A piece by our CEO, Mush Khan
My Houston journey began on June 10, 1990. Just a few days before my arrival in Houston, I graduated from LSU with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. The truth is, I was more of a blank slate than a real engineer. I drove down I-10, from my home in Louisiana to Houston, one warm summer morning. I didn’t know what to expect, and I wasn’t wise or smart enough to even think about expectations. All I knew was that I was heading to my first real job as an engineer, working in a chemical plant in Pasadena, TX (which is as much a part of Houston as many other satellite communities around our great city).
The next morning, I began my career. I showed up to work at 6:00 am because I didn’t know what time to start and I didn’t want to be late to work on my first day. After the usual HR stuff, I sat down with my boss, Ed Gayle, and he gave me a few assignments. I had no idea how to do any of them. He bluntly told me to go figure it out. As it turned out, those were easy assignments, and I got them wrapped up in just a few hours. At the end of the day, I went back into Ed’s office. I told him I completed the assignments and asked him what I should do next. Ed leaned back in his chair and thought for a minute. I wondered if I’d screwed up somehow. He then leaned forward and said to me in a quiet but firm voice, “Listen to me, Mush. In school, they give you all the problems and you have to come up with the answers. In the real world, you have to figure out the problems, and that is harder than finding the solutions.” He continued, “Mush, don’t come back into my office and ask me what do next ever again. That’s your responsibility, and no one is ever going to stop you from discovering the right problems to solve.”
I sat there staring at him as his simple and powerful lesson made its way into my head. The light turned on, then and there, and I knew I’d found the right place. The right company, in the right place on this planet. A clear, unhindered path was all I needed. It was probably more than I had earned, but it was what this city gave to me.
Over the next few years, I remembered that lesson and I never went back to my boss to ask him what to do next. I never asked any boss that question ever again. All I saw was a clear road ahead of me and I pressed my foot on the gas as hard as I could. As time has gone by, I’ve learned the value of a steering wheel to stop me from running off the road and hitting a tree. But I still press the pedal hard because this city lets me. No one stops me, or I’m too oblivious to tell if they are. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but I’ve recovered from them and have become stronger because of them. There have been hardships, but they’ve tempered me. All the while, the people of my great city have been there to help me.
In one of my more spectacular moments, I made a mistake that cost my company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Maybe more. I was in my mid-twenties and I was more cocky than wise. After the mistake was uncovered, I remember sitting at my desk completely defeated. The plant manager at the time came into my office. His name was Doug Mathera and he was a man of few words. So when he spoke, you listened. He looked at me with his sharp, piercing eyes. He only called me by my last name. He said, “Khan, how’s it going?” I told him what had happened and how sorry I was. He said he’d heard. (Of course he’d heard…one of his baby engineers had cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars!). He looked at me, spit into his cup, and said “I’d buy Khan stock.” He turned and left.
My eyes filled with tears and I immediately felt a rush of confidence. His words echoed in my heart and mind that evening. “I’d buy Khan stock.” Those words still fill my heart in those quiet moments, and when I am feeling down. “I’d buy Khan stock.”
His message was as much from him as it was from my city: "…we believe in you…we are buying Khan stock…we are buying Garcia stock…we are buying Smith stock….we are buying Johnson stock…" Houston is a city that doesn’t take stock of a person as much as it puts stock in a person.
There is something magical about this city. I still can’t put my finger on it. It’s a rhythm and a melody that flows through everyone I meet here. It’s the thing that has created a globally prominent city in less than 200 years. It’s the thing that gives us a “can do” attitude and a willingness to help. A willingness to love.
This has never been more evident than during and after the events of Hurricane Harvey. I couldn’t help but be amazed (and not surprised) as I witnessed stories of people helping people, without any thought of color, origin, economic status or any other factor. It was Houston at its best. It was an outpouring of love Houston uniquely delivers. I watched an interview with a kind man who had driven all the way from Kentucky with his boat to help rescue people stranded in their flood-ravaged homes. He told the story of how people pulled him aside and provided food for him to eat (he had come down without even thinking about where he would stay or how he would eat!). As he described this moment, he got emotional and he said he couldn’t believe complete strangers would be willing to feed him. He said, “I’ve never felt this kind of love before….” I watched in simple amazement that this man who had selflessly given to us, was telling us that he had never felt loved like this. That is what Houston does. It sees your love and raises it. And while we have our problems like any other community, we do love…hard.
And now, the flood waters are receding and our city is rising. Not renewed. Not different. But the same beautiful city she always has been. And she continues to write her story on me, that once young man, that blank slate. And I am her story. Like so many others before me have been, and so many others after me will be. And my beautiful city will continue to rise above the road stretched before her.
This morning, I reflected on my journey and on recent events. I’ve been given so much more than I can return to my city. But I’ll offer these words to her:
Houston, you’ve got a clear road ahead of you. I’d buy Houston stock. And, I love you.