Chief Operating Officer, McCownGordon Construction
Steve Levy returned to his native Jamaica in 1984 when he received an offer from his uncle to serve as the construction manager for a large 2 million square feet warehouse complex in Kingston. That was the opportunity that really jump started his career.
The only hitch: He’d never overseen a project of that scale before.
“But I’ve never been afraid to learn,” he says, and sure enough, he was a quick study: “Those buildings are still there to this day,” Levy says.
He could have stayed put there; his family had built several large businesses, including the biggest poultry producer in the Caribbean, and one of the country’s leading construction companies. But there’s nothing quite like a post-hurricane cleanup—the sight of projects heavily damaged and the smell of coups filled with tens of thousands of dead chickens—to refocus one’s mind on long-term career prospects.
That was precisely his experience after Hurricane Gilbert wrecked his homeland in 1988, a few years after he’d earned a degree in construction management from Florida International University. That was itself a refocusing on career potential, since pre-med at the University of Florida didn’t pan out. And that, in turn, was a refocusing after some lackluster academic performance as a youth landed him a stretch at a boarding school in England, “a place that really did look like Hogwarts,” he says.
Levy received his engineering degree from Florida International University, and over the course of his construction career, he has managed various projects with companies in the U.S. All of that was well and good, but he knew something more than project management was waiting for him out there. He leaned on colleagues and mentors to teach him the fundamentals of construction operations, managing people and project financial plans, and he found his sweet spot in the sector. That gave him the assurance needed to build out a career plan in five-year increments, eventually reaching vice president of operations for a Texas contractor.
When McCownGordon came calling in 2019, Levy jumped at the chance to put his imprint on a growing company. The year before he arrived, the company’s revenues stood at $482 million; Levy and the team shrugged off the pandemic’s first year to post record revenues, then topped it with $737 million in 2021. If 2023 meets projections as yet another year of record growth, McCownGordon will be on track to become a $1 billion player in that sphere.
Yet Levy is not about to take credit for that performance, not with what he sees as nearly 570 co-stars sharing the stage.
“I am surrounded by truly great folks who make my job easy, so the advice is to build teams that are led by the best in the business,” he says. “Sounds cliched, but it is something that you have to be intentional about; building teams that share your vision and your commitment to doing things the right and ethical way.”
One of the most powerful tools in his management kit is an appreciation for being specific. You can tell a client his building will be done ASAP, Levy says, and that might mean next month to you—but if someone’s business is riding on completion, ASAP means today.
“You can’t run a construction business on abstracts; you have to be specific,” he says.
On a personal level, Levy says, success has also been the product of having the right team at home. During a stint in south Florida earlier in his career, he says, he had a decent job, the allure of a sandy beach, and plenty of fish in the sea to test his weekend angling skills.
Credit for the guts to trade Florida for Texas, he says, goes to his wife, Kathy, “who told me there was so much more for me out there than Key West had to offer. When you’re going to take a risk with your career, having that kind of support at home makes everything palatable.”
While he still has some runway left before retirement, Levy is approaching the last leg of his career with a broad goal in mind: “I want to leave McCownGordon better than I found it,” he says, “not just bigger.”