25 Mar 2015

The Greening of Houston

HBS alumni are helping lead an urban revolution in the heart of Texas.
Re: Michael Skelly (MBA 1991); L.E. Simmons (MBA 1972); Allison Thacker (MBA 2000)
by Constantine von Hoffman


Daniel M. Gilbane and Troy Thacker (Photo by Michael Stravato)

Ask most people to name a city with a lot of parks and chances are Houston won’t be the first one they name.

“For better or worse, our built environment is known for the lack of zoning,” says Daniel M. Gilbane (MBA 2005), senior vice president of Gilbane Building Co. “For those who are just passing through or new to Houston, this can be surprising. You’ll find high rises on the edge of the nicest neighborhoods or strip malls in the middle of other parts of the city that are somewhat incongruous with strip malls.”

But the city has plenty of vibrant green spaces, jewels treasured by Houstonians and mostly overlooked by outsiders. Gilbane is just one of several HBS alumni working with other Houstonians to expand and improve the treasured parks, which they see as key to the continued growth of Houston’s booming business economy.

Gilbane is on the board of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which has helped transform 160 acres of land around the Houston Ship Channel into an expansive green space, with hiking and biking trails, a bat sanctuary, a skate park, and an amphitheater that is home to the city’s Fourth of July celebrations. He became involved thanks to HBS alumnus Michael Skelly (MBA 1991). Skelly, president and founder of Clean Line Energy Partners, was asked by the Partnership to serve on its board, but declined because he had just been appointed to the Houston Parks Board. He suggested Gilbane, whose company had worked with the city to turn the area in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center, which had been mostly parking lots, into Discovery Green, now known for its kayaking and performance spaces.

The Partnership has just finished a $53 million capital campaign, which is being used to add 14,000 native trees, 2.3 miles of trails, 450 lights, and other amenities to Buffalo Bayou.

Houston’s businesses are very heavily involved in everything related to quality of life in the city—from the arts to green spaces to education. Though, Gilbane points out that all this philanthropy isn’t just about benevolence.

“When you look big-picture at the challenges facing Houston, one of the biggest is our need for talent driven by the growth in the region,” says Gilbane. “Despite the excellent universities here, we can’t produce enough talented workers to fill all the opportunities we have at these levels of growth.” Meaning, the companies based in Houston know that if they’re going to recruit and retain the best talent, then the city has to be someplace where people really enjoy living.

Houston’s quality of life and entrepreneurial climate were what brought Troy Thacker (MBA 2000) back to Houston from San Francisco. Thacker, who is now CEO of Total Safety, which provides safety and environmental services and products to the energy industry, knew the city from his undergraduate days at Rice University. He moved back in 2010, and when he did, his mentor, L. E. Simmons (MBA 1972), president of a Houston-based private equity firm, asked him why.

"This is where the opportunity is,” Thacker explains. “It may not, overall, be the most beautiful city, but there are pockets of the city that are absolutely stunning. And there’s a great deal of culture in the city. We’ve got one of the best-funded ballet companies in the United States. It’s an easy city to live in and raise a family.”

Thacker is on the board of the Hermann Park Conservancy, which oversees the 445-acre park at the heart of Houston. The park is home to the Houston Zoo, Houston Garden Center, Miller Outdoor Theatre, Houston Museum of Natural Science, and the public Hermann Park Golf Course. The park is central to the city and to Thacker and his family. He lives across the street from it and it borders Rice University, where his wife Allison (MBA 2000) is chief investment officer.

“The park is used heavily by all the people of Houston,” says Thacker. “It’s a great recruiting tool for bringing people to Houston. When you go to the park, you realize that Houston is not all strip malls along the highway; you realize there’s quite a bit to offer here.”

Late last year, the Conservancy unveiled its latest additions to the park, paid for by a successful $30 million fundraising effort. The McGovern Centennial Gardens features an 8,000-square-foot pavilion that leads to a great lawn, on the far end of which is a 30-foot mount covered in fig ivy, dwarf yaupon shrubs, and zoysia grass.

“Since we’ve been back, it’s been amazing to see how much money has been flowing into the parks, not just Hermann Park but around the Bayou and Memorial parks as well,” says Thacker. “It’s been quite wonderful.”

Gilbane believes that the greening of Houston is a natural result of all the energy companies headquartered there. “An interesting dichotomy I’ve seen is that some of the organizations that have best-embraced sustainability and quality of life are the petro-chemical companies,” he says. “In the average persons’ worldview, that would not be the first connection they would make but many of them have been real leaders in our community.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2005, Section B
Class of MBA 2000, Section E

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