Michael Cullinan was born July 7, 1948, in Pekin, where he lived until 1969 when his family moved to Peoria. He earned a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University 1970, and a JD in 1973 from the University of Illinois.
He is past president of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association, past president of the Associated General Contractors of Illinois, a member of the board of directors of The Road Information Program, a national highway information organization. He is also a member of the advisory board for Bank One, Peoria, and the Bradley University board of trustees; and a former member of the Young Presidents' Organization. He is past president and current member of the Tri County Economic Development Council board, and a member of board of the Fayette Companies.
Cullinan is a current member of the OSF Saint Francis hospital advisory board, the American Red Cross board, Easter Seals/UCP board, WTVP Channel 47 board, and the steering committee for Notre Dame High School Capital Campaign. He is a past member of the following boards: Salvation Army board, the general board of the Third Order of the Sisters of St. Francis, St. Augustine Manor, Youth Farm board, Diocesan Finance Council Diocese of Peoria.
He has four children: Kathleen, 19, Maureen, 18, Alison, 15, and Allen, 13.
Tell us about your background. Where were you raised, schools attended, family, etc.
After high school I went to college at Northwestern University in Evanston and got my bachelor's degree in political science. Going to the university during that time period was very tumultuous–drugs made their way onto college campuses and, of course, the Vietnam War was going strong, producing turmoil.
During the late 60s there was an explosion in the interest in the law, and in going to law school. I think with the social upheaval of the late 60s there was an overall feeling of frustration that the executive or legislative branches of government weren't dealing with the problems of the time quickly enough. From civil rights to the Vietnam War there was a sense that the fastest and most effective way of reaching the desired result was by resorting to legal action. One individual could file a law suit and make a difference. One individual could make the establishment take notice and be ordered to comply with a court's judgment. This had enormous appeal to the generation that did not like the Vietnam War, who were passionate about the civil rights movement, and wanted to set whole new standards for society. Although I was certainly interested in the law, I was definitely a conservative not a revolutionary personality.
I graduated from Northwestern in 1970 and went on to law school at the University of Illinois. My father had gone to law school at the University of Illinois, so that was a logical way for me to continue my education.
In fact, I went straight through law school in two and one-half years because I had a military obligation upon the completion of my education.
During the draft lottery drawing in the fall of 1969 I had been assigned the number 50, which meant I would most definitely be drafted. That meant that during law school I would also have to be in ROTC at the University of Illinois. I also spent two, six-week periods in military training–one summer in 1970 at Fort Knox Ky., and one summer in 1971at Fort Riley, Kan. It was interesting from the standpoint that the volunteer army concept was in full swing while I was at Fort Riley, but not the summer I was at Fort Knox. Although I had always thought I would have to serve, it was tempting to think had my lottery number been higher I would not have had the military commitment.
I spent six years in the Army Reserve, since the Vietnam War had ended just before I got out of law school. My brief military career, particularly the summers of 1970 and 1971 when the war was still going strong, provided me with a sense of pride in service to the country, however limited that was. It certainly instilled in me a great respect for those who had to serve, and sacrificed much more than myself.
I think the mixing of society in the military melting pot is something our current culture could use more of. During the draft you would often have highly educated people in the same training unit as high school dropouts. I think everyone learned something from that sort of forced mixing we often don't get today.
After law school I practiced trial law in Peoria for about 10 years. When I got out of law school, I thought I should at least practice for a time to see what the law was all about, and I guess I was idealistic about making my mark on the legal profession–for a short time.
I practiced trial and personal injury law in Peoria. This was before legal advertising was permitted and when the law seemed more of a profession than a business. Maybe it always was a business, but back in the mid 70s it seemed a lot less about big bucks than today.
Tell about RA Cullinan and Son–describe its history and how it has diversified over the last few years.
The family business–R.A. Cullinan and Son–is a highway construction business in Tremont. The firm was founded in 1913 by my grandfather. He had been in farming, but evidently saw either no future in the farming business or a great future in the construction business. I guess I believe the first vision since the highway construction business was a pretty modest business opportunity in rural central Illinois around 1913. He started out by building concrete livestock watering tanks and eventually building culverts and bridges. Of course, at that time these were primarily bridges for horse drawn carriages and wagons. The roads were, for the most, part dirt and gravel. The word infrastructure so often mentioned today was probably not even in Webster's dictionary back in the early 1900s.
My grandfather was a great man by reputation (he passed away in 1952). He was president of the Illinois Bituminous Association, which was the predecessor organization representing the asphalt industry in the state of Illinois. Our firm had one of the first downstate Illinois asphalt plants located just outside Morton. My grandfather eventually had jobs all over the state, building bridges and other projects. Of course, public works was not nearly the industry it is today, so contractors had to roam the state in search of small bridge contracts and projects.
My grandfather was a great people person, and had a great reputation for his relationship with his employees. He, of course, was a great influence on my father. After World War II, my father worked for the company for about five years learning the business from my grandfather. Then my father took over the business in 1952 upon my grandfather's sudden death. I know my dad felt a big burden when he had to assume the leadership of the company because of my grandfather's status as a respected businessman.
Dad grew up in Tremont, just a couple hundred feet from our current offices. He was an outstanding athlete in high school, but again that was at a small school. He did, however, place in the hurdles at the state track meet and then gone on to the university in Champaign. At Tremont my Dad had first encountered A.G. "Frenchy" Haussler, who at the time was coach of about everything at Pekin High School. Frenchy eventually ended up at Bradley University as vice president. Haussler Hall is named after him. My dad and Frenchy were friends for life, and the Hausslers were like grandparents to my brother, my sister, and myself.
At the University of Illinois, Dad played on the freshman basketball team and eventually was the captain of the track team his senior year. He had the great memories of running against Jesse Owens who, of course, ran at Ohio State University. Dad saw Owens set the four world records and tie a fifth at the Big Ten Track championships at Ann Arbor in 1937. He always said he was a better hurdler than Owens, but in between the hurdles there was a considerable advantage to Jesse Owens.
Upon graduation from law school, World War II took dad overseas to the Pacific Theatre where he was a PT boat commander and .in fact. served in the same squadron as John F. Kennedy. Also in Dad's unit was Byron "Whizzer" White who was a great college football player and later a justice on the United States Supreme Court.
As a child, I remember Dad receiving Christmas cards from Senator Kennedy. I sure wish someone had saved them. Anyway that sure was something I never forgot. When John Kennedy ran for president, in 1960 his mother Rose used our home in Pekin for a press conference, and as a place to rest, while she campaigned in Peoria, Pekin, and Bloomington for her son. Those are memories a 12-year-old boy will never forget, with the media interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in our living room on N. 8th Street in Pekin.
I bet the people who live in that home now don't know of such a historic happening in their living room.
I was watching the movie Forrest Gump recently, and it reminded me of Dad's fleeting contact with great figures like Jesse Owens, John F. Kennedy, Byron White-it's amazing how one's life can briefly but forever be influenced by such chance encounters. Like my grandfather, Dad was the president of Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association. He was truly a leader in the highway industry in Illinois.
Maybe I've talked quite a bit about my father, but he was a major figure and influence in my life, and to all those around him.
When I went to practice law it was in some way to try to establish my own identity, I suppose. This is a common occurrence in family businesses, particularly those whose patriarch was as influential and respected as my father. Having attended a number of business seminars where the topic is father-child business succession and planning, it is important to try to establish an identity away from the family firm in many cases. Although my experience practicing law was valuable, I still miss the fact that I did not get to sit at my father's knee at the business for a time before his death in 1982.
What was the founding vision for your business? How has that vision matured since then? How do you expect it to change over the next five to 10 years?
RA Cullinan is a third generation family construction business. There is a lot of pride in that fact. Family businesses that survive to the third and fourth generations are not that commonplace. It has been almost 50 years since my grandfather passed away. He didn't get to see the most important factor in the development of the highway industry in America. That pivotal change in our business was the interstate highway system, which was initiated a little more than 40 years ago during the Eisenhower administration.
Two years ago we had a commemoration of the 40-year anniversary of the interstate system at the Civic Center. I remember Congressman Ray LaHood speaking, but perhaps the significance of the interstate highway system was not fully appreciated by the general public at the time. Maybe it was the fact that it was the 40-year anniversary, instead of the more significant 50th anniversary.
The interstate program basically changed highway construction and automobile transportation in America. I know Caterpillar fully appreciates the significance of the interstate. It is truly America's defining infrastructure project–having an impact on all areas of the country, and the lifestyles of every American. It moved the truck and the diesel engine into the forefront for the delivery of goods in the United States. Just-in-time delivery is a product of the interstate highway system, and the tractor-trailer.
Our vision for the company is to continue to adjust and adapt to the ever-changing construction market, not only in terms of the type of construction projects we pursue, but also the method of delivery. For example should we be involved in the electrical, telecommunication, gas line, or even marine construction markets? Should we look at privatization, design-build, negotiated bid, construction management, or other forms of construction service delivery? These are the real visions for the future, choosing which paths to go down will be the real challenge for the next five to 10 years.
We will always have the challenges of the highway construction business, and hopefully we will play some role in the $300 million modernization of I-74, which will start in the next two or three years.
How many employees did you have (full/part time) at the beginning? Today? Geographically, within what areas does RA Cullinan accept projects? To what do you attribute the growth of your business?
Our company has about 60 full time management people. Most of our workers are seasonal from the various union trades-laborers, teamsters, operating engineers, carpenters. During the peak of the construction season, we employ about 400 union workers.
We operate in central Illinois in the counties of Tazewell, Peoria, Fulton, Woodford, McLean, Logan, Mason, and DeWitt. We perform all types of civil heavy and highway construction. This includes aggregate production, asphalt paving, concrete paving, underground water, and sewer construction. Our top customers are governmental entities-the State of Illinois, counties, cities, villages, and townships. But we also are very dependent on the private market-subdivisions, shopping centers, etc.
I attribute any growth or success of our business to the dedicated employees who work for the company. That's what sets our business apart from others–the people in the trenches.
When I came to work for the company 17 years ago, we had in place then a great group of employees, both management and union, who were competent, dedicated, and proud of the work we do. We have an extremely dedicated, loyal corps of employees–it is the norm for our company to have people, both management and hourly, who have been with us for 30 to 35 years.
You win with people, and any success the company has had over the years is due to them. Highway construction is a 5 a.m to 6 p.m., or later, type of a job during the construction season, which is generally eight months of the year. If you are dedicated to the job it becomes apparent very quickly; we have those dedicated employees.
What trends in your industry have forced change in your business? How did it change? Was it for the better or for the worse? How so?
Our industry has been driven by public financing of infrastructure–from the interstate highway system, to the state licensing fees and gas taxes to county and city infrastructure funding.
The focus and awareness of the public about infrastructure over the past 10 years has truly allowed for the recent increases in both federal funding, through TEA21, and in the state through the Illinois FIRST program.
Highway spending in the state of Illinois will go from an average of $1.2 billion per year to more than $2 billion per year in the next five-year cycle. This is much-needed, but since the revenue has not increased much over the last 10 years it is really only catching up to the needs of the state. There is still not enough money to afford the state the new construction dollars needed.
Another trend is toward no growth-no development. This is, of course, a threat to our business since we construct, we improve, and service developers.
Coalitions to stop highway construction and private development are making it more difficult, more costly, and more time consuming to bring projects to fruition. The lead time for the state in preparing environmental impact statements, having hearings, and preparing economic impact studies has stretched out the delivery time for projects to many years. While proper planning and consideration for the environment is essential, the hoops can be endless.
Another trend is toward some consolidation within the highway construction industry. We have acquired two companies within the last three years ourselves, but I see this trend across the state of Illinois, and nationally. There is still plenty of competition, but some consolidation had to occur.
What sets your business/organization apart from others in your industry? What steps are your taking to make sure RA Cullinan is competitive in your industry?
I think one of the strengths of our company is our ability to perform virtually any highway or private development project from beginning to end. That is, we produce our own aggregate products, we do the underground construction, the concrete construction, the asphalt construction–we can do the entire project ourselves with a skilled, experienced workforce.
The other real plus for us is our reputation for quality work–not just from our customers, but from our employees who set their own standard for excellence in the work they do. It's hard to teach the importance of quality work from the top down, we have a tradition of quality, accepted and enhanced from our field personnel.
How does your company recruit and retain employees? Have you seen a change in these efforts in the last decade? How so?
The recruiting process for our company has changed over the years. We use to get most of our young engineers after they spent some time with the Illinois Department of Transportation as field engineers. Now, although they may have some IDOT experience, we are recruiting more directly from the university ranks.
We've used Bradley University to locate civil engineering or construction management graduates. Usually they interned with us over a summer. This process seems to produce the best fit between the company and the employee. Not everyone who gets an engineering degree is interested in field highway construction work, so we are looking for special people willing to work in the heat of the summer and put in the long hours during the construction season. To this end, we have funded several scholarships at Bradley and have established a strong relationship with the College of Engineering at Bradley.
What changes do you plan to make in the future?
We are currently consolidating our management people into one location in Tremont. We acquired Peoria Blacktop in 1997, and Seneca's construction operation in 1999. We had management people basically in three locations within the tri-County area. We are doubling the size of our Tremont offices to accommodate all management people at one location. While we will still have management facilities in Peoria, we thought we could foster greater communication by expanding the Tremont office.
The challenge of integrating the people from three different companies, three different corporate cultures, is a real one. This cannot be solved merely by physically moving anyone's desk, but we are working on bringing three organizations together as one.
We think having everyone at the same office will help coordination as well. The construction business spreads our personnel over thousands of square miles–communication and coordination are essential. Having approximately 100 cellular phones and 100 two way radios is supposed to help make things run smoother as well.
What has been the most challenging for your business? As the owner? The most rewarding? What project are you most proud of?
Our business is very capital intensive. Construction equipment is expensive and constantly being improved. Caterpillar is proud of its ability to bring out new and better models faster than ever before. The contractor has to respond to changes in technology by keeping his fleet current and efficient-it's a real challenge. Equipment rental is also an option.
The most rewarding part of the business is carrying on the tradition of those who have gone before. You come to appreciate all the successes of those people in operating and building the business. It is a real challenge, and a reward, to think you can help continue that proud tradition through our current projects. The fun part of our business is, of course, actually seeing the improvements our projects bring to the motoring public or to the private sector.
We played a major role in the infrastructure around the Diamondstar plant in Bloomington. It is rewarding to see that facility constructed and all that it has done for the area. Our most rewarding project was the construction of I-155 from Morton to Lincoln. When I was in college, my father would refer to the fact that this project was about to be constructed. Of course, it was delayed by litigation and then a lack of funding for more than 10 years. So it was very fulfilling to have played such a major role in the construction of such an important link for the tri-County area. Almost 1.1 million tons of asphalt were placed in the construction of that highway–that's equivalent to 50,000 tractor trailer loads of asphalt. We worked with some outstanding subcontractors to deliver that project with great pride.
The day Congressman Bob Michel helped Governor Edgar dedicate the road at the Delevan interchange–Oct. 29, 1992–was a very great day for R.A. Cullinan and its employees. It literally culminated 25 years of waiting for that project–then to be able to play such a major role in its construction was very satisfying to the company and all its employees.
What misperceptions, if any, does the general public have in regards to road repair and construction?
The public has a number of misperceptions about highway construction and repair. Particularly in the State of Illinois, the Department of Transportation is dealing with conditions that make construction of highways difficult. People go to other states and perceive better, longer lasting highways, and wonder what's wrong with Illinois.
First, in our state we are blessed with great farmland and soil. But this a lot different than the underlying rock of say a Missouri or Wisconsin, so our soil conditions are great for farming but not for road construction. Then in Illinois we have undesirable freeze/thaw cycling during the winter. That is, the moisture on the road surfaces thaws during the day, penetrating the cracks in pavement, then freezes at night expanding the water in and under the roadway, thus deteriorating the road.
A significant amount of damage to highways is caused by the heavy loads that trucks carry on our highways. Illinois has a tremendous number of trucks crossing our state as our location is in the center of the country. This causes a lot of stress on the pavements and bridges. The public has a difficult time understanding the real significance of these engineering realities. In spite of these factors the roads in Illinois have actually outperformed their design life expectancy.
What is your opinion of the proposed Peoria/Chicago freeway, and how would that impact your business? What about other developments? The Riverfront, etc.?
My opinion of the Peoria-Chicago Freeway is one of, quite naturally, enthusiastic support, given our business of highway construction. But even beyond that natural affinity to the project, it is essential for central Illinois, and more specifically the tri-County area, to be better connected to this wonderful interstate highway system.
This may be our last opportunity to get the highway infrastructure we really need. Chicago-Peoria is, potentially, part of a Chicago-Kansas City route studied by the Airport Authority some years ago. This ultimately is the goal–another through freeway connecting our area to Chicago and Kansas City. That is what the folks in the western part of the state are so anxious for. We need to keep pushing for this total highway solution for our area.
When the Peoria to Chicago Highway Coalition was formed, it was in response to the opening of I-155 and the great feelings we all had about being better connected to the south and St. Louis. I had people tell me that in traveling I-155 to Springfield 'they saved 30 minutes from Peoria.' It only seemed like that long, but the ease and certainty of the trip provided as many benefits as the time of travel itself.
There was tremendous interest in doing the same thing with the Chicago connection. The coalition was committed to making the Chicago highway a reality, with the exact route left to the professionals-that is, the consultants and highway professionals at the Illinois Department of Transportation.
I think that concept has helped the coalition stay together and gather the tremendous support there is for the project. We shouldn't forget the ultimate goal, which is to connect to the Kansas City leg. That also brings up the issue of the ring road around the tri-County area. I am a big supporter of this project as well.
If we are to efficiently use the Route 6 /I-474 partial ring we already have in existence, it only makes sense to connect it so we truly have better transportation in the tri-County area. In addition, to take full advantage of any Peoria-Chicago highway we must have a way to access such a highway for all the residents of the tri-County area. This can only be done with a modern full ring road through the tri-Counties.
All these projects come with huge price tags, but that doesn't mean we let such a price tag completely eliminate the vision. If we don't get Peoria-Chicago under construction when Missouri builds a freeway from Kansas City to Quincy, the connection to Chicago will go through the Central Illinois Expressway, which is already in existence to Springfield, and then up I-55 to Chicago. Peoria will be left in the backwater again if we don't move decisively now.
As for other development projects in the Peoria area, I have been very involved in trying to build the Chiefs stadium at the downtown location. Minor league baseball has a 20 year tradition in Peoria, and I think is a great family and business entertainment option. As with many businesses, the Chiefs need a renewal or reinvestment in the club to be in step with the trends in minor league baseball. That trend is toward bigger and better stadiums that can compete for today's entertainment dollar.
In a world with constantly changing entertainment alternatives, it is no longer sufficient for minor league baseball to just "be there" with a 70-game schedule. The Chiefs have to compete for fans with a total entertainment experience–that is a major league setting at minor league prices.
I think the Vonachens know minor league baseball as well as anyone in the country. They have a passion to make it succeed in Peoria, not just for themselves but for the entire central Illinois area. To be successful, a new stadium is a necessity.
The current location provides none of the amenities that would establish the ballpark as a special venue. The parking is inadequate–people on "firework nights" and during other big promotions have to be shuttled from Bradley park–the concessions are away from the field action and not sufficient to serve thefans, the clubhouse does not meet minor league standards, the vantage points for actually viewing the game are too few and inadequate. By that last comment I mean that minor league baseball stadiums now provide various viewing options at games. They have sky boxes and party decks behind home plate, they have berm seating in the outfield, they have party decks for large groups in the outfield, they have playgrounds for the kids in the outfield. These are all ways for people to watch a game and yet have a different experience. Believe me, I have been to the Cubby hole at Pete Vonachen Stadium many times, but the experience is pretty much the same. These options for seating and experience are what minor league baseball needs.
The downtown location for the stadium is key for the city, and the team. Located where the team is now, between the Ag Research Lab, I-74, and the cemetery, provides no synergy with downtown or any other business in town. The game is an experience unto itself.
If you go to the Chiefs game, that's often all that you do–because there is no place for any other entertainment venue in the vicinity of the stadium–because of its location. There are no 3 p.m. businessman baseball specials, as there could be with proximity to downtown. The stadium would serve to renew a blighted two-block stretch to the immediate south of downtown. With a privately funded stadium of more than $15 million, I can't think of a better and quicker way to develop this part of town.
The time is now for development of the Riverfront and the baseball stadium. We have been in a long business expansion. This will not continue forever. If the city does not act now, this property could sit in its deteriorated condition for another 10 to 15 years. We all saw what happened to Southtown when bad times hit Peoria, it became a big negative for the city in terms of image. We can't let the opportunity to develop across from Cat's Training Center slip away. Caterpillar made a substantial investment in that part of town, somewhere north of $50 million, and that property is perfect for baseball and would provide a good neighbor for Caterpillar' facility.
Cities and communities that don't continue to always seek development and investment are destined to forever to play catch up. Of course, all of us consider ourselves experts when it comes to development, which is why there are usually very strong opinions from the public. It's like running a restaurant, everyone knows that this particular entrÈe would be a big seller at a restaurant because we all have our own food preferences. That doesn't mean that everyone knows how to run a restaurant just because we all like food. It is the same with development, I think there are people who have very strong desires to leave things the way they are–people who go to the same restaurant and order the same thing all the time.
With development we all would like to see certain new kinds of stores or businesses in the community, but actually making them happen is a very difficult thing. This attitude against is a great concern to me. It is becoming increasingly difficult to build a consensus to accomplish any type of development. Groups are better organized and strident in a no build, no growth scenario. But to make life better, we have to build and grow.
What is your philosophy of community involvement? What boards and organizations are you currently involved in?
My philosophy of community involvement is like that of many people in Peoria and tri-County area. Sitting on boards and contributing one's time and money are common commitments of people in an area the size of Peoria. That's what special about our community, we are just small enough for people to be involved in a leadership way in a number of community and charitable causes.
Like a lot of people in our community, I serve on numerous boards. But I am particularly proud of what those organizations I am involved with are doing in regard to advancing their particular mission. I just recently was appointed to the Bradley board of trustees. Looking at the advances Bradley has made with the Caterpillar Communications Center, the $100 million-plus Centennial Campaign, and other visionary projects involving housing, parking, and business services-I was honored to serve. This institution is vitally important to the long-term success of our community–it is wonderful to see the support given to Bradley from throughout central Illinois in their recent fundraising campaign. Of course the appointment of the next president of Bradley will be a very important decision which will happen within the next year.
Also, I am thrilled to see the type of student Bradley is attracting, as I said earlier we use Bradley to recruit employees for our company because we see motivated, bright young people right here in our own backyard.
I have also had a long period of service to OSF Saint Francis Hospital, and the Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis. My father was a past president of the advisory board of Saint Francis Hospital, so I was very honored to serve on the board in the early 80s. The hospital is such a major part of central Illinois, employing thousands of people and delivering services to a wide band of the State of Illinois central region. The emphasis on mission by the Sisters is just not an advertising motto–it really is a mission when you see the Sisters roaming the hallways of the hospital, dispensing encouragement, understanding, and faith to patients and their loved ones. With healthcare going through such challenges in structure and federal reimbursement, serving on the board of the hospital has been a real education.
What do you see affecting Peoria in the next decade?
One big trend I see across society, in general, is increasing competition. Caterpillar is diversifying into Ag products, banks are selling insurance, and insurance companies like State Farm are starting banks. Big banks have gobbled up other banks hoping to gain a competitive edge within the industry. Financial service companies or brokerage firms are competing with banks.
Competition within health care has been fierce, with everyone looking for new forms of delivery and cost cutting. Telecommunication competition is crossing new lines between all sorts of new companies–cable television companies will be selling phone services and internet services.
The globalization of competition is, of course, something we are all aware of living in the midst of Caterpillar country. All this competition is keeping prices down and keeping inflation low, which is great for consumers, but it sure makes for a lot of confusion as well.
Also of concern is the pace of change in society. The kind of a job one might aspire to today may not even exist 10 years from now, or even by the time one gets out of school–the very school one attended to prepare for that particular job. The turnover of jobs and the necessity to create new ones in a community is of more concern now than ever.
People used to work a lifetime for a firm or organization, but now there is more mobility, change in careers, and retraining across society. New options in education, and the Internet and what it will do to our lives, areexciting. Change is coming faster and more dramatically than at any time in our history. We have no choice but to embrace it and thrive in it–otherwise it will simply run by you. IBI