When Adam Ruff was promoted to field supervisor at Price Electric, Robins, Iowa, last year, he set some personal goals to help develop the company’s next crop of leaders, improve operational efficiencies and have a positive influence over a larger group of people. He can place a definitive checkmark next to that last goal now that he has received Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) 2017 Craft Professional of the Year award, sponsored by Tradesmen International. Ruff received the award in front of hundreds of contractors, apprentices and their families at ABC’s Workforce Week, held in March in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“I didn’t just win this award. It’s more about Price Electric. If I win, they all win too,” Ruff says, hearkening back to his days as a competitive athlete. “I thought I knew what being on a team meant until I started playing rugby. One individual cannot be successful without the other 14 teammates on the field. I played in national championships with great rugby teams that trained hard together, had each other’s backs on and off the field, and personally cared for one another. These concepts helped me get where I am and have taught me so much about leadership and how to build camaraderie.”   

Ruff’s colleagues and superiors appreciate his reliability and fairness, his ability to solve problems and learn quickly, and his dedication to increasing productivity and maintaining safe work practices. His coworkers voted him employee of the year in 2015, and Price Electric President Jeremy Price describes Ruff as a “rock star employee who everyone wants on their team.”

“A win for Adam is a win for all of us,” Price says. “It means a lot to the company and employees. It shows everyone what can be achieved by making their job into a career. It builds us up in the community and it helps bring in future employees.”

Rewarded for Hard Work
Ruff came to the construction industry 19 years ago after being paired with a roommate pursuing an electrical apprenticeship at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Having some uncles in the trades and seeing the earning potential for an electrician, Ruff abandoned his initial plan to become a park ranger and fell in love with construction. 

“I like working with my hands and the people in the industry,” he says. “You’re never in the same place for an extended period of time, and every project is different.”

Ruff landed at Price Electric after a six-year stint with a residential electrical firm. Not only did he want to experience the commercial and industrial sector, but he also wanted to work on—and eventually run—the best construction projects in the state. Mission accomplished: As a foreman, Ruff was involved with many of Price Electric’s award-winning projects, including an emergency power generator facility at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, which won a 2016 ABC Excellence in Construction® award.

That drive to be the best at his craft aligns well with the ABC merit shop philosophy of being rewarded based on quality performance and Price Electric’s culture of going above and beyond for both colleagues and customers. 

“Being from Dubuque, where Illinois and Wisconsin meet Iowa, my family is all union, but I want to be paid on merit,” Ruff says. “I really believe if you’re working alongside someone and dedicating more time and effort to the job, then you should be rewarded. In a union, that guy is making the same or more. That kind of mentality results in entitlement. I want to be rewarded for my hard work, and I feel like I have been.”

Ruff credits his boss for making staff feel like they’re part of a family, not just an employee. “Jeremy sets the tone for all divisions to treat people fairly and with respect. He cares about the development of people.” 

Learn by Watching
To that end, Ruff has benefited from continuing education opportunities through the ABC of Iowa Training Center and LeanProject, Inc. Lean concepts in particular have really hit home with Ruff and led him to do some independent research on YouTube and by reading “2 Second Lean” and “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.”

“It makes sense to put the power in the hands of the people doing the job to find the solutions. It’s so simple and effective,” Ruff says. “The people doing the work come up with the best practices, and then I can pass them on to the rest of the team. It has opened my eyes to the idea of continuous improvement and the need to make everything visual and simple.”

Armed with a desire to put these concepts into practice, Ruff helped coordinate an effort to start a company YouTube channel to display training videos on topics such as how to set up a core drill and how to safely perform repetitive installations. To start, Ruff set up a camera in a hotel project and recorded the crew so they could judge themselves and recommend areas of improvement. He also recorded foremen doing all the tasks required in a hotel room to draw the link between repetition and efficiency.

“At Price, we want information available to our team members, and most everyone has a smartphone with access to YouTube. It was real a no-brainer because they can look at it anytime without tying up other team members,” Ruff says. “We need to adapt to the way the younger generation learns, and our young men and women love the videos.”

In addition to improving onsite safety, the videos can be viewed quickly and often. And if someone comes up with a better way to do a job, the video can be remade and uploaded as the new company standard. Looking ahead, Price Electric is considering investing in a GoPro camera so questions can be answered in real time. 

Prefab and Diversity
In the spirit of improving processes, Price Electric has embraced prefabrication as a way to lower costs, cope with industry-wide labor shortages and keep workers safer in the shop while making onsite workers’ jobs easier. As a result, Ruff says foremen can spend more time focusing on their crew’s well-being and making sure the project is on schedule.

The shop also presents a taste of the industry for high school students working for Price Electric before graduating. The company recruits fresh talent at several local schools and community college job fairs, and Ruff looks forward to seeing more women entering the trades.

“I believe women have different talents and perspectives to offer. More diversity in the industry is always better,” he says. “A coworker and I do all the hiring and firing for the company’s electrical divisions, and I’m proud that we’ve hired our first two female apprentices, one of whom just graduated college. They’re both doing well; there’s nothing the guy next to them can do that they can’t do.”

That sentiment resonates with Ruff as the father of two daughters with cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening disorder that damages the lungs and digestive system. Ruff and his wife Sarah, who works full time for an electrical distribution company, manage medical care for Brenna, age 7, and Brielle, age 3, each morning and evening.

“We have to accept the fact they won’t outlive us, but since our oldest was born, life expectancy has gone from the low 20s to 37,” Ruff says. “We are lucky to have the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital 20 minutes from our home. They provide great treatment to keep them as healthy as possible. If we do their treatments and continue working with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, positive things will come out of it.” 

An Impressive Group of Finalists

ABC’s Craft Professional of the Year award recognizes individuals who exhibit outstanding skills and leadership, a passion for their trade and pride in hands-on work. This year’s finalists possess all those qualifications and more. 

Chris Allison
Journeyman Electrician
Sentry Electric
Lincoln, Neb.

Allison has been with Sentry Electric for 12 years, managing the company’s largest jobs and serving as president of the Employee Safety Council. He also teaches apprentices at the ABC Cornhusker Chapter and set up the chapter’s first local craft competition. Outside of work, Allison volunteers with Boy Scout troops and is an avid volleyball player.

Best of both worlds: When I got out of high school, I had to choose between teaching and going into the trades. I chose the trades because going to college was daunting to me. I wasn’t good with traditional bookwork, but if I touch something and use my hands, I can understand it almost instantly. So I put teaching on the back burner because I didn’t think I’d have an opportunity for it. Now that I get to be an electrical instructor too, I try to break down all the technical terms in the books and get the students out of the classroom as much as possible so they can use hands-on tools and our motor control system.

A family business based on merit: Being the son of Sentry’s owner pushed me to prove I’m a good electrician—and that I want to be the best that I can be—so I could earn my peers’ acceptance. Then, when I started running larger jobs as a 23-year-old project foreman, I had to prove myself even more with general contractors. I wouldn’t be where I am without the merit shop philosophy. If you apply yourself, you can be a better person with a lot of advancement opportunities. 

Perspective on industry opportunities: You can start without debt and move up the salary chain quickly. There’s great growth potential; you can go in many directions just within the trades. I’m interested in power generation, which is more the mechanical side of things, but I’m still an electrician. 

App initiative: We had a disconnect between office and field staff in terms of paperwork and getting workers checked in and out of jobs, so I took it upon myself to create an app that would make it simpler for everyone. I programmed it myself and expanded on the MIT App Inventor software to make it do what we need (e.g., track parts, log who’s out driving versus who’s at lunch, and send materials sheets from the van or shop to the jobsite).

Terry Buschert 
Foreman
Architectural Metals, Inc.,
Portland, Mich.

Buschert has been a journeyman sheet metal worker for 30 years. He fine-tuned the NCCER apprentice curriculum for Architectural Metals, Inc. and is a certified instructor for the program. He also implemented the company’s safety program, which earned platinum status in ABC’s Safety Training Evaluation Process in 2016. Always passionate about helping those in need, Buschert is in the process of fixing up a home for a disabled veteran and has collected scrap metal for the past 14 years to raise funds to send more than 600 underprivileged kids to camp. 

Introduction to the industry: I took shop class in eighth grade, and in high school there was a new program where I could work on building houses my junior and senior year. I became the teacher’s pet. I would get there early and stay late and asked a lot of questions. I learned electrical, plumbing and carpentry. Those two years at the high school program gave me the foundation to know what I wanted to do as a career. Once I was working, the company owner didn’t have enough for me to do in carpentry, so he moved me to the sheet metal side of things. 

Pride and accountability: When Architectural Metals went nonunion, I was the first to raise my hand in support. I took a $5 wage cut but ended up making more money. I knew our reputation would be destroyed if we didn’t make the change. Under union leadership, there was no accountability or pride in workmanship. Now, I sign the back of the last panel of every project because I take pride in my work.

Challenges for the next generation: Too many people are being brought up and hired without enough education. New products come out every single year; if you don’t know how to install them, you’ll have failures. Also, too many people are looking for a fast job. But if they don’t look at it as a career, they’re closing the door on themselves too quickly. No robot will be able to take my job. It takes hands-on and visual skills. I use technology, but it won’t replace me. 

Dan VanRee
Project Superintendent
Dan Vos Construction Company,
Ada, Mich.

VanRee and his crews have completed hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial projects during his 38-year tenure with Dan Vos Construction Company. Colleagues say he works with honesty and integrity, is a quiet mentor who leads by example, and that he manages from the field, boots on the ground. Off the job, he is involved in his church as a deacon and has coached Little League.

Most important parts of the job: People, whether it’s the owner, the customer’s representative or nurturing the folks we work with day to day. Our interactions with subcontractors’ employees are important so we can meet our common goal. Recognizing a job well done and rewarding superior workmanship are what Dan Vos Construction and ABC are all about. Going above and beyond is what I’m about as well. 

Working with compassion: At Dan Vos, if somebody has a sick family member, you are told to take the time you need. If I know someone on my jobsite is struggling, I spend time figuring out why he’s not on top of his game. When you show someone the real you, it forms a pretty tight bond. It helps build a long-term relationship. That goes for both clients and employees; repeat business is about how you treat people. As much as you talk about dollars and cents, it’s more about the personal side of things.

Advice for high school graduates: College isn’t for everybody. We’d love to have you in the construction industry. The truth is you’re going to get dirty sometimes, but your reward will be a great career. Some days you’ll be pushing a broom and other times you will direct people, and I do that too even though I’ve been with my company for 38 years. No matter where you start or what you finish your day doing, the bigger picture of every construction job will be more significant. Whether you are a field laborer, craftsman, leadman or superintendent, you might not always get instant gratification, but you will always have an opportunity to show others what you can do. Your desire to make a difference will truly set you apart. 

Joanna Masterson is senior editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email masterson@abc.org or follow @ConstructionMag.