The story of MasTec, a multibillion-dollar infrastructure company with a workforce of 22,000, begins with a single Cuban-American immigrant. That immigrant, Jorge Mas Canosa, came to the United States as one of the 1,400 Cubans recruited to participate in the Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro in the spring of 1960. After the invasion failed, Jorge, age 21, found that he couldn’t go home, so, penniless, he moved to Miami. To survive, he worked whatever jobs could be found, including as a stevedore and a shoe salesman.
He was working as a milkman in 1969 with a route in the city’s Little Havana when a Puerto Rican underground utility construction company, Church & Tower, recruited him to bring discipline and focus to the Miami branch of the company. The company had fallen on hard times. If he could turn it around, they promised, Jorge would receive half ownership.
Hard working and driven by the belief that a person could succeed by capitalizing on opportunities, Jorge succeeded in turning the franchise around and would later buy out his partners. Over the next 20 years, he built a highly successful South Florida-based underground infrastructure business, predominantly in telecommunications with some work in cable TV and water and sewer in the 1970s and 1980s.
A Family Business
Church & Tower was a family business. Jorge Mas Canosa’s sons, José Mas and Jorge Mas, grew up working in the business during the summers, digging ditches, operating heavy machinery and working in the back office.
The business gradually grew until two events catapulted it to the next level. First, Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and devastated the southern side of Miami. Holding many of the contracts for the businesses in that area, Church & Tower was perfectly positioned to rebuild a substantial portion of the infrastructure.
Second, in 1994, Burnup & Sims, a much larger South Florida telecom and civil construction firm, acquired Church & Tower through a reverse merger. Jorge Mas became the company’s president, his father Jorge Mas Canosa became the chairman, and the company name was changed to MasTec.
In the 1990s, MasTec grew substantially, from $100 million to $1 billion in revenue, becoming the first Hispanic company to reach that level. The company took advantage of the Telecom Act of 1996, which led to a construction boom in fiber and allowed it to weather the dot-com bust of the early 2000s. Unfortunately, Jorge Mas Canosa saw only the early growth; he died in 1997 at the age of 58. Today, his son Jorge Mas is the company chairman.
MasTec’s revenue was still predominantly focused on underground telecom when José became CEO in 2007. Through aggressive diversification, the company’s annual revenue has grown to more than $7.5 billion.
MasTec is now one of the largest wireless infrastructure companies, building out networks for AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. It has expanded into construction of electrical transmission and distribution systems — both civil and industrial — and electric power generation, including traditional, solar, wind and alternative fuel. Additionally, it is now the largest constructor of oil and gas pipelines in the country.
In an interview, José Mas reflected on his life growing up in the family business, his management style leading a Fortune 500 company and his approach to business diversification.
AGL Magazine: What is the lasting lesson that your father taught you about business?
Mas: I learned by just watching his work ethic. I was impressed by the fact that he came to this country not knowing English and was constantly trying to improve his basic skills, including pronunciation. I saw the amount of work he put in to excel in the business world. He was so thankful for the opportunity that this country gave him. Few people love the United States the way my father did. That love, that dedication, that determination — to this day — it drives me.
AGL Magazine: What experience growing up in the business most shaped your management style?
Mas: During my high school years in the 1980s, I worked in the field. That is what we did. I will be honest: At that time, I hated it, but it was valuable experience as the years went on. To this day, my management style is all about our people at the front lines. They are the ones who make us or break us. How do you motivate them and give them the tools to do their jobs successfully? At the end of the day, they are creating the productivity and the relationship with the customer. It is their hard work that our business stands by.
AGL Magazine: How do you treat workers to ensure success?
Mas: When you get to the core of everything we do, it is still about the individual in the field who has to build something every single day. The key to a successful company depends on the extent to which its workers are proficient, efficient and motivated to work hard. We value our people, incentivize them and give them the right tools. We allow the people in decision-making positions to actually make decisions. It is incredible how many companies don’t empower their own people.
AGL Magazine: A large number of those workers are immigrants. How does being the son of an immigrant inform your views of using immigrants in your workforce?
Mas: I don’t lose sight of the immigration issues that the nation faces. I think we need controlled immigration. At the same time, it is important that our workforce look like the population. The reality is that we live in a much more diverse culture than is reflected in many companies. Our workforce needs to reflect that diversity.
We are involved in lobbying for more H-1A and H-1B work visas. We are in an industry that is becoming more technical every day. We are building as fast as we can with the human resources that we have, but we are having a hard time hiring people. We need more opportunities to bring people in with the right visa program to hopefully become contributing members of our society.
AGL Magazine: What motivated your diversification into other businesses?
Mas: Some of it was necessity. Our business was changing before our eyes. A big piece of our work was to bring second telephone lines to people’s homes. That began to go away, and we knew we had to change, as well, or disappear.
AGL Magazine: Why has your diversification been successful?
Mas: We have been able to create the right culture and get into the right businesses. You don’t have to be an expert in every field where you diversify. Our core competency is managing people. One of the big challenges, as a business grows and diversifies, is maintaining the expertise in its workforce. There are a lot of things that we bring to the table when we do an acquisition, such as capital, structure and better computer systems and processes. We don’t necessarily know the work better than the people at the acquired company. Our job is to give them the tools to improve their job performance.
We have had an incredible run. It is an unbelievable story. It is never lost on me that we started with one employee, a dream and a vision, and here we are today involved in some of the most complex, interesting and important infrastructure projects in our country. It’s pretty awesome.
AGL Magazine: What do you look for in an acquisition target?
Mas: We can buy the equipment. We have the relationships with the customers. What we are looking for is the people. Ultimately, they are the most important asset you acquire. There are things that you can do to improve them, but you need the people to be part of the process. If we are buying a company, they did something right. Instead of undoing that, we look for ways to improve it through funding or better processes. Even with all the acquisitions, more than half of our growth in the last 10 years has been organic. The growth usually occurs a year or two after we purchase them.
AGL Magazine: The fifth generation of wireless encompasses a wide range of disciplines. Does your diversification position you well to capitalize on 5G?
Mas: I think 5G was made for us, as crazy as that sounds. We are the only company of our size that has significant experience in building and leasing macro towers and installing antennas, as well as undertaking power distribution work. We are certified to work with the utilities in the hot power zones on poles around the country. How many other companies can blend those two skills together to provide a turnkey approach? We are one of the largest DirecTV installers in the world, which positions us to deploy smart home technology. 5G requires vastly more touch points, which will depend on a dense network of fiber optics for backhaul. Our company’s story began with building underground infrastructure. It is the first time that the wireless and the wireline sides of the business are so integrated.
AGL Magazine: Along with David Beckham, Marcelo Claure and Masayoshi Son, you are bringing Major League Soccer to Miami. Why did you get involved?
Mas: We love our city. It was a welcoming place to so many people who came here from other countries and started businesses. It is important to give back to our community. We are in a blessed position and we know it. It is not just about the success of MasTec but about what we can give back to our great country and how we can help others reach their dreams and excel.