Author: William Meiners
With the intent of doing good work, construction industry guru builds big, gives much.

Lots of folks borrow phrases from entertainment fields — sports, movies and the like — to describe aspects of their own work.

Bob Bowen, chairman and CEO of Bowen Engineering, has been known to call a successful construction project a grand slam. It’s no hyperbole. His company has won six AGC (Associated General Contractors) Build America Awards, also known as the Oscar of the construction industry.

The 2004 Lafayette Waste Water Treatment Plant Addition

Oscar Winner: Bowen Engineering earned an AGC Build America Award, the industry’s Oscar equivalent, for the 2004 Lafayette Waste Water Treatment Plant Addition.

Two projects close to Purdue, including the $57 million Lafayette Waste Water Treatment Plant Addition (2004) and the 120-tower Windmill Farm in Brookston (2010), earned two of those Oscar-like accolades for the firm. For Bowen (BSCE ’62, HDR ’07), it’s the culmination of a long career of “working with people and taking care of people,” says the engineer who has no intentions of easing into any golden years. “I’m 70 years old and I don’t want to leave.”

Perhaps it’s all part of a “go big or stay home” philosophy that has kept Bowen on the cutting edge of the construction business all these years. He and his wife even provided their money and names to Purdue for one of the biggest engineering labs in the world. The Robert L. and Terry L. Bowen High-Scale Performance Civil Engineering Laboratory is an $11 million facility helping to make bridges and buildings safer, more durable and earthquake-resistant. And his support of arts and education is equally large.

Patron: Arts and Education

For some, the creative arts may not align with technical disciplines like construction engineering. But for Bowen, the arts and engineering converge in a better way of doing business. By building a successful engineering business, Bowen has also become a first-class patron of the arts. The Bowens have enjoyed, and supported, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Ballet and the Fine Arts Society.

The Bowens support the symphony

Symphonic Support: The Bowens enjoy, and support, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Ballet, and the Fine Arts Society.

He knows the benefits of enhancing an engineering background with an appreciation for the arts. “You can’t just be an engineer,” Bowen says. “You need communication skills, and we need to teach engineering students about life beyond numbers and science. You just need a broad perspective. The broader you see life and the world, the better you communicate.”

Whether he’s taking clients to the symphony, or sending a group of kids from the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program to a Colts game, Bowen also knows the satisfaction of giving back. Alongside his arts patronage is a passion for education. The Bowen Foundation, established 15 years ago, provides scholarships to minority students in Indianapolis to help them pursue an education past high school. Some 300 students have received more than $750,000 in scholarships. In 2009, Bowen was inducted into the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) Hall of Fame.

Science Bound, founded in 2002 with then Purdue President Martin Jischke, again raised the bar on the Bowen family philanthropy. The program mentors IPS students from the eighth grade through high school, encouraging them to pursue careers in science and technical fields. In 2005, the Bowens received the Outstanding Philanthropist Award from the chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals for their generous support of education.

Philosophy: Good Works

Bowen’s philanthropic philosophy has long played into his style of business management. “We’ve been in business for 43 years and have always had good values. I learned values from the Lyles family in California,” he says of his early job at W.M. Lyles Construction in Fresno.

“You need to have a genuine concern for other people,” Bowen says. “One thing I wanted to make sure is that my employees loved their jobs and loved working for Bowen Engineering. I knew if they did, we’d have a good chance of being successful.”

That outlook isn’t surprising to anyone who knows Bowen. “That positive attitude toward life is the key,” says Mark Hastak, CEM head who has known Bowen since his own PhD days at Purdue. “He has really shown that to his employees.”

The good news continues for Bowen Engineering, even as the founder hands over the keys to his son, Doug Bowen, a 1993 Purdue Krannert graduate. “A lot has changed in the last five years,” Bowen says.

“My son has 130 graduate engineers working for him. In the past, an emphasis on high values was our core business strength. Now, we’ve changed the culture. It’s a culture about caring for people. And business is just skyrocketing.”

It’s not just politeness inside company headquarters in Indianapolis, where there’s even a “compliment a day club.” The can-do, positive attitude is promoted through all the project sites throughout the nation. “A problem with another contractor can become a food fight,” Bowen says. “At Bowen Engineering, the problem gets solved.”

Purdue: Through and Through

Bowen says those problems wouldn’t get solved, nor would Bowen Engineering even exist, without Purdue. “Our whole senior cabinet is Purdue grads,” says Bowen, who has long employed Boilermakers.

“We’ve been engaged with CEM from its beginning,” says Bowen. “We’ve had interns from the program every year except one.”

Bowen Engineering also boasts some 75 Purdue graduates in its current ranks, about one-third construction engineering and management grads, one-third civil engineers, and one-third from building construction management.

He gives much of his own time back to Purdue, as well. “Bob has talked to my classes and several other classes on a number of occasions,” Hastak recalls. “He always brings in examples from his own organization.”

Within those classroom exchanges, Hastak says, it’s Bowen’s ability to share professional practice stories, alongside managerial challenges that most excite the students who plan on managing construction sites down the road (see sidebar).

And of all the professional honors and awards he’s received over the years, Bowen says he’s proudest of the honorary doctorate bestowed on him by the university in 2007. “Being a doctor at Purdue is beyond anything I’ve ever dreamed of,” he says, “I even have the title on my business card.”