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Rooney: Having the willingness to serve

Rooney: Having the willingness to serve

Executive Session: Having the willingness to serve

July 6, 2009
Journal Record

TULSA – Francis Rooney grew up in quiet, rustic Muskogee, a town that once strived, and failed, to head its own state.

After he was raised to pursue his own dreams of glory, Rooney used his skill and tenacity to carry him through Georgetown, to win the heart of his beloved wife, and to earn him a place in a top Houston law firm.

With a growing appreciation for the Hispanic world, the Rooneys contemplated a life of travel and service. Then his father passed away unexpectedly, requiring the faithful son to return to Tulsa and take the mantle of responsibility for their 88-year-old family firm, one floundering in the troubled post-Penn Square Bank maelstrom.

In less romantic tales, that might end the dream, especially since Oklahoma’s economy worsened during that 1984 changeover. But revealing his skill at gathering and leading a team, Rooney used conservative business strategies to revive and grow Manhattan Construction, evolving it into a national power.

Those efforts introduced him to rising stars who recognized his talents, opening public service doors into the White House and Vatican.

“Becoming the ambassador to the Holy See, for a Catholic raised in Muskogee, that’s about as good as it gets,” said Tulsa real estate developer Paul Coury, who worshipped and worked with Rooney across two decades. “But I find him to be a very humble, still a very approachable person. All that pomp and circumstance that goes with the position didn’t seem to phase him. He’s still Francis.”

Part of that reflects the calm reserve and protective privacy that Rooney shrouds his family in.

“I think a lot of very successful business people need to be low-key,” said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who has known Rooney since their Georgetown days. “Wealthy, successful people would rather not be on someone’s radar.”

But his success also marks Rooney’s ability to recognize and seize opportunities.

“He’s quick to respond when an opportunity presents itself,” said John Jamison, a vice president with Manhattan Construction who has known Rooney since 1970. “And he’s very open-minded. He encourages a win-win environment for everyone.”

It demonstrates Rooney’s ability to absorb, analyze and act on new information.

“I’ve served on a lot of boards,” said Walt Helmerich, chairman of the board of the Tulsa drilling contractor Helmerich and Payne. “They’re not really very many good directors. Most directors just follow the CEO and whatever he wants, they support. But Francis asks good questions. He has very good logic, a very sound thinker and a good contributor.”

At its foundation, Rooney’s success may simply reflect his giving spirit, and willingness to serve.

“You don’t have to save the world,” said the 55-year-old attorney. “You just have to try and help it along the way.”

Resurrection

Rooney tapped several of those skill sets when he stepped into the shoes of his father, Larry. With his mother still nurturing Rooney’s younger siblings, he thought management of the struggling company presented too great an additional burden. So with his 24-year-old brother, Tim, 26-year-old Francis bought out the family interest in Manhattan in 1984 and streamlined the company.

With its revenue fallen to $80 million, Rooney tightened the purse strings and cut expenses. Dividing oversight, with his brother managing the Tulsa office and Francis working from Houston, the company focused its efforts on Oklahoma and Texas, the Lone Star State economy showing more resilience in that difficult time.

“Francis had to make some tough decisions in that lean year, taking over a company that was perhaps losing some money on some major projects,” said Jamison, who had left Manhattan in 1977 for a 10-year span. “Cash flow was tight, investments were tough.”

Focusing on projects along what Manhattan calls the “Southwest Airlines corridor” helped the construction company achieve stability as oil prices recovered from mid-’80s lows and the economy righted itself.

The turnaround came as Manhattan landed a key contract during the late ’80s expansion of San Antonio’s famed Riverwalk. Rooney said the company’s solid performance led to several additional projects, from the downtown mall to the Marriott Hotel.

“If it hadn’t been there, the company would not be here now,” he said. “We ended up doing a whole lot of work. A lot of the present management of the company came out of those jobs.”

Major League Baseball’s love affair with retro ballparks not only gave Manhattan its next star effort with the Texas Rangers and its beloved Arlington ballpark, but introduced Rooney to George W. Bush, destined to advance from Rangers management to the Texas governorship and the White House.

Manhattan’s expanding Dallas office also brought Rooney in touch with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones – and gave Manhattan a classic opportunity to demonstrate its customer service.

Hearing of a Texas Stadium skybox fire during an evening meal, Rooney stepped out, gathered his crew, and worked them around the clock for almost three days to restore the luxury suite in time for Sunday’s game.

“The guy who had the box didn’t know the difference,” Rooney said. “That meant a lot to Mr. Jones.”

Efforts like that led to Manhattan building the new Cowboys Stadium, which will debut its new turf when the University of Oklahoma meets Brigham Young this fall. That proved just the most recent entry in a series of increasingly large, elegant structures as Manhattan expanded into Georgia, Florida and the Washington, D.C., area.

Manhattan ended 2008 with $1.6 billion of revenue generated by a staff topping 1,700. Its arms stretch not only into construction, but insurance, electronics and other sectors.

While he could take credit for that growth, and his staff often does credit Rooney, Manhattan’s owner attributed the firm’s success to its employees.

“We have people who love building buildings,” Rooney said.

Jamison points to Manhattan’s team-focused environment, starting at the top.

“That’s what he’s instilled, leadership throughout the companies,” Jamison said. “He hired from within,   multitasked. That’s his philosophy, keeping people in his key management positions and employing upward mobility throughout the company.”

Not only does Rooney give management autonomy, he gives them full voice in expansions and acquisitions.

“You always have to kick something up to Francis once in a while,” Jamison said. “But if you do, he’s always going to want to know why you did.”

Service

That autonomy reflects not only Rooney’s confidence in his staff, but a decade of experience.

With his strong interest in public service, even as he managed Manhattan Rooney made time to work with diverse organizations, including the Texas Business Hall of Fame and the Young Presidents’ Organization, and as director of the Oklahoma Capital Investment Board under Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon. He also served on the boards of BOK Financial, Helmerich and Payne and the University of Tulsa.

“Francis’ analytical skills and critical judgment allow him to differ intelligently from conventional wisdom,” said BOKF Chairman George Kaiser. “With such an enlightened contrarian approach, he recognizes risks and opportunities that others do not see. He maintains perspective by not permanently falling in love with his own ideas or anyone else’s. His observations are always incisive and I learn from each of our visits.

“He also is a fine judge of talent in his business activities and his civic and personal relationships,” said Kaiser via e-mail. “That allows him to delegate when appropriate and dig deeply into the details of a problem or opportunity when required.”

For three years, Rooney served on the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority as it secured the largest single bond issue in its history, funding expensive metropolitan expansion projects in north Oklahoma City and south Tulsa.

“Clearly his business acumen was a tremendous value,” said Neil McCaleb, former Oklahoma transportation secretary and director of the OTA under Keating. “It was an important time for us because we were completing the largest single bond issue for any one time in the history of the turnpike authority.

“He was a discerning thinker, he asked the hard questions and he was very no-nonsense,” McCaleb said. “He was devoid of political conditions at this time. He just wanted to run the turnpike authority like a business. He used his personal influence to influence the other members of the authority.”

As the new millennium approached and his company held a solid footing, Rooney stepped away from Manhattan’s daily grind to devote himself to other projects, starting with a two-year stint as the YPO’s international president. Its extensive travel requirements gave Rooney a taste of the ambassadorial life, which loomed increasingly large as Bush won election to the White House.

While governor, Keating tapped Rooney to help secure two historic projects – the state Capitol dome and right to work.

“I wanted to have Oklahoma artists, craftsmen, tradesmen to do it,” said Keating, who now serves as president of the American Council of Life Insurers in Washington, D.C. “So I went to Francis Rooney first.”

Rooney arranged the partnership with Flintco to raise the dome – representing a historic return of sorts, since Manhattan had built the state Capitol in the first place.

“At the same time, I felt as governor we needed to pass right to work,” Keating said.

But while the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber gathered around the cause, Keating said, the Metro Tulsa Chamber demonstrated more division.

“They really needed someone to drive them,” said Keating. “Out of frustration, I turned to Francis Rooney again. I said, ‘Francis, I really need your leadership role in bringing these people together because I can’t seem to find anybody to get anyone together.’ And he did it.”

With both tasks accomplished in political environments, Keating said they reflected Rooney’s strengths.

“He’s very diplomatic and he turned into a diplomat,” he said. “The word on him that I get is that he was a very effective ambassador because he was very focused on the church.”

Rome

Although Rooney admired and supported Bush, as governor of Texas and as president, with his children still in high school Rooney resisted such service in the president’s first term. But after the youngest of his three children graduated, Rooney accepted the U.S. ambassador posting to the Holy See in 2005.

“For a guy from Muskogee, Okla., I can tell you it was a very unique, a very humbling experience,” Rooney said of his first private meeting with the pope.

His eyes blossomed as he told of Vatican encounters, or of White House visits with his friend and president. Rooney demonstrated pride in the opportunity his ambassador role presented to share and defend U.S. ideals he holds dear. And he shared his joys of touring a city and country with thousands of years of history to explore, where people still love Americans for their liberating efforts in World War II.

His three-year job also brought some new perspectives on life. As a contractor, Rooney strived to meet precise engineering standards. He’d found the electronics business stimulating because it demonstrated the human ability to achieve zero mistakes. But his service to the Vatican broadened that.

“You can’t serve in a position like this without becoming dramatically more sensitive to the world around you,” he said. “You also come to realize that issues can be far more complicated than you expected. Every issue has another side.”

His work there impressed former U.S. Sen. David Boren.

“I think he did an outstanding job, from everything I have heard from others in Italy, from friends I have there and from people in the State Department,” said Boren, now president of the University of Oklahoma.

“Not only did he do a good job there with our relationship with the Holy See, but with the entire country,” said Boren, a friend of the Rooney family since his time in the governor’s chair. “He worked very closely with our ambassador to Italy. He traveled throughout Italy as a goodwill ambassador for the United States, spoke to groups around the country, always in cooperation with and never duplicating the work of our ambassador to Italy.”

I missed the guys’

Even during his public service years, Rooney saw opportunities for Manhattan’s growth.

“I think he developed an interest in the roadway business while he served on the turnpike authority that led him to organize Manhattan Road and Bridge,” said McCaleb.

As he returned to the private sector, Rooney approved the acquisition of two bridging companies to create that Manhattan division, highlighting an expected growth area for the Tulsa construction giant.

Seeing in Florida’s crumbling real estate market the same potential for revival that he saw in Oklahoma 25 years ago, last year Rooney bought Naples, Fla.-based Kraft Construction to bolster resources in that state.

“I have been continually impressed with his ability to maneuver through the mine fields of these cyclical, high-risk businesses with amazing dexterity,” said Kaiser, who charts his relationship with Rooney back two decades.

“Francis understands relationships and identifies trends better than almost anyone I know,” Kaiser said. “Who else entered and exited the wholesale lumber business at precisely the correct times during the residential building boom and subsequent collapse? And how many other large-project construction companies have been able to steer clear of fixed-price disasters?”

Having bought a Florida home in 2003, Rooney now splits his time between the Sooner and Sunshine states. His goal remains focused on charitable work while continuing to hone his political skills, serving Washington think tank the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

“If we can re-engage their creativity here, Tulsa will benefit enormously from their civic and charitable leadership,” said Kaiser.

Boren expressed hope Rooney would return to diplomatic service – perhaps to Latin America, an area that’s always intrigued the ambassador.

“He would make a splendid representative for the United States,” said the OU president, who has watched Manhattan win several competitive bids for university projects during his tenure. “He’s the kind of business leader who makes a contribution by coming in and out of public service, as he did while he was an ambassador.

“The infusion of ideas from people like Francis Rooney, who are very thoughtful business leaders, into the diplomatic community is really, really helpful because it brings some private-sector points of view into the process,” said Boren. “I just think it adds great value to the diplomatic service, and the experience they bring is different than most of our career diplomats.”

Rooney said he intends to remain active with Manhattan and his other companies, but will leave daily control to his experienced staff.

“I missed the guys, the people in the company,” he said. “I was glad to get back, a little closer to that.”

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I started working for L. F. Rooney in Muskogee, Oklahoma. I was the paperboy that threw the paper when he lived on 16th street in Muskogee. He was usually waiting for the paper at 5:30. I was 10 years old and had 5 dogs with me. He had me do odd jobs for him up until I went to work for his lumber company "Hope Lumber and Supply". He told me a good school to go after high school was the University of Oklahoma which I did attend. I would always go by and visit him until I moved to Dallas. He was a great person who I will always remember.

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