2008 Laureate

R.T. "Rab" Summers

 

Unless you arrived tonight by helicopter, Summers-Taylor & Rab Summers probably had something to do with the roads upon which you drove. East Tennessee is criss-crossed with roads and highways created by Summers-Taylor, Inc. and built upon the motto "Quality is Our Shield."

            Born to Robert and Doris Summers, Rab is the third generation of his family to preside over Summers-Taylor, Inc.  He grew up in rural East Tennessee where a lot of folks have childhood memories of riding their grandfathers' tractors on the family farm. When Rab Summers was five years old, he rode bulldozers. "Most of my vacations as a child were to road builders' conventions. I was always around the equipment."

In some ways, Summers says being a third-generation owner gave him advantages over others in the heavy and highway construction industry over the course of his career. "I was given a great opportunity, but success isn't just about getting an opportunity. It's about what you do with it."

Rab began his career at the ripe old age of 16, learning the business from the ground up. "I started off working in the shop, helping the mechanics," he remembers. "It was menial labor, but I started to get to know the people in the company. We've been really fortunate to always have good people."

Summers knew before he ever joined the company there would be some who would be predisposed to think of him as "one of those kids who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple" unless he proved otherwise. So in college, Summers took jobs such as inspecting garbage dumps for the state of Georgia. Then he took a job selling encyclopedias door-to-door, which you may think doesn't sound that bad. Except that this was in the late 1960s and his territory was the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, infamous for the Watts race riots. "I was a white kid with a Southern accent trying to sell encyclopedias in Watts," he remembers. "I didn't sell too many encyclopedias."  Summers graduated from Duke University and Emory University.

In many ways, the story of Summers-Taylor over the past half-century is the story of Rab Summers. It is a success story, certainly, and it's also very much a story of growth and change.

 "My grandfather started in building construction in 1932 and my father had worked for the Tennessee Department of Transportation prior to WWII.  After marriage to my mother and after the war, he began work with the company and we began doing work for TDOT.  We got into the paving side in the 1950s, and into Ready-Mix at the same time. Over the years the highway side got bigger than the building side. In the early 1970s, we decided to phase out the building side. The ETSU administration building was one of the last major building projects we did.

 "When I got in, it was toward the end of the Interstate building phase. We were still doing I-26, what was then being called 181. We were building four-lanes all around us. There were several large projects." But the market evolved. "Fifteen or 20 years ago," says Summers, "we were moving a lot more cubic yards of dirt, putting down a lot more tons of asphalt. Today it's very difficult now to build a new road. We've built all the interstates. We might be widening them, but it's basically maintenance."

 "In the last three years," Summers says, "we've started building bridges." So at a time when the industry as a whole is consolidating, with fewer family businesses than ever, Summers-Taylor is doing paving, grading, utility work, and bridges.

 "In the late 1980s we had a challenge that forced change on us," says Summers.  "Many of the top management retired within six to seven years. They were the group that had come up in the business with my father. We had to remake the company."

Because of that shift, Summers-Taylor today is a relatively young company at a time when many firms are facing the baby boomer retirement crunch. "That," says Summers, "makes it easier to hire more young talent and easier to recruit." 

"When we recruit, character is the most critical factor. You can teach skills. You can't teach how someone lives and how they are as a person. By the time they get to us, they've determined that," says Summers.

While other firms in the industry still manage the same way they did 20 years ago, Summers-Taylor has kept attuned to what the best young workers want. "People have changed a lot," says Summers. "They work hard, but at the end of the day, they want to go home." So while other companies accept projects hundreds or even thousands of miles away, Summers-Taylor keeps close to home. "Some companies will have their employees away from home for two years on a project. We do a lot of work here," he says. 

Summers decision to win as many contracts in the region as possible and forego chasing jobs elsewhere has not only made his employees happy. That decision has also made it possible for Summers to be a constant presence in the lives of his family and has allowed him time to cook, play golf, and travel. Rab has been married to Nita Wilkes for 30 years and they have two wonderful children, Lena and Grant. 

Summers has been President of the Tennessee Asphalt Paving Association and is currently president of the Tennessee Road Builders Association. He is a long-time director of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the recipient of the national Nello L. Teer Award. Summers was the first Tennessean to win the award, which is given annually to a highway contractor who has made outstanding contributions to both the Association and the transportation construction industry as a whole. He has been a member of Tennessee Prevailing Wage Commission for over two decades, and has served as director of the Tennessee Business Roundtable. 

His community endeavors include helping to bring Johnson City's Hands On Children's' Museum back from the brink of bankruptcy several years ago. "I was chair for two years. In that time, working with a very good executive director, we got it to where it could be a success. They almost had to close the doors, but we got people to rally around it, and now it's on a footing to succeed."

In addition, Summers serves on the ETSU Foundation board of directors and the Economic Development Board of Washington County TN.  He has been a trustee to Tusculum College, has been Chairman of Johnson City Regional Planning Commission and has served on the Sequoyah Council of the Boy Scouts of America where he received the Silver Beaver Award. In fact, it was through Summers' work that the local Boy Scouts acquired their facility off Boone's Creek Road in Washington County. A project dear to Rab's heart, was serving as lead developer of The Ridges.  His current project, due in part to his daughter's playing soccer at ETSU, Summers-Taylor, Inc. has made a major commitment to the university for the construction of a new soccer stadium to be known as the Summers-Taylor Stadium.

Perhaps what is most striking about Summers' commitment to his community is the conscientious way Summers-Taylor approaches its responsibilities to the land on which it builds.

"We've always been forward-thinking on environmental issues," says Summers. "We started recycling motor oil 25 years ago. We were the first company in the region to begin recycling asphalt." Today the company recycles between 50,000 and 60,000 tons of asphalt every year, and over a million gallons of oil each year.  "I'm not an environmentalist. I call myself a conservationist. I want to conserve and protect everything we have."

Summers says he is thinking forward about a time in the not-too-distant future when there will be a fourth generation joining Summers-Taylor, Inc., his son Grant.

And does the third generation have any words of advice for the fourth that might benefit the rest of us as well?  "Well, the main thing that I learned from my father and grandfather was that they both loved what we do, they were proud of what we do and they enjoyed the people in the business. You need to like what you're doing and you need to like the people. If those things are there, you can have the passion that you need to be successful."

It's a philosophy that has served the Summers' family for three generations and 76 years in business. And while the nature of Summers' business has changed time and time again, the basic tenets of providing quality work, genuinely caring for his employees and customers, taking responsibility for his industry and his community, and maintaining a passion for success – have always remained steady and smooth as a brand new stretch of highway.