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TXAPA Pioneers Zack Burkett Co.

Like millions of Americans at the end of World War II, Zack Burkett Jr. was ready to get on with his life. He had served in the U.S. Navy on a Landing Ship Mechanized in the South Pacific until the conclusion of the War, and he was anxious to return to his new bride Lucile and complete his education. Zack had been studying civil engineering at the University of Texas, where he met and courted Lucile. With the end of the war and his military service completed, Zack returned home to Graham, completed his civil engineering degree by correspondence, started raising a family, and began one of the most interesting and unique careers of the heavy construction industry in Texas.

Like millions of Americans at the end of World War II, Zack Burkett Jr. was ready to get on with his life. He had served in the U.S. Navy on a Landing Ship Mechanized in the South Pacific until the conclusion of the War, and he was anxious to return to his new bride Lucile and complete his education. Zack had been studying civil engineering at the University of Texas, where he met and courted Lucile. With the end of the war and his military service completed, Zack returned home to Graham, completed his civil engineering degree by correspondence, started raising a family and began one of the most interesting and unique careers of the heavy construction industry in Texas.

Zack Burkett Jr. began his construction career with his brother-in-law Harry Newton. Newton, with his company Harry Newton Inc., was an extremely prolific bridge builder. The post-war boom and the Interstate Highway Act provided many opportunities for Burkett to gain valuable expertise as a superintendent and later as a partner with Newton. They literally built bridge structures all over the state, including some on the DFW Tollway. This intensity of bridge building experience led Newton and Burkett to develop the pan girder bridge design that became widely used and accepted by TxDOT. Aside from the practical experience, the most important thing that Zack Burkett Jr. learned was the value of a business model using associates that participate in the bid process, build the work, and then participate in the profit or loss that the job generates. This system held him in good stead for years to come and accelerated the growth of his young company. 

Zack Burkett Co. was incorporated in 1958 and began to operate as a separate entity from The Newton Co. in 1962. Newton became interested in chemical and industrial plant work on the Gulf Coast in Freeport and soon passed his interests in TxDOT work to the Zack Burkett Co. The 1960s were an eventful period for Zack Burkett Jr. and a fertile time for expansion. With the growth of the highway business, Burkett expanded the company to include excavation and base work. He accomplished this by adding Nathan Shack in the mid-1960s as the first associate of the company to control that aspect of the company's business. During the same period, the company had secured a large job on Highway 114 that provided a good opportunity to enter the crushing business, as it required several hundred thousand tons of base material. Burkett purchased a crusher from M.D. Ellis and then hired Mr. Ellis to operate the crushing operation, which became known as the Perry Pit. The company's entrance into the hot mix asphalt business was marked by the purchase of a batch plant in the late sixties. Both the crushing and asphalt operations became a part of Nathan Shack's area of responsibility. 

By the end of the sixties, the Zack Burkett Company had three associates: Nathan Shack, Frank Hodges, and Stanley Knight. Hodges and Knight were responsible for the bridge work — Hodges in East Texas and Knight in the West. Knight would later team with G. G. (Sarge) Strickland to handle the structure work in West Texas. Harry Newton was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1968, and Zack Burkett Jr. was asked by Mr. Newton's financial partners to continue his work on the Gulf Coast with Mr. T.C. Stanley, who was Mr. Newton's manager in Freeport. Burkett did so and ultimately purchased the assets of the Newton Co. and the Stanley Construction Co. and made Mr. Stanley an associate. They continued working along the Gulf Coast, making the scope of the company almost statewide. Two other key people were added to the company in 1979 and 1980. Heber Brantley joined the company as an associate in 1979 with primary responsibilities related to asphalt paving. In 1980, Bob Schleider joined the company as the area manager for Wichita Falls. He had retired from TxDOT in 1979 as a district engineer. Over the years, both of these men made important contributions to the Zack Burkett Co.

The next generation of the Burkett family began to enter the family business in 1974, with the addition of Zack Jr.'s younger son, Jim Burkett. Jim began his career in the family's cattle business after attending Texas Tech University and had oversight responsibilities related to the bridge operations. With the emergence of computer technology over the years and the company's growing IT demands, Jim became heavily involved in that aspect of the operation and supervised the installation of their first computer system. He serves as vice-president of the company and is responsible for all aspects of the IT operations and oversees the company's many and varied real estate holdings. In addition to his work at the office, Jim lives on the ranch with his wife Debi, and they oversee the day-to-day operations of the cattle business.

In that same year, 1974, Zack Burkett III earned his BS in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to his engineering degree, Zack III, along with Jim, had already received some hands-on training during the highway lettings in Austin. They recall helping out with the bids using the old Monroe mechanical-style calculators. However, prior to joining the company, Mr. Burkett encouraged Zack III to secure an MBA, which he did in 1976, also at the University of Texas. During this period, in 1975, Zack III married his wife of 37 years, Libby. After his return to Graham in 1976, Zack III began his work in earnest and has spent his entire career with the Zack Burkett Co., building on earlier successes, creating new profit opportunities, and planning for the future. He became vice-president of the company in 1978 and president in 1982. 

Zack Burkett Jr., having passed the management of the company to his sons, remained active in the business through the mid-eighties, mainly with procuring equipment and making his wealth of experience available to those who might need it. Mr. Burkett's career was remarkable by any measurement. He built a viable business through hard work, entrepreneurship, and a sense of fairness that was universally respected. He created careers for others selflessly while building his own. In addition, he found time to serve the industry as the president of the AGC of Texas in 1976. In 1976, the AGC of Texas was named Chapter of the Year by the AGC of America, and Burkett was awarded “AGC Chapter President of the Year.” The notion of service to the industry has carried forward, as Zack Burkett III has served as president of the AGC of Texas in 1991 and 2006 and as treasurer of AGC of America in 2007. In addition to the AGC, TXAPA has benefited from the company's talent pool. Bob Schleider served as TXAPA's president in 1988. Bob's son Rick Schleider also served as TXAPA president in 2001 and has been a board member a number of times, as was Jerry Lee in 2012. Jim Burkett chaired the AGC side of the joint AGC-TxDOT committee that developed and implemented the electronic bid system, now in use by TxDOT for contractor bid submittal via the internet.

There is a new generation of Burkett's active in the company today. Zack Burkett IV, or ZT as he is known, serves as vice-president and has assumed much of the day-to-day operations. ZT is also an AGC activist, having served on the AGC of Texas Board of Directors and on numerous AGC committees. He received a ranch management degree from TCU in 2000 and completed his bachelor degree from Midwestern State University in 2005. Zack III's daughter Emery Blanton, a 2006 graduate of Texas Tech University, is in charge of the credit and collection department. All of this leaves a little more time for Zack III to spend with the cattle operation. Generations of families within the Zack Burkett Co. are not unique to the Burkett clan. Rick Schleider is a project manager for the company, and the crushing operations are managed by Mark Ellis, the grandson of M.D. Ellis, from whom Mr. Burkett bought his initial rock crusher.

The Zack Burkett Co. of today is a streamlined, yet robust company. With three commercial limestone quarries, one sand and gravel pit, two stationary asphalt plants, and one portable asphalt plant, the company has positioned itself well in a changing industry. Zack III says, “The business has been contoured by geography and types of business.” Yet he says that the changes within TxDOT, the departure from the traditional low bid system, and different methods of funding projects will make things more difficult for the family-owned businesses. However, this company and this family have been imbued with a sense of values and ethics that is so well established as to be sustaining. When responding to a question about his father's qualities, Zack III said, “He had a great sense of people and was an uncanny judge of character. He treated people so fairly that he was sometimes generous to a fault.” Indeed, Mr. Burkett's legacy is evident in the organization today, and those high ideals are reflected in its operation.?

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