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Newsmaker: For Cherafat, career is 'like a perfect balance of business and engineering'

August 15, 2017
  • People
As seen in the Kansas City Business Journal. Reported by Rob Roberts. (Aug 10, 2017)

It’s not how fast you grow; it’s how well you grow fast.

That twist on the popular John Deere advertising tagline sums up Ramin Cherafat’s philosophy and pride regarding the growth of McCownGordon Construction LLC.

Cherafat, who will take over as CEO on Jan. 1 as part of a succession plan, said McCownGordon had grown from less than 15 people and $15 million in annual revenue when he signed on as COO in 2000 to a 320-employee firm with an $800 million backlog.

In recent years, the firm has been trusted with some of the region’s most high-profile projects, including the Museum at Prairiefire; the Church of the Resurrection’s new 3,500-seat sanctuary, part of a $93 million capital improvement plan for its Leawood campus; and an $82 million health education building just completed for the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Ramin_HEB

McCownGordon also will complete the $39 million transformation of Kemper Arena, and it will be part of the team for the $1 billion modernization of Kansas City International Airport if Burns & McDonnell’s proposal is selected and voters approve the new terminal.

Cherafat, of course, is proud of all that. But in recent years, he’s become “less motivated by how many concrete pumps or tower cranes we have around the city” and more driven by simply doing what’s right for the firm’s clients, employees and community.

He talked about his fearless-but-not-reckless approach to growth.

What company accomplishments are you most proud of?
We’ve built all these incredible projects and really built the company, and we’ve done it just really well, thoughtfully, the way we planned it. We’ve been thoughtful about how we’ve grown our operational excellence and all our departments — marketing, accounting, business development. And that’s something I’ve had a lot of involvement in. So I’m really proud of our track record. In almost 20 years of being in business, we’ve never been in a lawsuit, we’ve never had one dollar of liquidated damages assessed against us, and we swept the Builder’s Association’s three safety awards last year.

What challenges have you had to overcome in your career?
No. 1, I’m a very driven person, so just developing patience. I’m an idea generator and always trying to challenge the status quo. But now, I’m more thoughtful about how I present ideas and know that everything can’t always go as fast as I’d like to it go.

I understand you once wanted to become an orthopedic surgeon as a result of your more reckless youth.
I broke about 11 bones growing up. I was always a little reckless, and I got in a really bad accident on a moped and almost died in the sixth grade. I broke my collarbone and broke my arm in two, and the orthopedic surgeon was somebody I really liked. So after he fixed my arm, I thought, “Hey, that’s what I want to do.”

I also competed as a skateboarder during my early teens, when I’d spend summers out in California because my father lived there, and I also broke bones skateboarding, including two arms in one summer. I’ve just always liked physical stuff and exertion, but I’m way more cautious now.

Your father is from Tehran, Iran, where you were born, and your mother is from Kansas City. How did they meet?
My father bought a car and was traveling cross country with one of his best friends in the 1960s. He was planning to go to school at either UCLA or Stanford. But he got halfway across the country and had spent all his money, so he had to wait for my grandfather to wire him more. He had a friend who was going to Washburn University in Topeka so he was waiting there. And while he was waiting, he fell in love with the Washburn campus, ended up enrolling there, and met my mother there. They got married and lived in Tehran from 1968 to ’79.

It sounds like you inherited your fearless, entrepreneurial streak from your father.
My grandfather started a bank that grew to be the second largest privately held bank in Iran. My dad took the bank over in his late 20s, then became kind of a serial entrepreneur. He owned hotels, car dealerships and facilities for products like yogurt, milk and eggs. Then, during the Iranian Revolution (in 1979), the country nationalized all the banks. That’s when my father got my mom, my sister and I out. We moved to Prairie Village when I was 6 years old, which is when I learned to speak English. My father stayed back in Iran for a year to try to hang onto some of his business interests.

Why did you major in construction science?
I was originally in chemical engineering but after half a semester realized that was not what I wanted to do. I had some friends who were in the construction science program, which was in the college of engineering, so I went and met with the department head. It seemed like a perfect balance of business and engineering, and once I chose that major, I knew I wanted to work for one of the big companies and build big things.

How did you get to McCownGordon?
Brett Gordon (McCown Gordon’s co-founder and president) interviewed me for an internship (at Walton Construction) when I was a junior at K-State in 1995. I ended up doing an internship somewhere else and then, right out of college, I went out and worked as a field engineer for Hensel Phelps Construction, a large company on the West Coast.

But I had a soft spot in my heart for Kansas City, and I’d kept in touch with Brett. So I reached out to him after nearly a year in California, and all three of us (Gordon, McCownGordon co-founder/CEO Pat McCown and Cherafat) worked together at Walton from 1997 to 1999.

I remember Brett walked into my office there about 7 o’clock one morning and told me he and Pat were starting their own company, and I said, “Take me with you.” He said, “Give me six months.” So I started with the company in 2000 and became a partner in 2007. I was part of a three-person shareholders group until the company became 100 percent employee-owned in 2015.


RAMIN CHERAFAT
Title: COO for McCownGordon Construction LLC. He will become CEO on Jan. 1 as part of a succession plan.
Education: Bachelor’s in construction science, Kansas State University, 1996; MBA, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2002
Family: Wife, Ashley; children, Marina, 14, Sophia, 12, and Hudson, 9
Hobbies: Family, exercise, wine and photography

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