Leo A. Vecellio, Jr.
Class of 1968, BS
Sunday dinners with the Vecellio family in the 1940s and 1950s usually blurred the lines between business and personal conversation. Almost everyone at the table was a member of the family business, Vecellio & Grogan, established by Enrico Vecellio, son Leo Vecellio and son-in-law Gene Grogan in 1938. Talk revolved around the various heavy/highway construction jobs that the Beckley, West Virginia-based company had underway and the challenges they entailed – weather issues, labor shortages, inflation and other such concerns.
Today’s patriarch, third-generation contractor Leo Vecellio, Jr., remembers these conversations well; in fact, they are some of his earliest childhood memories. The spirited discussions fascinated him, stirring his interest in the business he would eventually join.
With the remarkable growth of the family business over the years, though, Vecellio & Grogan is just one topic of conversation these days. Leo and his wife Kathryn, along with sons Christopher and Michael – who represent the fourth generation of Vecellio leadership at the firm – are the owners of the Vecellio Group, a well-integrated network of companies and divisions with operations in heavy/highway contracting, commercial aggregates mining, petroleum logistics, and more. The group is regularly listed among America’s top 200 contractors and among the top 25 in transportation construction. During the past 30 years, the Vecellios have transformed the group by adding aggressive growth strategies to their core values of integrity, quality, and service, extending their reputation for success into new market areas and business ventures.
As a young boy, Leo Vecellio, Jr., felt the excitement of the construction industry call out to him through the voice of his father. It was “a thrilling thing” to be asked to ride along to jobsites, he recalls. During high school, he worked summers with the company, developing his industry knowledge and laying the foundation for his career. He excelled in math and science and when he graduated with his class of 470 at Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley, he served as the salutatorian.
His father had graduated from civil engineering (CE) at Virginia Tech in 1938 and “may have been more than subtle” in recommending the school, Leo Jr., recalls with a smile. It was a good fit for him, though, and the younger Vecellio entered Virginia Tech as a member of the Corps of Cadets in 1964, the first year military enrollment was optional. “The discipline and order of the Corps has stayed with me throughout my life,” he says. His stint as chief judge of the university’s Honor Court also helped mold the traits of this future business icon.
Leo Vecellio, Jr., graduated with distinction from the Air Force ROTC program on a Friday in May of 1968, then had exactly one weekend to drive to Atlanta and settle into a new apartment before starting graduate coursework the following Monday morning at Georgia Tech. Every minute counted, as the Air Force allowed him only 12 months to finish his CE master’s degree in construction management, with a business minor. He had overloaded his coursework as an undergraduate, often taking a course or two beyond the suggested maximum curriculum load, and he took the same approach in graduate school.
Having only two days off between his undergraduate and graduate work was not a problem either. “I have a Type-A personality,” Mr. Vecellio explains. “I have always had a lot of drive, and whenever I am in a new place, I figure out my goals and work to excel. It was either inherited or a virtue learned at home, where excellence was always demanded.”
A year later, with master’s degree in hand, the 22-year old reported for active duty, planning and designing Air Force construction projects in the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Florida, and California. Among his military projects were the design of various launching pads and tracking stations for the U.S. space program. After completing his tour of duty, he joined his father in the family business. His grandfather Enrico and uncle Gene had passed away by then, but his aunt, Erma Vecellio Grogan, continued her involvement in the company’s administration.
Operations had expanded to include coal-mining, and even more changes were on the way. “This was in 1973 and the company was in transition. We had just acquired the largest asphalt operation in the state of West Virginia. I started looking for ways to further diversify, and later that decade championed the company’s expansion into Florida,” Mr. Vecellio says.
The 1979 acquisition of West Palm Beach-based heavy/highway contractor Rubin Construction, later renamed Ranger Construction Industries, marked the start of a remarkable growth period that has seen an expansion, acquisition, or new start-up every year since. After the death of his father in 1996, Leo Vecellio, Jr., assumed the full mantle of leadership as president, chairman and CEO, ultimately reorganizing the various business units into the Vecellio Group. In addition to providing site development, road construction, and asphalt contracting in multiple markets in the southeastern U.S., operations in Florida include a Miami limestone quarry ranked among the nation’s largest mining sites, and state-of-the-art petroleum terminals at the Port of Palm Beach and Port Everglades. Subsidiaries also include alternative energy development and a turn-key golf course construction division that has built championship-level courses for the PGA Tour.
“My role now is the leader of the team,” says Mr. Vecellio, “With our concentration of owners it is easier to be on the leading edge, but to remain competitive we have to be productive. We challenge all of our team leaders, whether they are in the field or in the office, on how they can be more productive.” Under his guidance, the group embraced the early use of Global Positioning Systems to increase construction efficiency. And supervisors provide better field overviews by filing their reports on durable PC laptops enclosed in rugged metal shells, necessary in their tough business environment.
Another part of the Vecellio Group’s information technology strategy was to produce “mirror images” of the field work back in the home offices. Having critical information duplicated and stored hundreds of miles away from a work site makes the companies far less vulnerable to losing data if a hurricane or other catastrophe strikes. Additional preparations include generators and ample supplies of emergency food and water. “When a hurricane hits, construction firms are among the first wave of responders for the clean-up. Our goal is to always be ready,” he says.
Last year, Mr. Vecellio’s reputation led him to the position of chair of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, coming after a 10-year involvement with the organization. He worked with ARTBA primarily to press Congress for a significant increase in federal highway and transit investment as part of the reauthorization of the national Surface Transportation Act, due Oct. 1, 2009.
Mr. Vecellio serves on numerous civic, government and business advisory boards. He is active in the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, serving as chair in 1989. He served for 18 years as chair of the Joint Committee to Increase County Government Efficiency of Palm Beach County, and is a long-time member of the Florida Council of 100, a statewide group of corporate CEOs who are approved by the governor and strive to improve the Sunshine State’s quality of life.
The philanthropy of the Vecellio family is well known. Mr. Vecellio is president of the Vecellio Family Foundation and a former trustee of the Beckley Area Foundation. “I was blessed. I didn’t have to hold down a job while attending college and I had no student loans to repay. I have always wanted to help others achieve their dreams as well,” he explains. As a consequence of this philosophy, the Vecellio Family Foundation, founded more than three decades ago, annually awards scholarships to high school seniors in West Virginia, where Vecellio & Grogan was founded, and to dependents of its employees.
At Virginia Tech, the Vecellio family has endowed the Construction Engineering and Management Program with a $1 million gift. Mr. Vecellio and his wife Kathryn are members of Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim Society and the College of Engineering’s Committee of 100. He was inducted into the Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Academy of Distinguished Alumni in 2006.
Class of: 1968
Year Inducted into Academy: 2009