Kansas native grew tall in Colorado 2002 Bravo! Entrepreneur — Lifetime Achievement

Robert Tointon helped to forge Hensel Phelps’ construction reputation

GREELEY — Robert Tointon left small-town life in Kansas to help build one of the world’s largest construction contracting companies.

Along the way, he developed a deep affection for his adopted hometown of Greeley and immersed himself in numerous boards and activities, always trying to make his community a better place to live and raise a family.

For these reasons and more, Tointon is the recipient of the 2002 Bravo! Lifetime Achievement award from The Northern Colorado Business Report.

Small-town roots

Born May 19, 1933, on a farm near Smith Center, Kan. (which Tointon notes is “near the center of the continental United States”), he spent his first 11 years living among the wheat and cornfields of rural northcentral Kansas before moving into nearby Kensington, population of about 600.

One more move to equally small Almira, where in 1951 he was one of 19 graduating seniors. Those small-town roots are still strong, as Tointon points to a photo of his 50th class reunion, an event attended last year by 13 of those 19 graduates.

Tointon enrolled in Kansas State University in Manhattan, graduating in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. That same year, he married his wife, Betty. While in college, he took part in advanced Reserve Officers Training Corps., which led to a three-year stint in the Air Force as a pilot.

In 1959, he was a field engineer for Eby Construction in Wichita when he was transferred to Colorado to supervise the construction of a nuclear missile site near Briggsdale. Tointon and his family made their home in Greeley until he was transferred again to Denver to take part in the construction of a Titan 1 missile site at the old Lowry field.

Letter changes everything

A letter written in 1963 to Joe Phelps — one of the founders of Hensel Phelps Construction, based in Greeley — resulted in Tointon being hired as a project manager when the company’s annual revenue was $8 million. Tointon rose quickly in the company, becoming a vice president in 1964 and president of the company in 1975.

Since then, Phelps-Tointon has acquired Armor Safe Technologies, a California safe manufacturer, and Phelps-Tointon Millwork, a Fort Collins maker of fine cabinetry and interior woodwork packages. Real estate development — including Phelps-Tointon Industrial Park in Commerce City — and venture-capital investment has also been added to the company’s repertoire, with annual revenues of around $100 million.

Tointon looks back with pride on his years with Hensel Phelps, which now has annual revenues of more than $1.4 billion.

“Probably the most satisfying part is they’ve continued to do better after I left, so I think I hired some pretty good people,” he said.

One of those “pretty good people” is current Hensel Phelps CEO and president Jerry Morgensen, hired by Tointon in 1973.

Morgensen said Tointon once gave him some advice: “He said, if you don’t know what’s important, treat everything as important and you won’t miss anything.”

Morgensen credits Tointon with helping propel Hensel Phelps into what it is today. “He’s really the reason Hensel Phelps became a national contractor. He had the vision that took us national. He was just a visionary in our industry.”

Still keeping busy

Tointon said he left Hensel Phelps to slow his life down. “It was a case of wanting to get off the treadmill and slowing down a little bit, but it really hasn’t worked out that way,” he said with a chuckle.

Tointon and his mentor and business partner, Joe Phelps, continue to remain close even though Phelps now lives in California. “He and I have worked together for 40 years come next February,” says Tointon, who oversees the activities of Phelps-Tointon Inc. from a seventh-floor office in the Bank One tower in downtown Greeley.

One block west — with a magnificent view of the Rockies behind it — is Union Colony Civic Center, which Tointon helped build as then head of Hensel Phelps Construction.

“I committed to us managing (its construction) at no fee and we guaranteed the price,” he said. “I promised Ken Monfort (the late founder of Monfort Industries and a community fund-raiser) we would bring it in at a certain price, which wasn’t easy to do, but we did it.”

Tointon and his wife, Betty, raised two sons, Bill and Bryan, who now have their own businesses but still live in Colorado. Robert and Betty have been strong supporters of the arts in Greeley and have a gallery in Union Colony Civic Center named in their honor.

Community builder

Over the years, Tointon has received numerous awards and recognitions for his civic contributions and accomplishments. A member of the Kansas State University Engineering Hall of Fame, he currently serves as a director of the Weld County Economic Development Action Partnership, as a trustee for the Longs Peak Council of Boy Scouts and as chairman of the Greeley Downtown Development Authority.

One of his more recent efforts was the creation of the Tointon Institute for Educational Change at the University of Northern Colorado.

“Its primary function is to fund leadership academies for K-12 principals, administrators and department superintendents,” he said. “The idea is to make them better leaders.

“Leadership is key to how well a school does. I look at the building principal as the key to how well a school does.”

Tointon estimated that between 600 to 700 principals and other school leaders across Colorado have attended the academies over the last seven years.

Tointon said he was always favorably impressed by the friendliness of Greeley, a quality he’s given back many times over the years.

“When we first came here in ’59, we were just warmly welcomed into the community as new-comers,” he said. “That’s the primary reason we came back.”