Last in a series
When Fred Perpall enters a room, he owns it.
He’s tall, confident, articulate and authentic.
He has gravitas, GQ looks and could be a stand-in for fellow Bahamian Sydney Poitier.
That’s what friends and colleagues say about him time and again.
And yet this 45-year-old leader of a global, billion-dollar Dallas enterprise will tell you that he’s been pulled over by cops more than a half-dozen times for questionable traffic infractions since moving into Highland Park seven years ago — as recently as earlier this month.
“I got pulled over three times in one year for what they called ‘California rolls,’ where I assure you I came to a stop, but apparently not enough to suit them. ‘So let’s pull you over and check your ID and registration,’” Perpall said. “I’m always courteous no matter how bogus it is.”
But he’ll also tell you that he’s been disparaged as a sellout by some Black and brown brethren because he lives in Highland Park and belongs to the Dallas Country Club.
Welcome to the world of Fred Perpall, CEO of The Beck Group, chair of the Dallas Citizens Council and a proud descendant of slaves.
Last weekend, several dozen protesters showed up in front of his house to bring attention to Black Lives Matter. They were greeted with a sign on his door saying just that.
“We are getting to a binary situation,” Perpall said. “If you don’t see African-American disparity in this country, it’s because you don’t want to see it. If you don’t see the way African-Americans are treated by many facets of our society, it’s because you don’t want to see it.
“We need to focus on uplifting these people from poverty. As a Black person, I don’t equivocate on that.
“If you’re a good person, you know deep down inside that kids of color do not get the same investments at the same level that majority kids get. Come on, we see it all around us.”
With the pandemic disproportionately attacking people of color and social unrest continuing to boil up from racial exclusion and injustice, Perpall and I decided to have our own version of Courageous Conversations so that he could share in unvarnished terms what it is like to be one of the few Black members of Dallas’ highest echelon of business establishment.
Friends — Black and white — tell him he leads a charmed life.
He says he works hard to make it look easy.
“You feel like you live your life under a microscope — always a little more watched than you’d like to be,” he said. “And as [the protesters at his house] last weekend showed, it’s not just being watched by the broader community, it’s being watched by the minority community, too.”
More than anything, Perpall wants to convey that “inclusion” is a two-way street.
“I get deeply offended when people act as if having a very successful life is not having a Black life or that by having really close white friends who are your business peers and have the same high-level responsibilities as you, that somehow you’ve sold out the Black population,” Perpall said. “I don’t know why we always have to go either/or. Some Black people are frankly terrible for doing that: ‘Either you are with us or you’re with them.’ Why can’t it be yes and yes? ‘Yes, I’m with you, and yes, I’m with them.’
“Some of us have to build those bridges and be what I call ‘way-showers’ and show other people the way that you can live a very successful life.
“And by the way, a successful life is not a white life. To be highly accomplished is not to be acting white. We cannot make excellence and accomplishment a white trait. We need to make that an American trait.
“I choose to live in Highland Park because I run a large company and that’s where many of my friends, colleagues and peers are. With the exception of a few bad experiences, it’s been overwhelmingly good.”
I profiled Perpall in 2013, shortly after he took over as CEO of the legacy architecture and construction company founded by Henry C. Beck Sr. 101 years before.
Since then, Perpall has gained traction at Beck and in the community.
The firm, which is among the nation’s largest 100 construction contractors and is still controlled by the Beck family, has expanded its client base here and abroad, moved into technology and manufacturing, and doubled in employment and revenue. It’s expected to post a profitable $1.45 billion in revenue this year despite the pandemic chaos, Perpall said.
He’s also closing out his second year as chairman of the Dallas Citizens Council, only the second Black person to lead the city’s most elite business organization.
“There are probably people who will say, ‘Well, that’s just a rich Black guy. What does that do for us?’ My feeling is, ‘Just watch what we achieve.’ I say ‘we’ because ‘we’ is a powerful word.
“That’s what we at the Citizens Council and we at Beck are trying to lean in on. We are trying to have our actions speak for us in terms of integrating and helping our communities of color.
“And by the way, I don’t just like being a part of this business community. I love Dallas.”
When Beck looks for Minority Business Enterprise partners, Perpall has made it clear that the company needs to be focused on Black-owned companies. “We have a problem in that Black people don’t have opportunities in construction,” he said.
In June, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson appointed Perpall and Richard Fisher, former president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, to lead the COVID Economic Recovery Task Force, a public-private partnership to advance short-term recovery and drive long-term economic growth in Dallas.
“Our work at the recovery task force focuses almost exclusively on small businesses of color,” Perpall said. “People who can least afford to carry the burden for this COVID-19 shutdown and the economic catastrophe that has come from it have been asked to carry the biggest burden.
“Having grown up in an inner-city environment [in Nassau] with working-class parents struggling to get six of us educated, it would be an indictment to not throw the ladder back to communities like the ones where we came from.”
Perpall followed his older and now-deceased brother, Randy, here in 1993 to play basketball and study architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington.
By the time Fred was 23, he had his master’s degree in architecture and would soon start a promising career at Beck.
He was running Beck’s eastern division through its office in Atlanta when Peter Beck, grandson of the founder, brought him back to Dallas to become the fifth CEO of the family-controlled partnership.
Perpall was all of 38.
Beck has a tradition of injecting new blood at the top while the older generation is still around to give sage guidance. Beck, who was in his late 50s, considered several contenders for his potential successor. Perpall came out the winner because he’d strengthened his leadership skills, successfully completing Harvard Business School’s advanced management program.
“Fred emerged from being a really good architect to being an excellent business leader,” said Beck, who is 65. “So I made the decision to select him.”
People have commented to Beck that he was a trailblazer in choosing a Black successor. “I kinda give them a blank look,” he said. “I didn’t care if the person was a female, African-American, Asian, whatever. We have so many families relying on that person’s decisions and a lot of clients as well. I had to pick the very best.”
Beck admits that he got internal blowback initially — but not because Perpall was Black.
“A lot of our people were, ‘Gosh, he’s awfully young,’” Beck recalled. “I sent out an email to everybody explaining my decision. I reminded them that my dad took over when he was 32, Larry [Wilson] took over when he was 39, and I became CEO when I was 35, and somehow we survived all that.
“Organizations need a refresh. They need a new plug. They need renewed enthusiasm. I could tell when Fred took over that it was invigorating to the company.”
Perpall is grateful that Beck continues to sit in the co-pilot seat as executive chairman but makes it clear that he’s comfortable at the controls.
“The long handoff worked well,” Perpall said. “I now have the confidence to manage in a bold way. We are bringing on an entirely new generation of partners in the company. I feel pretty secure that we have a long runway in front of us. That was the advantage of getting into the role so young.”
Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who took Perpall under his wing shortly after Perpall assumed his new duties, said the city needs more Peter Becks.
“Peter Beck said, ‘You know what? I’m going to take off my blinders, and I am going to go out and find the most dynamic, exciting, progressive leader that I can find,’” said Kirk, senior of counsel at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. “Peter Beck would not have entrusted his legacy company to Fred if he was just making a cosmetic move. He entrusted it to Fred because Peter knew he could take it to a new level. And by all accounts, Fred’s done that.”
Perpall said he’s been blessed with great mentors like Beck and Kirk and wants to pay those blessings forward.
“Despite the jabs I might take for how integrated of a life that I try to live, it’s really young African-Americans that I’m trying to leave a great wake for,” Perpall said. “I want to show them that if they work hard in the right way, they can truly be successful and change the community from the inside. That is how I think every day.”
Perpall is a cigar-smoking guy’s guy but a family man who puts his wife, Abi, and their two teenage daughters above all else.
Fred met Abi (short for Abigail) at a party for college students who’d come home to Nassau for Christmas break. She was going to dental school at the University of Oklahoma. He was in his second year at UTA. They became teenage sweethearts and married 18 years ago as of last week.
When the family moved back to Dallas, Abi put her dental practice on hold to focus on raising their daughters, who are now 14 and 16.
They are a faith-driven family. Fred’s dad was a catechist in the Episcopal Church. He and Randy served at the altar from elementary through high school. Abi’s parents were both ordained ministers. “Her father founded nine churches in the Bahamas for the Church of Christ. So faith is a big part of our life,” Perpall said.
He considers Bishop T.D. Jakes, founder of the Potter’s House megachurch, his spiritual adviser, but he and Abi want their family to be active at a church close to home. They walk to Highland Park United Methodist Church, where they attend the church’s more casual Cornerstone service.
He said he was caught off guard when his daughters became so passionate about the killing of George Floyd. “I wasn’t prepared for my kids tackling these adult issues,” he said. “They’re 14 and 16. But you know what? A lot of the Freedom Riders were 14 and 16.”
Billionaires and barbers
Perpall took up golf when basketball left him with chronic back pain.
Today he’s a member of the United States Golf Association’s executive committee and has an enviable handicap of 6. “Although for betting purposes, I’d like it to be a little higher,” he said.
“Because of what I do, many of my friends and colleagues are members of the Dallas Country Club. I like to say I’m a ‘super-member.’ I’m there all the time. I feel very comfortable there.”
Perpall also plays at Trinity Forest with affluent business peers, most of whom are white. But he also points out that one of his oldest friends is Ray Schufford, a Black barber in Oak Cliff and a chaplain for Dallas County Fire Rescue.
“I love that I can be hanging out one minute with [Trinity Forest course owner] Jonas Woods and [sports magnate] Tom Dundon, and the next minute I’m with Ray in the barber shop,” Perpall said. “I truly love that.”
Perpall and Schufford bonded immediately when they met at a pick-up basketball game when Perpall was in college and Schufford had just graduated from the University of North Texas. Perpall pledged Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest Greek-letter Black college fraternity, so that they could be fraternity brothers.
Schufford’s family owned a barbershop in Oak Cliff, and Perpall always came to have his hair cut “with or without money.”
Perpall is the same guy he was nearly 30 years ago, Schufford said. “It’s been great to see this young, driven guy become older and seasoned who is still all about helping the community and helping people.
“He’s never been a person who went around and bragged about what he was doing or says what he’s going to do. He just goes out and does it.”
There is one marked difference, Schufford said: “He dresses a lot better. He had a lot of rundown shoes back in the day. He’s pretty sharp now.”
Dallas entrepreneur Dennis Cail, who is Black and one of Perpall’s closest friends, said anyone who thinks Perpall has abandoned his roots is oblivious.
“There’s nothing sellout about Fred. He’s so focused on being inclusive and promoting — not just his Black friends but Black people in general,” said Cail, co-founder of the tech startup Zirtue. “He is conscious that when he walks into a room as Fred Perpall, there’s a lot of privilege that comes along with that. He’s included in a lot of different things that most Black folks don’t have access to.
“He wants to push change once he’s inside these groups and organizations. If he looks around and sees a sea of white, he thinks, ‘Wait a minute, I’m the only Black person here. That’s a problem.’ He’s constantly doing the math and trying to figure out how to right-size it. That much I do know for certain.”
Perpall has been encouraged to run for political office — state or federal — which brings up his political identification.
“I’m a registered Independent, but I would describe myself as a raging centrist,” Perpall said. “I have fiscal proclivities that lean Republican, and I have social proclivities that lean Democratic. If I were to run for office, I don’t know what I would run as.”
For the time being, Perpall will stick to tackling issues through private enterprise.
“Capitalism has a much better chance at changing outcomes in people’s lives than government because it gives people the opportunity to express their talents, be productive and to earn value for people they love. There is dignity in that.”
He dismisses the contention that Dallas’ minority talent pool is too limited.
“There are many like me. They just don’t happen to sit atop this venerable, big company,” he said. “You have plenty of people of color who are equally as talented or more talented who can also hold their own in any room as well. For me, that’s what makes Dallas feel like home. We just haven’t been as connected as we need to be.”
It’s wonderful that companies like his are mining young Black and brown rock stars for their next generation of leaders, he said. “But it’s not enough to hire the top 10% and say, ‘OK, we’ve done our job.’ We need to focus our resources on these communities so that the other 90% of kids have more opportunities, more options and more chances at success,” Perpall said.
While there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to racial inequality in Dallas, Perpall said it would be disingenuous to overlook the progress that’s been made and the trajectory that recent events have created.
“The winds are changing. The notion of being inclusive and working for equitable outcomes is as palatable and as real as it’s ever been,” he said. “The Greeks had words for time and timing. Chronos was the measurement of time and kairos was timing. Sometimes the time might be right, but the timing is off. We’re at a moment when we have both time and timing on our side.
“I tell my friends across the country, ‘I don’t think there’s a better place in the United States to be Black right now than to be Black in Dallas.’ I truly believe that.”
AT A GLANCE: Fred Perpall
Title: CEO, The Beck Group
Resides: Highland Park
Born: Nassau, Bahamas
Naturalized U.S. citizen: 2009
Education: Two-year degree in architecture, College of the Bahamas, 1993; bachelor’s degree in architecture, University of Texas at Arlington, 1996; master’s in architecture, UTA, 1998; Advanced Management Program, Harvard Business School, 2012
Personal: Married to Abi for 18 years; their daughters are 16 and 14.
The Beck Group
Founded: 1912 in Houston by Henry C. Beck Sr. He moved the company to Dallas in 1924 as a requirement for building the Cotton Exchange Building.
Ownership: Family-controlled partnership
Offices: Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta, Denver and Tampa, Fla., Mexico City and Monterrey
Projected 2020 revenue: $1.45 billion, which includes the total value of construction projects, design revenue and management fees
Notable recent local project: Hospitality conference center for American Airlines
SOURCE: Fred Perpall
Read the whole series
Part 1: Two Black leaders are shaping the Dallas business community’s response to dual pandemics.
Part 2: Many local business leaders say they’re committed to inclusion and diversity. But will it last?
Part 3: John Olajide, CEO of Axxess Technology Solutions Inc., wants to make getting medical care at home as easy as ordering a ride share.
Today: Fred Perpall, CEO of the Beck Group, gives his unvarnished take on what it’s like to be a Black CEO of a $1.45 billion company in Dallas.
Credit: Source link