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Charles Calvin Kubin of W.S. Bellows: The Epitome of a Construction Man

An era ends, a truly remarkable one!  Charlie Kubin of W.S. Bellows is retiring after 63 years with this heralded Houston company; it was his only employer.  No single individual has ever embodied the true meaning of the term “builder” better than Charlie.  No one’s guiding hands have touched more of Houston’s premier structures than his.  The entire commercial construction industry rises as one in gratitude and awe for all that he is and all that he did.  He made this industry, and all the people who ever served with him, better.  His legacy is unique and inspiring.

Charlie, a native Houstonian whose father was a union carpenter at Bellows when the company built the San Jacinto Monument, joined the company in 1955 after graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in architectural engineering.  He married his wife Pat that same year.  The Korean war had ended in 1953, but he had a military obligation, so he served in the Air Force from 1956 to 1959 where, after completing the pilot training program, he became the officer in charge of programming and planning new construction at Dyess Air Force Base Texas.  It was in the Air Force that he took up golf, which became a lifelong passion – a game which he still plays respectably at age 86.  Arnold Palmer was his hero.

He returned to Bellows at a fortuitous time.  Warren Bellows Sr. was still fully engaged in the business; Warren Jr. and George had become solid construction executives, and Houston was beginning to accept its emerging role as the global energy capital.  However, no one could have predicted or imagined what the next 25 years (1959-1984) would bring.  The explosive growth during this period redefined Houston, showcased Bellows capabilities, and provided the ideal conditions for Charlie to develop and expand those many skills that made him such an exceptional builder and effective leader.

Charlie smiles as he reflects on his formative days. “Bellows self-performed almost everything then, and on Monday mornings every superintendent would meet individually with Warren Bellows Sr. about job costs for the prior week.  He required a line item report, which was prepared over the weekends using a Friden hand calculatorThe report also showed the costs to date versus budget.  For any line item you were over budget, Mr. Bellows would expect your plan to get it back on track.  However, if you were under budget on some items and you pointed that out, he would simply say ‘The estimator made a mistake.’”  This drill instilled in Charlie a keen sense of costs and schedules.  He knew precisely what all components of the job should cost and how long it should take to put that work in place.

This rare skill endeared him to owners and won deep admiration from his talented Bellows colleagues and specialty subcontractors.  “If you could describe accurately what you wanted in your high-rise building, Charlie would get within 50 cents a square foot with a conceptual estimate on the back of a napkin,” says Don Jones, a retired vice-president of Bellows who worked with Charlie for forty years.  Stan Marek, CEO of respected specialty subcontractor MAREK, confirms this ability.  He marvels as he recalls watching Charlie and a prominent Houston architect design and price a 50-story office tower on a napkin as they waited in an airport.  Jim Stevenson, a former Bellows officer, adds “When the market changed from competitive bid to a negotiated Guaranteed Maximum Price (GMP), every owner with a project wanted Charlie’s opinion on costs, which helped Bellows become the market leader.  I’ve never met anyone with a sharper mind than Charlie Kubin.”

As Bellows’ project load kept expanding during this historic period, and the competencies of the specialty subcontractors increased, Bellows subcontracted more work.  It is the subcontractors that really revere his detailed understanding of the building process.  Specifically, he knew for each trade contractor on the job what their component of that project should cost for a quality result in the current market environment.  Stan Marek summarizes it well: “He took the time to review a bid, and he thoroughly understood every phase of the building process.  He told me on many occasions to get our numbers right or he’d do the work himself.  And he did just that several times.”

Charlie also knew, in detail, how each specialty contractor’s trade work was ideally sequenced.  He would have the job ready for them to get to work, so they could meet or exceed their proposed schedule – a competency he drilled into the many people at Bellows that he mentored and trained, especially their cadre of highly regarded superintendents.  This is a Bellows hallmark: their jobs are ready for the subcontractor’s trade when it is scheduled, period!  Wayne McDonald, Senior Vice-President of Fisk Electric, who has done many projects with Charlie over 45 years, says with great admiration “I have always found him to be steadfastly loyal to the owner and to the subcontractors on the projects.  Charlie possesses exceptional ability not only in construction, but with people too.  He creates a team to achieve the common goal by treating you as a true partner.  He is a very forthright individual.”  John Kafka, the CEO of Chamberlin Roofing and Waterproofing, a preferred specialty contractor, states “Charlie’s word has always been his bond and multiple page contracts were never necessary with him.  Absolute integrity, attention to detail, and pride in a job well done are the qualities he used to build the Houston Skyline.  God did not make many men like Charlie Kubin.”  Bo Bartlett, CEO of WW Bartlett, a respected masonry contractor, observes, “Any discussion of the great leaders of the Houston Construction Industry must include Charlie Kubin.  He has contributed so much to the industry and to the Bellows family, and he has mentored and influenced many generations of subcontractors, making us better at our trade.  We all think of him as a true friend.”  Stan Marek summarizes it well: “Charlie has deep convictions on the right way to build and the right way to live.  He loves our industry and has set an example that will be part of the Bellows’ culture for years to come.  It has been an honor to work for Bellows and Charlie Kubin.”

Owners, representatives, and architects valued his approach to their projects.  Pete Dawson, the respected and recently retired Senior Vice-President of Facilities for Texas Children’s Hospital offers the following: “Since the 1990’s Charlie Kubin has led Bellows construction teams to successfully deliver over 4 million square feet of world-class patient care and research facilities for Texas Children’s Hospital in the Texas Medical Center.  He has acquired extensive knowledge of the TCH facilities environment and an awareness of the complex institutional factors driving TCH design and construction priorities, uniquely translating this knowledge into construction strategies focused on serving the owner’s best interests and influencing project teams to consistently achieve successful project outcomes.  Charlie also has a clear understanding that TCH facilities serve a higher purpose to support the health and wellbeing of children and families.  This is reflected in his enduring efforts to ensure that construction teams incorporate quality, economy, and lasting value to these special projects which stand as a tribute to Charlie’s legacy of remarkable contributions to our industry.”  Preston McAfee, now the CEO of Rogers-O’Brien, worked with Charlie on the Four Seasons, Mandalay Hotel in Dallas when he was with developer John Carpenter.  He said Charlie was “a true professional, a consummate builder whose word was his bond.”  He said Charlie also took him, his wife, and another couple to dinner one night and taught him “the finer points of drinking chilled vodka!”  Greg Turner, now managing principal of Turner Duran Architects, who as a young architect with CRS worked with Charlie, David Morris, and Tom Bellows on 3 Houston Center, a 52-story project, says “Mr. Kubin put me through school.  I learned so much about building that I feel lucky he didn’t charge me tuition.  His keen intelligence and forceful leadership inspire both confidence and yes, a bit of fear.  One must be ‘on his game’ when working with Mr. Kubin, otherwise reviewing the status of shop drawings and RFI’s at a job meeting can be quite embarrassing.  It was a tremendous experience and an honor and privilege to be educated by Charles Kubin.”

Charlie used many qualities to get the job team to perform.  Stan Marek said he could be “gruff, but fair.”  Dan Delforge, whom Charlie mentored for 16 years says, “he was demanding but never demeaning.  And, he had an uncanny way of making construction fun.”  Greg Turner adds “Mr. Kubin injected lightness and humor at the right moments.  He had a great laugh and came armed with cartoons, illustrating funny aspects about building.”  He also has a great sense of humor and can use it to seize the moment and take control.  Wayne McDonald laughs out loud as he recalls travelling with Charlie to the New York offices of globally renowned architect I. M. Pei along with an executive team from a Houston corporation contemplating a trophy, high-rise headquarters building.  After some conceptual discussions in Houston, where Bellows and Pei teams had been present, this company had commissioned Mr. Pei to do some preliminary sketches, and they wanted Charlie and a couple of his key specialty contractors to be at this review.  Mr. Pei gave an animated, theatrical presentation, prancing and preening from drawing to drawing.  When he finished, he turned to Charlie and said “Now, Mr. Kubin, how would Bellows propose to build this magnificent structure?”  Charlie let the room get completely silent, then responded “Mr. Pei, we at W.S. Bellows have been giving that question very serious thought, and we thought we would just start at the ground floor and go up one floor at a time until we got to the top.”  The room erupted in laughter.  The client opted to build a campus instead.

Charlie has worked with four generations of the Bellows family.  He considers Warren Bellows, Jr. “the smartest man [he has] ever known.  He knew how to do the right thing at the right time.”  Charlie, Warren, and George Bellows were a powerful trio, working always to shape the industry as people who have both competence and character.  Beginning in the early 1960s, they began to sculpt a key portion of the Houston Skyline with projects such as the Exxon Building, the Tenneco Building and in 1969, One Shell Plaza, Gerald Hines’ first downtown building which became the tallest building in Houston at that time.  Charlie and the Bellows team continued to build a significant portion of downtown Houston over the next 15 years.  They all stand today: The Four Seasons and Hyatt Hotels, all three Houston Center Buildings plus the parking garage and computer center, First City Bank Building, First City Tower Office, The Wedge Tower, 1100 Louisiana and 1100 Milam, Houston Lighting and Power Headquarter Building, and The Sun Oil Building.  David Morris, Charlie’s colleague since 1975, found a photograph taken by a professional photographer - a cityscape of several downtown Houston buildings, which he gave to Charlie for his 85th birthday.  Almost every building in that photograph had been built by Bellows with Charlie leading their team!  His expertise has also shaped structures in Dallas, Los Angeles, Little Rock, San Antonio, and especially in New Orleans where he has built Hyatt and Wyndham Hotels and buildings for Amoco, Entergy, Mobil, McDermott and developers, Edward J. DeBartolo, and Houston-based Ayshire Corporation.  He also built the Headquarters Building for the Corps of Engineers in New Orleans.

Charlie led the Bellows team on the current Alley Theatre Building, and the American General Complex on Allen Parkway including the Riviana Foods Headquarters Building and The Exxon Greenspoint Plaza Building.  He worked with the late Tom Bellows on BMC Software’s 4 Building Campus plus the garages, and on projects for Texas Children’s Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, as he has done with Laura Bellows in recent years - 14 projects in all.  He has great admiration for Laura’s leadership and the job she’s done.  He has also worked for 10 years with Jack Bellows, recently named President, and Warren Bellows IV, Vice- President, 4th generation family members.  There are other structures on his resume as well, but when you contemplate these well-known buildings, it is hard to imagine that any builder, anywhere, ever had more impact, and it is inconceivable that his record will ever be replicated.

Even more impressive than the projects he built are the people he molded, mentored and modeled into what it means to be a “builder.”  The list of project executives and superintendents is an absolute all-star team.  People who were his contemporaries include Don Jones, Jim Park and Jim Childs.  He also guided Jack Roberts, David Morris, Steve Burch, Dan Delforge, Bob Higgins, Lex James, Steve Imburgia, Jim Stevenson, Tim O’Malley, Ray Mancias, Russell Jones, Brent Miller, Nick Matthews and most definitely Tony Mansoorian, thriving now as Bellows' Chief Operating Officer.  And surely, he influenced and learned from Bellows blue-chip superintendents, past and present: Whitey Scroggins, John Whitney, Slick Taylor, Lloyd Blevins, Dave and Jim Broomfield, Jerry Norris, Robert Knox, Norm Molen, Jim Jabsen and Nelson Kirkham, as well as one that he quoted all the time, a Swede named Mandeen.  He was also a great resource to Norman McLeod and his successor Paul Oliver, the widely-admired Chief Financial Officers and to Tommy Lee, who heads Bellows nationally acclaimed Safety program.  But above all, he is proud to have two sons, David and Tommy, who are now Vice-Presidents of Bellows.

Charlie will have plenty to keep him occupied in retirement.  He is a vibrant, active man, still with a razor-sharp intellect and instant humor.  People enjoy being around him.  He will rely heavily on being with family as he always has.  He lost his wife of 62 years, Pat, in May 2018, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, but he has his children and grandchildren.  In addition to Tommy and David, he has two other children.  His oldest son, Charles, Jr. is an electrical engineer in the energy industry, and his youngest, Laura Kaiser, is a law enforcement officer in Virginia Beach, Virginia, an area she never left after graduating from Old Dominion College which she attended on a basketball scholarship.  He has 5 grandchildren, one great grandchild, and a second on the way.  He is an accomplished rose gardener, and he will return to golf as soon as his rehabilitation for a back-fusion surgery in July 2018 is complete.  He is already putting.  And he will welcome lunches at Tony’s Mexican restaurant on Ella, where upon being seated, a waiter will bring the first of his two Margarita allowances, and then place his order for two Chalupas.

Charlie’s story, with its visible and personal record of contributions and achievements, certainly fills all who know him with pride but also with nostalgia.  His exit truly does mark the end of an era; that period when the owner, the architect, and the general contractor with his performance -based specialty contractor team, were all that was necessary to build a high quality, complex building on time and within budget.  Competence, trustworthiness, and commitment were the hallmark of these parties that built the skyline.  Charlie lives these qualities every day of his life.  He sets the standard for what it means to earn the coveted designation “Construction Man.”  Winston Churchill’s tribute to Lawrence of Arabia is so applicable to Charles Calvin Kubin: “I fear we will never see his like again.”