Born to Lead

As ABC’s 2016 Chairman, Family Businessman David Chapin Aims To Build the Construction Workforce and Create Organizational Unity


Be intentional.

This is David Chapin’s mantra for leadership in all walks of life. Whether he’s helping run the family business, coaching his son’s baseball team, volunteering for his church—or stepping up to the role of 2016 national chairman of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC)—he believes everything worth doing should be guided by a plan and a greater purpose. 

“I am very intentional and strategic in how I go about things,” he says. “I enjoy getting people together and figuring out what the vision is, where they want to go, what they’re good at and how we can accomplish the goals. To me, that’s fun.”

Chapin’s candor and assertiveness—and his humor—are just what ABC needs heading into a year when the construction industry faces a presidential election and an unprecedented skilled labor shortage that is putting heavy pressure on small business owners.

His willingness to step back, listen and delegate is also key for the leadership role, which involves heading up ABC’s network of local chapters, volunteer committees, programs and partnerships. 

He also displays a respectable sense of humility, crediting his family for all the opportunities life has afforded him. As a fourth generation family business owner of Willmar Electric Service, Inc., Chapin serves as president of the company, working in the Lincoln, Neb., office while his younger brother Justin works in the Willmar, Minn., headquarters as executive vice president. The two took over the business in 2007 from their father John Chapin, who served as ABC national chairman in 1990.

Unlike his father and brother, Chapin does not have a background in electrical engineering. But his family members would say this is an asset, as both the company and ABC need someone with a business mind to envision the big picture and develop national connections. Chapin received a degree in organizational management from Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn., plus he gained several generations’ worth of construction insights from spending time around his father, grandfather and great uncle.

“I can’t tell my employees exactly how they should do the electrical work. I rely on other people for that knowledge. I rely on my organizational skills and my ability to work with people to come up with efficiencies,” he says. “My style is not being bossy. But my people know that I need them to get things accomplished. We really try to work together as a team.

“I know it sounds trite, but I know enough to know what I don’t know.”

That’s the same attitude Chapin will take when leading ABC in the year ahead: Ask for advice when you need it and trust your people to get the job done.

Workforce Development Tops To-Do List
Chapin’s top priority in 2016 is workforce development. “You will hear me say this a lot: ABC needs to work to recruit, train and retain the next generation of craft professionals.”

It takes a person who grew up in a small town like Willmar to understand the important role that conversations and small moments play in shaping a young person’s perspective on what makes for a rewarding career. The key is getting the message out to them as early as possible.

Chapin has a son and two daughters who are now in high school and college. While they were growing up in Willmar, and later in Lincoln, Chapin made an effort to get to know their classmates, teammates and friends. He sought out the ones whom he thought might have the personality and potential to be gifted at the trades, and he invited them to consider working for Willmar Electric. In some cases, these junior high or high school students took up the job offer, grew an appreciation for the industry, and moved on from being summer helpers to pursuing electrical apprenticeships or construction management degrees.

Chapin’s directive is that every contractor, especially those who have children in school, should be out there in the public recruiting, even if it’s during their kids’ sports practices. All too often, parents discourage their children from pursuing a skilled trade, and this must change, he says.

As evidenced by multiple generations of siblings and cousins that work side by side in companies like Willmar Electric, the construction industry is still comprised of many small family businesses that pass on the tradition through bloodlines. However, this trend is beginning to shift. Fewer employees see themselves staying loyal to one company for life, as the baby boomers often did. Also, many employees are unwilling to uproot their families if a job takes them too far outside of town.

“It is vital to the success of our organizations to get people into the industry so we can be viable in helping our economy grow. We’re short staffed, and we are competing with other industries for talented folks,” Chapin says.

Born Into the Merit Shop
In the 1920s, Samuel Birch Chapin, a railroad mail clerk, quit his job to take a correspondence course at the University of Minnesota to become an electrician. Then he pursued his dream of starting his own company. He built a business network by wiring local residential and farm projects, taking advantage of a rural electrification funding bill passed by Congress. Two of his sons in the next generation—Elmo and Frank—joined the business permanently. Of the nine kids in the next generation, only John Chapin decided to enter the family business.

“The first construction memory I can recall is our house,” Dave Chapin says. This is the case for many contractors, or people who grew up around contractors. The home served as the company headquarters, whether it was an office in the basement or a small shop in the garage.

Chapin’s world revolved around one intersection in the charming, close-knit town of Willmar. He lived in a duplex next to his great grandfather, and across the street lived his grandparents, who were next door to the small office and shop where the business started. On Saturdays, Dave and his cousins would go over to grandma’s and grandpa’s for donuts, overhearing the parents chat a little about work, but mostly about life.

“We didn’t venture out very far,” Chapin jokes.

Chapin’s first paid job was stocking shelves in a grocery store. Soon, he found himself more interested in working with his father and uncles on an apartment building complex in town, doing demo work and counting electrical parts in the field.

Families undoubtedly have a huge influence not just on career choices, but also personal politics. In the eighth grade, Chapin attended his first ABC Legislative Conference. He has been living and breathing the merit shop philosophy ever since.

He first learned the ropes of political fundraising via the ABC PAC Committee, which he served as chair of from 1996 to 1998. At the chapter level, he helped launch the Construction Education Association, which later became the craft training organization NCCER. He chaired the ABC Minnesota Chapter in 1997 and the Cornhusker Chapter in 2010 in preparation for his role as vice chair of the national organization. 

“As a kid, my hopes and dreams were to get into politics,” Chapin says. In 1990, when his father was national chairman and Dave was a junior in college, he interned for ABC, recognizing this was way the way to get involved while seeking a college degree that would prepare him to take over the company’s human resources and operations functions from his great uncle, Frank Chapin.

Both Dave and Justin continue the tradition of taking their sons and daughters to the ABC Legislative Conference every year.

“What the Chapin family believes lines up completely with ABC. We are out there fighting for freedom in the workplace. I was raised to be an ABC-er.”

The company’s ties to the history of the merit shop are undeniable, as the Chapins’ battles to win work fueled their passion to help establish the ABC Minnesota Chapter in 1976.

In the 1950s, a contractor couldn’t even build a gas station unless it was affiliated with the building trades, Chapin says, so the company had been part of IBEW. But eventually, in the 1960s and 1970s, the company’s employees became frustrated with a split pay scale, and many quit. Needing to stay competitive, Willmar Electric signed with the Christian Labor Association (then recognized by the National Labor Relations Board), affording the company the opportunity to keep its business afloat during a time when most businesses needed to maintain some labor affiliation. Through a strong business connection with a mechanical contractor, the company began to win bigger jobs for Goodyear Tire, which led to the expansion into the Lincoln, Neb., market. In the 1980s, the company dissociated from any union involvement.

Willmar Electric currently maintains an office in Lawton, Okla., near the Goodyear plant that supports the Fort Sill artillery base.

Making Time for Family
Even though work and family life have always been intertwined, the Chapins make it a point to keep a healthy separation.
“The one thing I learned from my dad is that you’re just one person. You live out your faith first. You don’t live it out different on Sundays or Saturdays or at home versus at work; you remain the same person all the time. You’re always who you are,” he says. “But the business lesson I’ve learned is you can leave work behind to be with your family. Not everyone in your life is inside the family business, and they don’t all want to talk about it at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“There were times where I’d think of something I needed to tell my dad, but I would not talk about it until Monday morning at 8 a.m. My mom and sisters and my wife don’t want to talk at the dinner table about what price we should bid a job at,” he says.

“This boundary helps us keep our sanity and our family relatively healthy. It keeps the pressure off.”
He also keeps the pressure off his own kids, letting them know it’s their choice whether their career paths will lead them to take over as the fifth generation of the company.

“We have taken it upon ourselves to believe that every successive generation should pursue their dreams whether it’s inside the company or not,” Chapin says.

In 2004, Chapin and his wife, Sue, made the tough decision to relocate closer to the Nebraska office, where much of the company’s work has become concentrated. The move set the tone for their children that it’s okay to leave the nest, and his son took the message to heart, recently choosing to attend college many miles away in Nashville, Tenn.

The distance from their roots has helped bind the family unit closer together, Chapin says.

The ABC Family
Chapin views his bond with ABC in a similar way. It’s intentional, it’s deeply loyal and it’s part of a bigger plan. Like many chairmen before him, he sees his ABC colleagues as family, or “birds of a feather.”

“One of the things I like about ABC’s culture is when I meet with members and the staff at all levels, there seems to be a common bond that goes beyond our industry. There’s a natural friendship, and it’s wonderful.”

But in any relationship, there are challenges, and both parties need to agree to be driven by the same motivation and to move in the same direction. This is true of the interrelationships among chapters and the ABC National office.

“I’d like to see all of ABC pull in the same direction for what I call the good of the association. When we start pulling against each other, becoming skeptical and focusing on internal problems, then we’re wasting energy,” he says. “If we all pull in the same direction and realize that we all are on the same side, then we are strong.” 


Lauren Pinch is managing editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email pinch@abc.org, visit constructionexec.com or follow @ConstructionMag.