When Knowing You Don’t Know Is the Safest Place to Be

by Jason Forrest

When his mentor asked Harold Muckleroy what he knew about real estate and construction, Harold said, “I really don’t know hardly anything, but I’m fixin’ to learn it.” This may not seem like the best way to start a business, but sometimes the best decisions are the most counterintuitive, and the safest place to be is the one that feels the scariest. As a young entrepreneur in 1979, he founded Muckleroy & Falls, now a successful full-service commercial construction company based in Fort Worth.

That mentor, Dick Lowe, was a fellow TCU alum and then-president of American Quasar Petroleum, where Harold worked straight out of college. Lowe had given Harold his first break. He apparently wasn’t turned off by Harold’s lack of experience and took a genuine interest in Harold’s development—helping him make several key contacts and supporting him with office space as he got his feet under him.

Armed with advice from people who had the experience he lacked, Harold dove right in. He recalls the valuable on-the-job training he got:

“I was doing a construction project, had already purchased some property, put together an investment group, arranged financing, and hired an architect. We were actually onsite now. I hired a very seasoned superintendent, Chuck Smith, and told him, ‘Look, I’ve never built anything before, but I want to make as many decisions on this job as I can. I’m going to be here every day, all day long. Long as you’re here, I’m going to be here.’

“If a subcontractor brought up a question I didn’t understand, I’d put him on hold and pull Chuck aside. I’d ask him, ‘Would you explain to me what he just asked?’ Chuck would give me what he thought were my two or three best solutions, and I’d make the choice. I felt like that’s how I learned.”

As a former TCU football player, Harold was tenacious, and his business was soon humming right along—until adversity struck. By the late ‘80s, businesses like Harold’s had overbuilt the market. The bankers showing up in his office every week wanting to lend him money and offering loans to cover almost 100 percent of project costs stopped coming. Nine of the 10 largest banks in Texas failed, and lenders became extremely skittish about putting money into real estate development. Harold’s company, which had grown to 70 employees, dwindled down to three within a year.

Harold describes this as a very hard and humbling time in his life. He owed money to 13 lenders, all of whom suddenly wanted full repayment of the principal on the loans they had given him at a time when money was very hard to come by. He repaid and settled with them one by one, until the money finally ran out with one debt remaining.

That last debt, the smallest one among the 13, proved to be the hardest to satisfy. Harold’s money was gone, and the bank wouldn’t budge on repayment terms. Reluctantly, Harold turned to two people—his father and a local businessman who had been an investor with him—for help paying off the loan. It was the first time he had ever borrowed money from his father, and asking him was an uncomfortable and humbling experience. “I had gotten myself into the problem, and felt like I needed to get myself out of it,” Harold recalls.

It was important to him not to take advantage of his relationship with his dad, and he drafted and signed a note on this loan as he would for any other. Treating it this way kept it from being a messy mixing of personal and business interests, and as his business slowly started coming back, Harold repaid his father in full, plus interest, within four years.

That comeback took seven years. Harold brought on a former employee as a partner, and together they’ve grown Muckleroy & Falls into what is today, the eighth-largest general contractor in Tarrant County. The firm currently employs 35 people, and its goal is to crack the top five in revenue countywide. It’ll be a challenge to get there—Harold is quick to point out that there’s a big gap between eight and five. But don’t bet against this overcomer, who has made his mark on the football field, in business, and in life with his never-quit attitude and work ethic.

The natural world has a thing or two to teach us about success in life. Lions—with their intimidating teeth and deafening roars—are designed to provoke fear. But the real danger lies with the smaller, quieter lionesses. In the animal kingdom, the lion’s job is to roar and send prey scattering away from the startling noise—right into the path of the waiting lionesses, the true hunters. If gazelles knew to run toward the frightening sound, they would have a better chance of survival. The roar doesn’t represent the real danger.

Likewise, humans sometimes have an instinctive desire to shy away from pursuits that look and sound scary. But often, running toward those challenges and conflicts is the best (or only) way to grow and meet our goals. In business, those who run from the deafening noise never reach their full potential, while those who turn and face the fear thrive.

For Harold, the only thing scarier than launching into a business without knowing anything about it was asking for money from his dad. But without running toward the roars in his life, Harold would not be where he is today.

“If you’re confident about what you’re doing, it comes across, and it works. Outworking somebody is one of the keys to success.” Being ready, willing and able to work harder and smarter sets Harold apart and makes running toward the roar a way of life that has paved the way for his success.