With a hard hat and an eye for detail, Mauritz A. “Mort” Mortenson Jr. could spend hours at a construction site talking with superintendents, foremen and other workers about the challenges of a building project.
Mortenson, who helped grow his family’s Minnesota construction business into one of the largest general contractors in the country, died Saturday after a monthslong battle with cancer. He was 82.
According to family and friends, Mort Mortenson strove to build the Mortenson company like he would construct one of his buildings — with a relentless commitment to his craft and appreciation of the people he employed and customers he served.
“He loved construction, and he loved the people. … I think he always thought of the business as an opportunity to help our customers and communities be transformed,” said his son and company Chairman David Mortenson in an interview Monday.
Mort Mortenson first joined the family business in 1960 after he graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Colorado and served as an officer in the U.S. Navy. He worked in estimating and project management before his father, M.A. Mortenson Sr., retired in 1969, leaving the company to Mort, who was 33. At the time, M.A. Mortenson Co. had 14 full-time employees and $17.6 million in annual revenue.
Mort Mortenson continued to develop the business. In the 1980s, Mortenson made a bold move to build the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, the company’s first project outside its core Midwest market.
Around the same time, Mortenson began to expand its operations and opened offices in Denver, Seattle and Milwaukee, to name a few. In 1995, Mort Mortenson selected top company leadership to lead the company’s Center for Construction Innovation as it researched ways to improve construction processes and technologies. A product of that research was Mortenson’s “Zero Injury” safety program.
Mort Mortenson also dedicated himself to serving his community. In 1999, he and his wife, Alice, formed the Mortenson Family Foundation. Mort Mortenson also regularly supported different local nonprofits and causes such as United Way, the Northside Achievement Zone and the University of Minnesota.
After nearly 50 years leading the company, Mort Mortenson retired as chairman in 2015, and David Mortenson became the third generation of the family at the helm.
Mortenson employs more than 7,500 workers at offices around the country and is ranked by industry publication Engineering News-Record as the 16th-largest contractor in the United States with revenue last year of $4.6 billion.
Over the years Mortenson has become known for its diverse project portfolio, which has included sports arenas like Target Field, U.S. Bank Stadium and Xcel Energy Center, as well as large real estate developments such as Destination Medical Center in Rochester.
Even in his later years, Mort Mortenson remained active in the company, going to the office daily up until a couple of years ago. David Mortenson joked that sometimes he was embarrassed to arrive at work only to see his father’s car already parked at the Golden Valley offices.
Mort Mortenson also liked to drop by company construction sites. Even late into his 70s, Mort Mortenson frequently paid visits to the $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium as workers built it on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.
“That was his favorite thing to do,” David Mortenson said.
Despite his accomplishments, Mort Mortenson didn’t like the spotlight and often humbly shrugged off praise, said Tom Gunkel, who worked at Mortenson for more than 30 years before retiring as CEO in 2016.
“To the greatest degree of anybody I ever met, he put himself at the end of the line when it came to be time to be recognized for an accomplishment or some great achievement. … He always deflected or reflected that attention on others because he felt that’s where it belonged, that he was a shepherd and a steward of the business,” Gunkel said.
Mort Mortenson is survived by his wife, Alice; their four sons, David, Mark, Christopher and Mathias, and their families. A funeral service is scheduled for Nov. 23.