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Michael Stevenson

Constructing charity: Success and philanthropy characterize the story of Montana's Sletten Construction

Sletten
'I always wanted to go into construction.
If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it the same way.'
--Bob Sletten

April 2, 2007 -- Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service

In the early 1900s, John Sletten left his homeland of Norway and came to America alone, with little more than a firm grasp of woodcraft, a bit of English and a strong desire to succeed.

Though he had no formal education, Sletten had grown up in a family of boat builders from Mo I Rana, a fjord-bound town just 15 miles south of the Arctic Circle. After a frustrating try at homesteading, a domestic-bound stint in the U.S. Army during World War I to earn citizenship, and time working as a carpenter in Great Falls, he decided to put his skills and ambition to work.

Sletten Construction was born in 1928, and though John Sletten died in 1949, the firm bearing his name grew bigger than he could have ever imagined under the guidance of his successor Owen Murphy, son Bob, and grandson Erik.

By 2000, the company had completed more than $2 billion in bonded construction projects since 1967 in work spread over 11 states. Average annual company revenues run between $160 million and $260 million. With offices in Great Falls, Las Vegas, Cody, Wyo., Boise and Phoenix, Ariz., Sletten Construction employs more than 400 people building everything from bridges to schools.

"My father instilled me with a good work ethic," said Bob Sletten, 74, who was just 16 when his father died. "He felt that if you wanted some spending money, you should have to clean the office or shop to get it."

After John Sletten's death, company partner Owen Murphy took the reins. It would be years before the company would be controlled by one of its namesakes again.

After spending his teenage summers working for the company first as a laborer, then as an apprentice carpenter, Bob Sletten joined the Marine Reserve at 17 and served two years.

Inspired by Murphy, an MSU grad, Sletten earned an architectural engineering degree from the school in 1956. That same year, he went to work for Murphy, who at that time owned nearly 90 percent of Sletten Construction but had kept the company's original name. Murphy offered $400 a week. Sletten asked for $440. Murphy said no.

Murphy was "like a father figure to me," Sletten said. "He set up a plan where I could start to buy back the company."

In 1962, Sletten married Pat Thomas, the daughter of another MSU graduate and Montana Power Co. electrical engineer, Cecil Thomas.

"We got married, bought a house, moved in and just six or eight weeks later we had to move to Las Vegas," said Pat Sletten, laughing at the memory.

"It was the company's first project out of state and it was my first time out on my own," Sletten said. "I ended up turning one building around 180 degrees."

North is traditionally at the top of architectural drawings, but for some reason Sletten was given a drawing with north at the bottom. He didn't notice until the building foundations were done.

"We left it that way," Sletten said. "It worked alright. We just modified it a bit to deal with its new orientation."

Las Vegas was the beginning of an important phase for both the company and the Slettens. Their first child, daughter Leighanne, was born there. They spent three years in Las Vegas before returning to Great Falls.

"When we first got started in Las Vegas, it was a town like Great Falls. Now it has more than 2 million people," Sletten said. "We've built more than 50 schools there."

The company later expanded to Phoenix, Boise and Cody. Out-of-state work now accounts for as much as 75 percent of annual revenue.

By 1970, Sletten was president of the company and Murphy had largely retired. Pat and Bob had three children by then, Leighanne, Kristen and Erik.

"I always wanted to go into construction," Sletten said. "If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it the same way. It's been interesting work. I've never had the same problems to face and there are new challenges every day."

Erik, also an MSU graduate, has been company president for the past six years, with his father assuming the position of chairman of the board.

In 2006, "Engineering News and Record" ranked Sletten Construction as the 266th largest construction company in the United States. The only other Montana company to make the list is Bozeman-based Barnard Construction, which is 321st.

"We could not have grown the company without relying on MSU graduates," Sletten said. "We intern eight to nine students annually, and 80 percent to 90 percent of our management staff is from MSU."

Sletten Construction built the Museum of the Rockies, MSU's Engineering and Physical Sciences building, the Plant Growth Center and is currently constructing the university's new Black Box Theater.

With the Sletten's success has come generous civic involvement and philanthropy.

The Slettens gave MSU $1 million to set up four endowed scholarships in 2004: one honors Pat's father, Cecil, and another is for students in civil engineering and construction engineering technology. There is also an athletic scholarship and a general University Scholar's scholarship.

Bob Sletten sat on the MSU Foundation Board of Directors as well as the College of Engineering's Advisory Council. Pat Sletten has served in the Junior League of Great Falls, and on the boards of the Great Falls Symphony and C.M. Russell Museum.

They played a key role, along with the Sletten employees, in the creation of the Sletten Cancer Institute in Great Falls, and 2007 will see the opening of the Hi-Line Sletten Cancer Center in Havre.

"When you've been lucky enough to live the life we have, why not share, and help with those causes we believe will make Montana and the other areas we work in a better place?" Pat Sletten said.

And what would the old Norwegian, John Sletten, have to say about his son's success?

"I think he'd be happy he came to the U.S.," Sletten said. "Dad never went to school, so I think he'd look and say that for a Norwegian immigrant, this isn't too bad."