Well, it’s true that Robin Flint Ballenger didn’t dream of being a chairwoman of one of the top construction companies in the nation, but that’s where she sits today.
“It is wonderful to be able to be a part of something that can change the skyline of the city, to be able to watch and be a part of a project that starts at nothing and takes shape and becomes filled with people whose lives are enriched by the buildings we’ve built,” Ballenger said. “It’s a thrill.”
As it turns out, Ballenger sits as the third generation chairperson of Flintco, and the first woman to hold the position.
Her grandfather, Charles W. Flint, helped found the company in 1908, originally named Tulsa Rig, Reel and Manufacturing Company. He led the company for more than 40 years with a great deal of company expansion plus a name change.
In the 1950s, Ballenger’s father, C.W. Flint, Jr., took over following his father’s death. Under his leadership, the company blossomed to the newly named Flintco, Inc. and constructed a number of familiar locations around town, such as the Bank of Oklahoma Tower, the First National Bank and Trust Tower and Woodland Hills Mall. Flint also took on the first Native American project for the company.
While the company continued to grow under her father’s leadership, Robin Flint Ballenger pursued her own interests. Maybe we should venture a little bit before then, though.
In Like Flint
Robin Flint was the oldest of four children born to Charles W. Flint Jr. and Joan Flint in St. Louis, Mo. Her mother moved to the Show-Me State briefly, while her father served in World War II. She met her father when she was eight months old, and the family headed to Tulsa.
Even as a child, Robin got quite acquainted with the company often going with her father to sites.
“I loved visiting those jobsites,” she said. “I loved listening to (my dad) talk, and I loved the ice cream afterwards.”
Although she went with him to the sites, her father’s ideas for the company’s future were geared toward other means.
“It was my brother that he was focusing on mostly, not me,” Ballenger said. At the age of 7, Robin’s brother Charles Flint III was cutting the ribbon at the unveiling of the then-Flint Steel Corporation plant’s opening. Robin didn’t mind her father not leaning on her to become a part of the company, though.
“It was clear that Flintco was what was putting the bacon on the table, but I never saw myself as having a role or lifetime involvement (in the company) as a young person,” she said.
After graduating from high school, Ballenger headed off to Vermont to attend Middlebury College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
Ballenger then went to California where she would “sow her wild oats.” While there, she earned a master’s degree in urban studies and would later earn a second master’s degree in gerontology from the University of Southern California. She also had her daughter, Tobey, there, too. She loved her California lifestyle.
She was working for the University of Southern California in gerontology, when she was asked to come back to Tulsa through a series of family circumstances. She accepted and packed up her and her daughter to head back to Tulsa.
In the early 1980s, Ballenger returned to Tulsa to help her family, but she didn’t immediately transition into a takeover role.
She worked upstairs in Flintco to help with the family finances but did not have an active company role. On the other hand, she did have a very active role in the parent board of the company. Her ear was never far from the world going on around her.
In February 2001, a difficult time arose for the company when C.W. Flint Jr. passed away, and the company needed a new chairman to step forward.
Through a unified family decision, Robin Flint Ballenger became the new chairwoman. It now fell to her to continue her family’s legacy.
“I think I’m the oldest, and I knew I couldn’t let the generations of work that my father and my grandfather had put in be washed away. I decided that I would do my very best at this.”
In 2001, Robin Flint Ballenger stepped into the shoes of a company that her grandfather and father created.
“I stand on the shoulders of my grandfather and my father, and this company is over 100 years old, she said. “They did the hard work of starting the company, of building it through the tough times, and I see my job as preserving that tradition.”
The transition from her father to her was not the simplest of situations, though. This is something that Ballenger freely admits.
“I was pretty unprepared, and I knew I was unprepared,” she said.
While she may have spent a good portion of her childhood around her father and the company’s sites, none of her degrees or educational background had prepared her to run a multimillion-dollar construction company.
That didn’t stop her from doing her best and learning as much as she could on the job. Plus, she had a few ideas and plans of how to go about doing it.
“I took classes at Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee (today’s Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology) and threw myself on the mercy of the guys on our job sites,” she said. “I took classes in general construction, blue prints, and concrete and concrete pouring.
“You still wouldn’t want me estimating dry wall prices, for example, but I have definite ideas about where the company should be going and the style of which we should be getting there.”
Ballenger expressed a great sense of gratitude for the men on the job sites who helped her, especially when they didn’t have to help a woman that was non-technically skilled.
Flintco’s CEO Tom Maxwell has known Robin for 26 years and worked alongside her father during his time as chair. He’s also worked alongside her since her entry as chairwoman. He remembers the transition being pretty smooth, with a great credit to Ballenger.
“Her dad was a person that allowed us to run the company,” Maxwell said. “He allowed us to go and do our jobs.
“This carried over with Robin, but even more on the people side of business.”
As smooth as the transition could have been, though, Ballenger did have a bit of hesitancy about entering into a mostly male industry.
“When I first came to the company, I think I tried to not be a woman; I tried to be a man,” Ballenger said in a gruff, male voice. “Of course it didn’t work very well.”
Instead, she adjusted and found ways to incorporate her experience and being a woman into the construction industry.
“I think there’s the feeling that construction is a man’s business with big machinery,” she said. “But to be a general contractor, to be a contractor, to be a project manager, the skills that are required are quintessentially female skills.
“Contractors need the ability to organize, have the ability to plan, schedule a job, shop for bargains in effect and to coalesce people into a working whole and probably most importantly to be able to inspire hope. Isn’t that traditionally women’s work? I think it is.”
This isn’t to say she hasn’t had her fair share of comments or thoughts in the past from people regarding her gender.
“The missy people,” as she describes them, would tell her, “There, there missy, don’t you worry about your pretty head about that.” With those words, she doesn’t pay much attention, but she does recognize that people would not jump on her bandwagon all at the same time.
“You have to earn respect,” she said. “It’s not just given to you. Because you sit at a fancy desk doesn’t mean that you deserve anything other than just general politeness.”
That attitude, combined with maintaining the tradition of fostering a particular company environment, rather culture, has allowed Flintco to still be successful.
“This is the only company that you can go into, and we hug each other when we see each other,” said Dana Birkes, vice president of business development and marketing for Flintco, Inc. “There’s just a genuine sense of family and enjoyment.”
CEO Maxwell concurs with that notion. “(The) culture of the company is critical to how we operate,” he said. “Family culture is what we work hard to preserve. (Robin’s) done nothing but enhance that.
“She’s really interested in people. “She’s always asking the question, ‘Are we taking care of (our) people?’”
That comes to be very true when Robin often thinks about making sure they afford their employees a livelihood.
“When I go to the company picnic, and I see all of the children, and I think ‘Oh, my gosh. Think of all of the college educations that you’re responsible for,” she said.
That’s not to say that her employees haven’t proven their worth in earning those college education’s for their children.
“We’ve had four ‘longevity’ parties for people who’ve worked here for 35-40 years,” Ballenger said. “To me, it’s wonderful that these people have given their lives to the company, and that we’ve been able to afford them a livelihood.”
As it turns out, Flintco has proven to do so well with their employees that it branches out to the family tree.
“We’re talking about people whose sons and grandsons now work here because they know that it’s just a great place to work,” said Birkes, a Flintco employee.
Thinking of other people is a trait that translates a great deal from Ballenger’s professional life into her personal one.
Beyond the Boulders
As involved as Ballenger is in her family-owned company, she also works and participates actively in Tulsa.
Ballenger sits on a number of non-profit boards throughout the community. For example, she sits on the board of trustees for the Philbrook Museum as well as for the Tulsa City-County Library.
As a part of the library, she serves in a couple of roles, such as board member of the Tulsa Library Trust and member of the American Indian Resource Center’s American Indian Author Award Selection Committee.
“Like her mother Joan Flint, Robin has continued her family’s interest in and support of the Tulsa City-County Library,” said Larry Bartley, the library trust and development director. “In spite of her many responsibilities with Flintco, she is an active member of the Tulsa Library Trust Board, the foundation supporting the library system, and an enthusiastic supporter of American Indian programs provided by the library’s American Indian Resource Center.”
The close binds of her family to the Tulsa community have kept her busy in the public service sector, too.
The Flint Family Foundation, which Robin, her siblings and her mother are a great part of, has continually donated and funded local organizations around Tulsa.
The foundation itself might not have come under the best circumstances (it started on the deathbed of her grandmother), but it always provides the best intentions.
Since 1961, the foundation has focused on providing annual grants to groups and organizations in areas of social services, health and education that carry a 501(c)(3) status. This year, grants went out to 30 organizations and groups, including Child Abuse Network, Clarehouse and New Hope.
“It’s a thrill to be able to give out those grants every year,” Ballenger said.
Ballenger crosses lines to make a great stake in her Native American roots both personally and professionally, too.
Her Native American heritage was embedded into her early in her life.
“An important part of my identity is my Cherokee citizenship,” she said. “It was my grandmother, my father’s mother, that took me to stomp dances at White Oak, where we have our original Cherokee allotment. She taught me about the prairie grasses and the medicine plants up there. She gave me a very deep love for that tradition.”
Her love shows deeply throughout her office as it’s decorated with several Native American contemporary pieces that she’s collected while visiting various job sites throughout the country. She was also recently appointed to the Cherokee Nation Education Corporation.
While she shows her support personally, Flintco has proven to play a large role in the support of Native American tribes.
In establishing the company’s strategic plans for Native Americans, Maxwell said that Ballenger was a great instigator in its progress. Now, Flintco Inc. has seven people assigned to help develop and maintain relationships with Native American tribes on a daily basis.
Some of the relationships that the company has developed consist of the Cherokee Casino and Hotel in Catoosa (now, known as the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel) and the Institute of American Arts in New Mexico. Their commitment to Native Americans stems much further than growing relationships, though.
“(Flintco stays committed) by doing an excellent job on any Native project, by hiring Native Americans whenever we can and by supporting the projects (in the) communities by offering personal donations to their youth and elder programs,” Ballenger said.
Currently, Flintco employs approximately 10 percent of Native Americans, which isn’t good enough for Ballenger.
“Our strategic goal is to increase Native employment–to hire Native subcontractors and Natives in management,” she said. “Our percentage of Indian employees should correspond to the number of native work that we do, which is 30 percent.”
Although the employment numbers may not be up to par, a number of Flintco’s projects have allowed for the building of schools, health clinics, casinos, community centers, daycares and more for Native American tribes and pueblos.
Robin truly believes through the more than 65 tribes, pueblos and rancheros that Flintco serves, she’s just giving back to a heritage that has given her a lot.
“Our first Indian project (under my leadership) was for Redbirth Smith Health Clinic in Tulsa,” Ballenger said. “That was a wonderful project to complete because it was so clear to me the help it was going to give and the good it was going to do.”
As Long As There Is A Spark
Since Ballenger took over the company in 2001, the company has been ranked as one of the largest commercial contractors in the nation, earning more than $1.25 billion annually. It was also recently ranked No.1 on the top 100 Native American companies by Diversity Business.
With a continually expanding company and hopeful future, Ballenger doesn’t look to retire anytime soon.
“I’m probably not going to retire because I had my retirement early,” Ballenger said. “That early time after I moved to Tulsa, when (my daughter) Tobey was in 3rd grade until the time I had came here, I was not (at Flintco). I had a lot of time to do other things. I regard that as my retirement. I just had it in a different phasing than other people.”
That doesn’t mean that she hasn’t given retirement a thought.
“I don’t have a retirement date, and I’m confident that a family member will pick up where I leave off and that person will have his or her own vision and ideas. And I’m confident that Flintco will be as open to that person as they have been to me.”
Also, while she might be putting a heel mark into the company where her grandfather and father started and maintained for so long, their thoughts and memory are never too far from her thoughts, either.
“I hear my father’s voice once every couple of months down (in the company offices),” Ballenger said. “Just in my head. The last one (in mid-September) honestly was, he used to say, when you fall off a horse, you got to get right back on the horse that threw you.”
She explained that this was her father’s way of telling her when the times get tough, the tough get going. So far, neither the times nor the horse have caused her to fall to pieces.