Inside Track: Long and varied career leaves Lemley something to offer students
Triangle Associates vice president knows there is a lot more to construction than just swinging a hammer.
Paul Lemley has worked on so many different kinds of projects throughout his life, people often ask, “Wait, are you 100 years old?”
Usually, he just laughs and says, “Yes.”
He recognizes, however, that, at 53, he has had experiences many others in the construction industry haven’t, so he’s doing his best to mentor students who might be interested in the industry.
Now a senior vice president at Triangle Associates, Lemley has worked on a $350 million National Steel No. 5 Coke Battery and $187 million Electrogalvanize line; on a coatings production facility in Mexico; Daewoo Engine Development Lab in Korea; Lockheed Martin F-22 Development and Production Campus; General Motors’ Lansing Delta Township Assembly Plant; Nissan’s Lithium Battery Production Facility; and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, just to name a few.
Lemley’s career, which began in electrical engineering and turned into operations supervision, has taken him across the globe and resulted in the realization that there have been people there to help him all along the way. So now, when he talks to a student with a desire to work in construction, he has some advice to share.
“It took me a while to realize my experiences weren’t the average run of the mill,” Lemley said. “You have to go get great experience, work for someone doing great things on a national and international scale. You get so much more out of that in a shorter amount of time.
“If you want to and are willing to play in that market, there is room.”
Growing up in the Detroit area, Lemley was surrounded by auto workers, defense contractors and engineers. He loved to tinker with radio and television sets and cars. Early on, he set his sights on becoming an electrical engineer, in part because his uncle was a chief engineer on the M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank design project for the military.
“I saw what he did, and he talked a lot about it,” Lemley said. “I wanted to design new and innovative things.”
After high school, Lemley enrolled at Wayne State University before transferring to Lawrence Technological University and finishing his electrical engineering, systems analysis and business management degree.
Lemley’s first job was making overhead cranes for warehouses and steel mills. Then, in 1985, while visiting a career fair, he began a conversation with a representative from National Steel Corp., then the fourth-largest U.S. steel maker. Within a few days, he had received an attractive job offer. National Steel was about to embark on a $2.5 billion capital improvement campaign and hired 11 young employees to help ramp up and build new facilities.
Lemley started with National Steel as a process analyst, but soon became enamored with the entire business and was determined to work his way up. His quick rise with National Steel was due in part to good timing. In the 1980s, the company had brought in college students and then soon laid them off, creating a terrible reputation. Lemley was part of a program to help change that perception and was brought into the company in a position where he could quickly move up to show that it could be done.
“And I have really benefited from that,” he said.
In 1984, 50 percent of National Steel had been purchased by Japan’s Nippon Kokan, so Lemley was able to spend time in Asia as he worked on various projects. Sometime later, however, Nippon Kokan purchased another 20 percent of the company and inserted Japanese management into the executive positions, virtually cutting off Lemley’s climb up the management ladder.
He left the company and, in 1992, entered a partnership with two acquaintances that focused on the design and construction of laboratories. The partnership didn’t last long.
Following a project at Ford Motor Co., Ford requested that Lemley become an account manager with architecture and engineering firm Giffels Associates, as their representative there had just retired.
Lemley was hired at Giffels, which had been helped along in its early years by Henry Ford and developed into one of the largest A&E firms in the world.
With its rich history in design and engineering, Lemley thought it was strange the firm would hand off work to other contractors, so he asked, “Why don’t we just do it?” A design-build division of Giffels was started, and major projects soon took Lemley to Korea, South and Central America and Europe.
Helping start a new division at such a respected company — one that did much of the design work at Cape Canaveral, for instance — was a huge step for Lemley.
“It was the coolest thing ever, but it always comes down to the people I’m with at the time. It’s great to have ideas, but you have to get them implemented. … I’ve always been able to do that with talent that existed or to find the talent.”
Lemley was among a small group of employees in line to purchase Giffels, until Dutch company Arcadis made an offer the older generation of management at Giffels couldn’t refuse.
Lemley was among the employees who decided to stay with the company to help make it worth what it had been sold for. Before long, Giffels began to shrink, however, as Arcadis didn’t know how to make best use of a company that specialized in the design of unique buildings.
“Our traditional clients would ask us to do something, and the company would say, ‘That’s too risky; that’s not the type of business we’re engaged in,’” he said. “We’d all say, ‘Uh, yeah, that is the business we’re engaged in, and that’s why you bought us.’”
Lemley left in 2000, prior to the company reaching a low of approximately 90 employees.
Next, he joined construction firm Alberici Constructors to head its $400 million automotive group in Detroit, until it decided to shutter that group, leaving Lemley to consider a move to Alberici’s headquarters in St. Louis or its Atlanta office.
Instead, he was picked up by a head-hunter looking for a president and COO for Bouma Construction in Grand Rapids. He spent six years there and then had short stints as executive vice president of local firm Van Haren Electric and running his construction consulting firm, The Lemley Group, before being hired at Triangle Associates in 2014.
Lemley said a major reason he joined Triangle was because he shared their vision to grow and become involved in projects on a national scale. He said the West Michigan market — along with many others across the country — is as strong as he’s ever seen it because of the pent-up demand after the Great Recession.
Now, through his position with Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Michigan, he’s begun to satisfy his desire to be able to show students what working in the construction industry can mean. The first year of the career fair he helped put on last year attracted 6,000 students; this year the June fair already has 9,500 registrants.
“Fundamentally, what we see is construction doesn’t have the reputation any of us think it should as a career,” Lemley said. “For the most part, students and parents think it’s all swinging a hammer. We don’t use hammers all that frequently. When you think of a 10-story building, how do you get that thing exactly square, plumb, with every wall and pipe exactly where it needs to be?
“It all requires a lot of skill, mathematics and science — a direct application of the things we learned in school in a very practical and tangible sense.”