BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE ON A FIRM FOUNDATION

BBL has a blueprint for life without Donald Led Duke

CHRIS CHURCHILL STAFF WRITER
Section: Business,  Page: E1

Date: Sunday, October 10, 2010

Albany


Executives at BBL Construction Services say the company's pace of work and its impact on the Capital Region won't diminish because of the death of Donald Led Duke.


Led Duke was the hard-charging and fun-loving leader of the company, a man who started as a mason and rose to lead a business that dominates the region's construction and development scene.


Led Duke was found dead in his Voorheesville home at age 64 in late September -- shocking friends and co-workers. He left behind a wife, Mary Louise, and four sons -- all of whom work for BBL.


"It was unexpected," said Kevin Gleason, president of BBL, during an interview last week. "But I feel that we're in really good shape. He put a lot of things in place, so that none of the employees have to worry about what's the next step."


Led Duke was gregarious with friends, but tended to shun publicity. And BBL as a company typically followed that lead, letting its completed work do the talking.


But last week, company officials conducted interviews with local media outlets -- an effort seemingly aimed at reassuring BBL clients while letting rival businesses know that the company intends to remain a force.


"BBL is strong, and Don left a succession plan in place," said Jon deForest, a BBL vice president. "BBL will continue as a construction company."


BBL's roots stretch back to the 1970s, when Led Duke became friends with Robert Barry and Michael Bette, who together owned a construction company. Led Duke was invited to join them in 1982 -- forming Barry, Bette and Led Duke, or BBL.


By 1998, the company had become the Capital Region's largest construction company, with offices in Texas, Florida and West Virginia. But internal divisions and rivalries led the company to split that year, putting BBL's local companies and its offices in West Virginia in Led Duke's control.


In the years since, Led Duke's personality dominated and shaped BBL, which now has about 1,500 employees. He guided the company's growth -- taking it, for example, into the hotel business and leading it to open the Recovery Grill chain of restaurants.


Led Duke was also well known for his political connections and generous campaign donations, to Republicans and Democrats alike. In fact, Led Duke and BBL's political action committee gave at least $1.5 million to political candidates since 2000.


Those contributions caused grumbling from executives at rival firms and led to the perception that those connections helped BBL win work. Some construction company execs have even said they don't compete for work in Albany, because they consider the city closed to outside companies without ties to local political leaders.


Not surprisingly, that perception is not popular among some at BBL, where employees note that the overwhelming majority of company work occurs outside of Albany.


Still, Gleason said the pace of campaign donations from BBL will likely drop, because they were primarily driven by Led Duke.


"He put the money into the PAC," Gleason said. "He was not the one pulling the string on every dollar, but he was the one financing it."


BBL has a full plate of local projects -- which is a good thing for the company, because the economy has stunted construction work in other parts of the country.


"The state of Florida is dead," Gleason said. "We have one project in Florida right now."


In Bethlehem, BBL is proceeding with Vista Technology Park, a 440-acre campus where as many as 5,000 people could one day work. The project is awaiting a final OK from the town.


"We're very close," deForest said. "We're a matter of weeks from approval."


In Albany, BBL continues to build buildings along New Scotland Avenue, undertaking the ongoing expansion of St. Peter's Hospital, and is looking to get the Wellington Place project off the ground.


The Wellington work aims to revive a long-dilapidated stretch of buildings on State Street across from the Capital. Work there has been stalled for months.


"It's still getting its legs," Gleason said of Wellington Place. "Without tenants, these projects really don't have a life."


Finding tenants for Wellington -- and every other BBL project -- is the job of Columbia Development, an associated company.


Reach Chris Churchill at 454-5442 or cchurchill@timesunion.com.