Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 27, 2012

Ken Sletten

A passion for building community

by Sue Dremann

Ken Sletten has built some of the Bay Area's best-recognized buildings, among them the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and more than 20 buildings at Stanford University.

But Sletten, 82, isn't being honored for his building prowess this time. His Lifetimes of Achievement Award is for his work helping to build homes for the disadvantaged with Habitat for Humanity, among his other philanthropic achievements.

Sletten spent 10 years on the Habitat for Humanity board "pounding nails" and serves on the boards of Stanford Athletics and the Palo Alto Club. He is a past board member of Children's Health Council and Peninsula Family YMCA and is a donor to the Stanford DAPER Investment Fund.

His former construction company, Rudolph and Sletten Inc., took on some of the most complex, specialized building demands for Silicon Valley companies, he said.

But through his philanthropic work, Sletten said he is able to express his passion to change communities and make them more livable. It's the responsibility of every business to influence positive, humanitarian change, he said. He was honored for his work by Habitat for Humanity at its Blueprints and Blue Jeans gala on April 26.

Through Habitat, he's seen a Redwood City neighborhood rife with drugs and prostitutes turn into a clean, safer community. He's taken great satisfaction in helping a schoolchild to have an individual bedroom in which to study, he said.

"The most gratifying thing is on dedication day, when we open up the homes and present the key. That is the most moving thing that anybody sees," Sletten said. "They always feel so grateful. It's hard to find a dry eye in the house."

The living conditions for many of the families before obtaining Habitat homes are "pretty terrible. Most are living five families in a one-bedroom apartment," he said.

As a high school student in the Midwest, Sletten worked for city water company digging ditches. He also worked on a paving crew for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, he said. He majored in civil engineering at the University of Colorado, always knowing he wanted to go into construction, he said.

Serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean conflict, Sletten was badly injured by a mortar attack. He spent a year in the hospital and received a Purple Heart. After leaving the hospital and service, he went to the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

"By that time, I decided to be in business for myself," he said.

Sletten took a job at a medium-sized construction company Williams and Burroughs, Inc., where he could learn what he didn't yet know about the business, he said. He met Onslow "Rudy" Rudolph while working there. Rudolph started a small-construction-business in his Los Altos garage, and Sletten joined him as a partner.

Work for businesses in the burgeoning fields of high-tech and biotech followed.

"You could name any good-sized biotech company or electronics company, and we did work for them," he said.

Rudolph and Sletten was acquired in 2005 and is now one of the largest and greenest builders on the West Coast.

Sletten is still working. He is managing director of the advisory board for Level 10 Construction in Sunnyvale.

Married with two grown children, he resides in Woodside. He recalled that his son's early behavior drew him to early philanthropy, and he and wife Phyllis took a particular interest in the Children's Health Council.

"When our son was 4 years old, he was giving us trouble. We took a course on how to raise a kid. The most wonderful thing about it was that the other parents there were just as terrified as we were," he said. Before, kids got passed around and went to one kind of a doctor for one thing and another kind of doctor for another.

The Children's Health Council "won't turn you down and won't back off a diagnosis. We helped them remodel a lot of stuff," he said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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