Tonya Johannsen, general counsel for HC Beck Ltd. in Dallas (Mark Graham)
As general counsel for construction and architecture company The Beck Group, Tonya Johannsen has legal tasks that can change with the economy. Like most companies in the industry, Beck had to deal with a business downturn during the recession that began in 2008.
“Some of the projects we had going, the owners involved went into bankruptcy,” she said. “That created a lot of issues because we had subcontractors, and our mission was to get the subcontractors paid. That was quite challenging. We were still busy, but it was a different kind of busy. It was less positive, more in a control-the-damage kind of a way.
“We also at that point started doing more government work, because that was what was available in the marketplace,” she said. “There are specific statutes that apply to any kind of government entity in terms of contracts.”
Government projects have regulations regarding billing policies and transparency, she said.
“With the government, it’s a different kind of reporting, very stringent,” she said. “How we have to bill our costs are different.”
Johannsen said business began to increase in 2013.
“It started to uptick last year,” she said. “It seems like it’s definitely getting better this year.
The Beck Group is a privately held Dallas company consisting of HCBeck Ltd. and Beck Architecture. It has 400 to 450 employees and additional offices in Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Denver, Mexico City and Tampa. There are about 40 architects in Beck Architecture and also a separate division called Beck Technology, which licenses the company’s patented technology for creating 3D images for designing buildings, she said.
A few of the company’s recent projects include serving as general contractor for additions at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, the University of Texas Naveen Jindal School of Management in Richardson and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. The Kimbell Art Museum project involved bringing in a specialized subcontractor from Italy, Johannsen said.
“I dealt with everything from an interpreter to talk about legal contracts to recognizing our numbers were not coinciding because we were doing cubic yards and he was doing it in meters,” she said. “Then there were the immigration issues. He thought he could bring 20 people over and start working. It doesn’t happen that way. There were some interesting issues to address. It’s that way on every project.”
Road to the Law
After graduating in 1976 from Eastern New Mexico University in Ruidoso, N.M., with a bachelor of arts in English and Spanish, Johannsen taught ninth-grade English for four years in Texas’ Ellis County.
“I absolutely adored being a teacher,” she said.
Her supervisor advised her to earn a master’s degree or a Ph.D. in education and go into administration, but Johannsen knew that administration was not where her heart was.
“If I was not going to progress in teaching, why not take this time to explore being a lawyer?” she said.
Johannsen obtained a law degree from Texas Tech University School of Law in 1983 and joined Winstead McGuire Sechrest & Minick (now Winstead) as a litigation associate in Dallas.
“I absolutely loved the firm and the people, and there were so many wonderful opportunities there.”
She was with Winstead for 15 years and was a shareholder who primarily handled real estate and banking litigation when she joined Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld as a partner in Dallas in 1998.
“Out of the clear blue sky, I got a call from a headhunter who said that a firm was looking for someone interested in learning patent litigation,” she said. “So, I talked to them [Akin Gump] over the course of a year before I finally decided to make the jump, because I was very happy at my firm.”
At Akin Gump Johannsen handled patent litigation, construction litigation and a “myriad of things,” she said. Near the end of 2007 she learned that The Beck Group’s general counsel was leaving the company and it was looking for a replacement. She was familiar with the company because it was a Winstead client.
“The more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be nice to transition from always being on the negative side, where everything is falling apart,” she said. “I thought it would be nice to prevent problems from happening in the first place and then see the results of something positive come out of my work endeavors. When I got the job offer, I decided, ‘Why not? Time to spread my wings again,’” she said.
She joined the company as general counsel in January 2008. She is the company’s sole in-house lawyer and uses outside counsel for litigation or when the workload is too heavy or too complicated to meet the tight deadlines required to keep projects moving forward.
For complicated contracts and some litigation matters, Johannsen turns to Winstead shareholder Michelle Rieger.
“Like very successful general counsel I have seen, she is very good about bringing all members of the team together, very respectful of everyone up and down the chain,” Rieger said. “She makes sure that all the team members [of The Beck Group] are in the room so everybody can be heard.”
Jeffrey Ford, a shareholder in Ford Nassen & Baldwin, also helps Johannsen with litigation matters.
“She works with people that she trusts and lets them do their job without trying to micromanage the process,” Ford said. “She doesn’t get shook up or excited about anything trivial. She is calm and deliberate in the way she approaches things.”
Ford said that Johannsen can analyze business problems and suggest solutions that make sense from a business perspective.
“Sometimes litigators don’t have this skill,” he said.
Johannsen lives in Plano with her husband, Greg. They have two daughters, ages 25 and 19. For recreation, Johannsen said she likes to read, shop and hang out with her daughters. She said she has also enjoyed being a pageant mom, working on platform statements and competition wardrobes, for her daughters, who both have participated in the Miss Texas America pageant.
“My older daughter was first runner- up for Miss Texas in 2010,” she said.
Johannsen said she enjoys learning something new on the job every day.
“I stay a jack-of-all-trades and master of none,” she said. “One minute I’m working on immigration, the next minute on a contract, the next minute on litigation. It makes for an exciting day.”