Albuquerque Journal

PUBLISHED: August 22, 2016

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When it came time for home-improvement projects at the Novak family abode in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, dad always knew where to turn.

Sure, he had seven kids-slash-potential helpers. But it was little Tom, the third of his four sons, he often enlisted as his right-hand man. Tom was the one with an almost innate interest in tools and the patience to see the work through.

“I loved being around, whether (the adults) were repainting the house or doing construction projects, I hung around a lot more than I thought (the other kids) did,” Novak recalls.

After getting his construction engineering degree at Iowa State University, Novak went straight to work in his chosen field. He still remembers the thrill of wrapping up his first professional project, one that involved pouring 1,000 pounds of concrete underground for a power plant in Amarillo, Texas. He eagerly showed off the work to his family.

“My parents had something in Dallas; they came (to see) and my two youngest siblings came on the trip. I go show them this job and they go ‘Haven’t you been here like four months?’” he says with a laugh. “They were not impressed. I was like ‘Oh, my god. I’m so impressed with what I did. They’re not impressed at all!’”

His work – and that of Klinger Constructors, where he serves as CEO – has gotten much harder to miss.

Klinger is the firm behind noteworthy projects like Mesa del Sol Town Center and the Santa Fe campus of Thornburg Investment Management. Its current slate includes Hotel Chaco and the big overhaul at the northeast corner of Coronado mall.

The company averages about $53 million in work each year and employs 115 people.

(Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

(Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.

A: As a teenager. We were sports junkies. … I came from a big family so there’s four boys, three girls and my mom loved us boys because a bike and a baseball mitt and we were out, and she didn’t have to worry about us. … I was a good kid. I didn’t get into too much trouble. Then again, I think sports did that. That’s kind of why I’m a sports junkie. I thought you had to do the straight and narrow if you weren’t doing good in school or you got busted for something, parents had no problem yanking you off the team.

Q: What sports did you play?

A: As a teenager, baseball and I was a wrestler.

Q: What weight were you in high school.

A: I was a little guy: 98 (pounds) to 119 when I was a senior.

Q: What did your parents do?

A: My dad was a high school counselor and (mom was an) at-home mom. I lost my dad when I was 14 and then mom got on at the school system. She was a secretary.

Q: She was raising seven kids on her own?

A: For about two years. She remarried. I got a great stepdad. It was one of those tragic things, but silver lining I ended up with – I was 14, it probably took me a long time to have a good relationship with him – but I have a great stepdad, I have to say.

(Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

(Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

Q: What were your interests in school?

A: Industrial arts was like my favorite class. … I kind of got into chess when I was in middle school. … (Industrial arts) would be like shop. You learned how to cast molds, you’d do some drafting. In middle school they had you do about everything you’d do like three- or four-week blocks of stuff and just do a ton of activities.

Q: What was your first job?

A: I was a newspaper boy. … We don’t throw in the Midwest – everybody has screen doors. You delivered and put the paper between the screen door and their front door. I always tell people I was probably 4 feet tall and had to deliver paper through 4-foot drifts of snow and never complained. I’d have to get up at 5 in the morning on Sunday and to my knowledge my parents never checked on me. Maybe they set their alarm at 6 to make sure I was out the door but they never (did anything else).

Q: How did you end up in New Mexico?

A: The Klinger name’s been around almost 100 years, and Klinger made a commitment to open an office around here and I pretty much came around three months after they opened an office (in 1982).

Q: Were you intrigued by New Mexico or was it just that there was a job opening here?

A: I was 23 years old, unencumbered. … My first job out of college with Klinger was in Amarillo, Texas, and I went in Amarillo in June, so I got the July heat in Amarillo and (then) I was back up in Iowa when it was 80 below. Growing up in Iowa, I never had a complaint about the snow. I delivered papers through 4 feet of snow and never had a complaint and moved down here in October (of 1982) and did the first winter and pretty much told my mom “Klinger could fire me tomorrow, and I’m never coming back.” (laughs)

Q: What industry is driving Klinger’s work right now?

A: Right now, we’re probably happy because we have good balance. It’s not one thing. … We’ve got some hotel work, we have some medical work, we have some manufacturing work, we’re at Coronado (mall) … so we have some retail work. We’re across all sectors and from our perspective, that’s awesome. We’re not dependent on any one thing.

Q: What do you think has been the signature project Klinger has done in Albuquerque?

A: You always hate to pick one. Some will say “Why didn’t you pick mine?” We like Town Center out at Mesa del Sol; it’s got the curved glass and a lot of innovative things and to work with Antoine Predock, who’s a worldwide known name.

Q: What is your life like away from work?

A: I work out about five times a week. I do sand volleyball one night and I bike. I bike a couple times a week and go to the gym a couple times. I live in the North Valley; we have a half-acre so I’ve got a lot of yard work.

Q: How did you get into sand volleyball?

A: My wife was a volleyball person so we got into it when we had the two younger boys, and when the third boy came along we gave it up. As stories go, the oldest boy was at UNM and got playing sand volleyball and he came to recruit his mother – he said he needed another girl. And I said ‘If mom’s playing, I’m playing.” We had probably taken 15 years off from sand volleyball and got back into it when our sons were older. My wife has foot problems so she quit, my son moved to Denver and I’m still playing. (laughs) But I love it; it’s a great workout.

Q: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?

A: Somebody told me once on one of my jobs, “This job went perfect.” And I said “No, it didn’t.” And she (asked why). I said “You know I always told myself in construction perfection is not attainable, and I said if I ever did a perfect job, I would retire because you could never do it again.” So I had to explain to her why things really weren’t perfect on the job.

Q: What is one food you can’t live without?

A: Green chile. I always tell people I don’t know what I’d have done if I had never lived here and found green chile. If we go on vacation for a week or something, it’s the first thing I have to do when I come back is go have some New Mexican food.

Q: Do you have any hidden talents?

A: I don’t know about that.

Q: As a former wrestler, if someone made you mad could you still do a takedown?

A: I think I probably could beat most high school wrestlers, yeah. (laughs) That was always my thing to be honest with you. As a little guy, even in my 20s, my thing was I was very good on my feet and I’d tell people, I bet I could take you down before you could take me down, and most people I knew weren’t wrestlers, so even though they were big guys I knew I could get them to the ground.

Q: What would you do with an extra hour every day?

A: I’d probably use it a lot of different ways. … If I got an extra hour, I’d donate it. Because I spend a lot of time at work and I’ve got time at home, but if I got an extra hour I’d try to commit it to helping a charity or helping an organization. I do some of that already but I think if I could get an extra hour I’d probably commit to doing something like that.

Q: How did you get involved with NDI New Mexico as a corporate council member?

A: They were involved at my wife’s school initially. Then Klinger has done work for NDI – we did their dance barns up in Santa Fe. My wife was a big proponent of them; she said this is a great program for our kids. She was a fifth-grade teacher and my youngest son ended up participating in NDI. Being a sports junkie I always tell the NDI people that if there’s a downfall to sports there’s winning and losing and people tend to get a little too over the top on the winning and losing sometimes. And NDI is about teamwork and exercise and there’s no winner and losers and I think that’s why the kids love it.

Q: Describe yourself in three words.

A: Team player, organized, fun to be around. That was more than a word. Fun. OK, fun.

THE BASICS: Born Thomas Richard Novak on Nov. 19, 1958, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; bachelor’s degree in construction engineering from Iowa State University; master of management from University of New Mexico; married to Debi since 1984; three sons: Ben, 29; Keith, 27; and Nolan, 22.
POSITION: CEO of Klinger Constructors since 2007 but has worked with the company since 1981; chairman of the Sandoval Economic Alliance, member of the NAIOP board.
• Novak says that all three of his sons have been featured in the Journal, mostly for their athletic accomplishments, so he’s glad to finally get his own moment. “I’m happy you showed up,” he says during an interview. “Finally I get to say dad got an article in the Journal.”
• Born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Novak says he never traveled beyond his hometown and St. Louis (where his extended family lived) until his late teens. He and wife Debi made it a point to travel much more with their own kids. “We got our kids to 40 states within the United States before they left the house – and probably 45 with the youngest,” he says.
• Novak says his family is sometimes referred to as “the Griswolds” by one of his colleagues given their unusual vacation adventures. “We always said we’re a traveling comedy show,” he says.
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