Veteran’s Day Q&A: Anvil CEO H.T. Tran speaks

National figure: A grateful citizen and inspiring industry leader, Tran is passionate about paying forward the mentorship that he received. Below right, Tran before his wartime injury in Iraq in 2008. (Above photo: San Francisco Business Times.)

It was just 18 months ago that Hien “HT” Tran, a 35-year-old Vietnamese-American and former U.S. Army Sergeant, burst onto the national AEC scene as winner of ENR magazine’s 50th Annual Award of Excellence for “his tenacity and courage.”

Now CEO of six-year-old Anvil Builders Inc., San Francisco, Tran had earned that honor the hard way, battling back from severe injuries suffered in Iraq in 2008, including the loss of an eye. But through will, grit, character, and a network of mentors, including the 100 Entrepreneurs Foundation Inc., Tran has emerged as an inspirational leader who is also a successful business owner.

  • ENR’s 2015 ‘AOE’ CITATION:  “…for his tenacity and courage to recover from devastating injury and to envision—even with just one good eye—a future as a construction-industry CEO who can build San Francisco and careers for his employees and their families; for embracing the obligation and value in hiring veterans in his own company and inspiring peers to do likewise; and for embodying the qualities of what industry needs in its next-generation leaders.”

For Veterans Day, at the end of a tumultuous, heart-rending week for both America and Tran — he just lost an Army buddy to suicide who is being buried this weekend in Chicago — we had the good fortune to speak with him about one of his true passions: hiring veterans and mentoring them into success.

BuiltWorlds: First off, how have you put that passion into practice at Anvil?

HT: Well, to date, we have eight veterans on board here, and our company overall has about 100 employees. My goal is to get that number up to about 50% of our overall payroll. But to be honest, I don’t tell people to hire veterans. I ask them if they are willing to mentor veterans through their transition issues. So, no one should do this just for public relations. I am so anti-PR on this.

BW: Okay, I’m a little surprised by your statement. So why should employers take that extra step?

HT: Because they are worth it. Veterans can be excellent employees — quite possibly the best that you will have. Why? Because the military mirrors the construction industry more closely than any other industry I can think of. So these employees are basically pre-trained for our type of daily work. When veterans look at adversity or challenges on a project, they don’t see a crisis or a reason to panic. It is just another day for them. Also, they know how to follow direct communications and they are task-oriented. And at the end of the day, they also appreciate that they’ve been part of a larger, team effort.

“The military mirrors the construction industry more closely than any other industry I can think of. So these employees are basically pre-trained for our type of daily work ”

— HT Tran, CEO, Anvil Builders

BW: Talk a little more about the parallels between construction and the military, if you would.

HT: The way I see it, the field operations and back office work in very similar ways. One analogy I like to suggest is that project managers are like the officers of a unit, assigning the tasks and saying what needs to get done. Sergeants are kind of like jobsite superintendents, making sure those tasks are performed. I was a sergeant when I was injured. Actually, had that not happened, I think I would still be in uniform.

Nomination: Placard depicting Tran at the ENR dinner.

BW: Wait, you have a college degree. How did you not go into the service as an officer?

HT: I purposely enlisted to go in from the bottom-up. Just because I had a degree, I didn’t think it was right for me to be giving orders to others who’d already been there 10, 20 years. I was honored to have the opportunity to serve, which I also felt was a real privilege. I was born here, but my family is from Vietnam and was very active in South Vietnam’s military during the war. (Tran’s grandfather had been a senior commander.) So, after 9/11, my older brother and I both saw it as our duty to enlist. My brother joined the Marines Corps, but my dad encouraged me to go to college, and get my degree first. So that’s what I did.

BW: Given that deep family history, how do you feel when you see once unthinkable images of real estate development in Vietnam? After all, Turner Construction is currently building a tower in Hanoi designed by Sir Norman Foster. What do you think of that? 

HT: I happen to think it’s great. Progress happens over time, based on human character. The rest of the world is progressing today. Are we doing enough to help ourselves progress in the U.S.?

BW: Are you hinting at the shocking U.S. presidential election results this week? Some fear that it signals a retreat from global leadership? What are your thoughts? 

HT: As a nation, we are going to climb out of this hole, and we are going to be fine. Actually, I see growth coming out of this. When I visit one of our jobsites, I want to hear what’s wrong. After all, you can’t fix things until the problems are exposed. Not much change happens when people are comfortable. But a lot of people are worried now, too. And hurting. As a veteran, I feel it is my responsibility to help my community heal. So that is what I am going to do.

BW: Thank you, HT.  For some, including me, I think your words have already helped. Take care. 

HT: Thank you for giving me this opportunity.