Malaysia and 18 people
here. The McGoverns hope to brake growth at about
200 people, and to expand instead through diversification.
On the wish list: Building management assignments,
joint venture companies (in fact, GMO is poised
to announce its first, with a British and American
developer), and developing their own buildings.
would give me something tangible to leave my own
three children," Eric McGovern said. What about
leaving them the company? "To be honest,"
said the son who lives in the icon's shadow, "I
hope they excel at something of their own."
Eric and Eugene McGovern in theater they are constructing
in the Empire State Building for a virtual-reality
tour of New York. (Rebecca Cooney for The New York
By CLAUDIA H. DEUTSCH
Published: December 11, 1994