Carroll-Forged Friendship Helps Two CEOs, Investment Banker
By Timothy Gray
Having been away from school for nearly a decade, Norm Chambers knew he needed help. Since undergrad, little he’d done resembled studying—he’d been a diver in the construction industry, welding together oil-drilling platforms. Now, he was out of the ocean and back at the books in the Carroll School’s MBA program.
In Chris Caruso and Brian Lane, he saw guys who could help him relearn his study habits. They were brainy recent graduates. Caruso had just finished at Swarthmore College with a bachelor’s in economics, and Lane had spent a year working as a chemist after majoring in the subject at the University of Notre Dame.
So Chambers made them an offer he figured would entice any recent grad. “I told them that I wanted to recruit them to be part of a study group. I said, ‘I’ll buy the beer. My wife will cook for us. You guys handle the academic part.’”
The pitch—and the studying—worked. The trio not only graduated from the MBA program in 1982, but all three have had distinguished business careers. Today, Chambers is chairman, president and CEO of Houston-based NCI Building Systems, a maker of building products for nonresidential construction. Caruso runs his own hedge-fund consultancy, Pangaea Business Solutions, in Bergen County, New Jersey. And Lane is president and CEO of Houston-based Comfort Systems, a provider and servicer of nonresidential HVAC systems.
But back in 1980, when they arrived at BC, they were just three young guys trying to figure the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet.
Chambers, for one, hadn’t imagined he’d end up trying to puzzle through financial statements. After graduating from Springfield College, he figured he’d become a teacher and coach or maybe go to law school. But diving, which he’d learned while growing up in Ipswich, Mass., near the sea, led him to underwater construction. “A guy I knew—a famous deep-sea diver who had a bar in Manchester-by-the-Sea—introduced me to the idea,” he says.
Underwater work hadn’t taught him accounting or finance, but it had shown him the importance of teamwork. “Success [in commercial diving] is a lot more than just the individual effort,” he says. His construction team—350 workers, including 40 divers—operated from a barge the size of a football field.
Teamwork eases the dangers of undersea work, and Chambers figured it would help in business school, too. Caruso and Lane, with their quantitative skills, looked like ideal teammates. “I was Machiavellian—they were both very intelligent,” he says.
If Chambers was impressed with his classmates’ smarts, they were awed by his experiences and maturity.
“He’d dived all over the world, and he was in a physically dangerous business,” Caruso says. “He had great stories—and he was always willing to feed us.”
Caruso and Lane would drive up to Annisquam, a waterfront town north of Boston where Chambers and his wife had a house, so the three men could study together. There, they’d debate case studies and piece together projects. “Brian was academically the smartest of the three of us,” Caruso says. “I was the organizer, and Norman brought the real-world experiences.”
After graduation, they went different ways. Chambers returned to the construction industry, though this time on the management track. Caruso headed to Wall Street, eventually working for Morgan Stanley, where he was a principal, and later Deutsche Bank, where he was a managing director. He started Pangaea, which advises hedge funds on counterparty risk, in 2012.
Lane began in the investment business but, on account of an unbidden phone call in 1985, soon migrated to construction. “Norman called me one morning at, like, 4 am and said he was moving to New Orleans. The next thing you know, my wife and I are on our way to New Orleans, and I’m in the offshore oil-and-gas business.” He joined Chambers at a company that’s part of Halliburton, the oil-services conglomerate.
Chambers dispatched his friend to a construction project in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. “It was the best thing I did in my career,” Lane says. “I really learned about planning—there’s no Home Depot out there.” Through the reunion, Chambers also became Lane’s mentor. “I haven’t made a move professionally without talking to him,” Lane says. Their professional paths would eventually diverge, only to converge again, with another Chambers call. This time, he recruited Lane into Comfort Systems, where, at the time, he was a president and COO.
Caruso has seen less of his classmates than they’ve seen of each other, but the three have stayed in touch. Even if they hadn’t, Caruso says the lessons they taught each other would’ve stuck.
“We came from such different backgrounds,” he says. “That’s a big part of business school—working with different kinds of people in teams. I had to figure out my role in working with older guys like Norman. When I graduated, I could enter unfamiliar situations and organize people to get a result. A lot of that, I learned at BC.”