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The start of a new year is often the impetus to look ahead to what’s next, but with 2015 marking Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) 65th anniversary, it’s also a great time to reflect on how the association has morphed into the open shop construction industry leader it is today.

When seven contractors came together in Baltimore in 1950 to form ABC, the main goal was survival amidst the Building & Construction Trades Department’s efforts to limit opportunities to union-only companies. The group chartered its first four chapters in 1957 and had about 500 member companies. At the time, open shop contractors only represented about 15 percent of the U.S. construction workforce.

Today, ABC has 70 chapters with nearly 21,000 members, and open shop firms comprise 85.9 percent of the U.S. construction workforce. While union violence against open shop firms has largely subsided—thanks to decades of ABC members refusing to stand down from their belief that projects should be awarded based on merit—regulatory tactics and backroom political deals continue to threaten nonunion construction businesses. As was the case 65 years ago, ABC National is an ally so no contractor has to deal with its problems alone—whether it’s recruiting and training craft professionals, improving safety performance, advancing local open competition legislation or educating owners that merit shop contractors are the preferred source of construction services.

In the following Q&A, seven former ABC national chairmen share their perspectives on—and experiences leading—the ongoing merit shop movement.

What’s your favorite memory as chairman of ABC National?
In 1979, we had the highest participation in our national legislative conference. Contractors large and small recognized that we must become politically active if we were to roll back antiquated rules and laws that were enacted as payback to the unions. – Robert Turner, 1979 ABC National Chairman, Paisan Construction (retired)

My memories are of my relationships with the chapters and members during the tumultuous San Francisco convention and aftermath. The union pickets underestimated the strength of ABC and its members. In the face of more than 3,000 union thugs, the local police told me that we could defuse the situation by entering at the rear of the convention center, away from the pickets. I refused, and all of our attendees entered through the union mob. ABC was always trying to get media attention for our convention, so the union created an opportunity for us to get our message out across the United States on the national news. – Mike Perkins, 1988 ABC National Chairman, Michael Perkins Construction, Inc. (retired)

My favorite memories are visiting 56 of our chapters throughout the country. Everyone was great. Construction people are similar everywhere: hardworking, honest, family-oriented and very patriotic. – John Jennings, 1997 ABC National Chairman, Jack Jennings & Sons

My favorite memories relate to the opportunities I had to visit ABC members at their chapters. ABC members are the essence of what makes our country great. They work hard to build their businesses, care for their families both at home and in their companies, and make their communities a better place to live. It was an honor to realize that I had the privilege of representing these men and women for that year. – Gary Roden, 2005 ABC National Chairman, Aguirre Roden

When I was a regional vice chairman, I got to participate in an event with President George W. Bush. The White House contacted ABC to get a representative to participate in an event showcasing small businesses and their health care challenges. This is when ABC was pushing hard for Association Health Plans, of which Bush was in favor. Because I was local and able to get to D.C. to rehearse that afternoon, I got nominated. The event was the following day, and it was surreal. Five small business owners were all nervously waiting in a room backstage, getting ready to go on stage on national TV with the president of the United States. The president put us all at ease with his laid-back demeanor. I asked him how he remained so upbeat and positive through all of the challenges that he faced. I will never forget his answer: He said, “people don’t want a president who says ‘follow me and we might succeed.’ They want a president who says ‘follow me and we will succeed.’” I believe this is a leadership lesson we could all use. Then, the five of us went out on stage and waited for the president’s entrance. When he was introduced, we all stood and applauded. I happened to be standing closest to the president as he came up the steps; he stumbled a bit, which caused me to let out a small laugh. Unfortunately, the “Late Show with David Letterman” caught the stumble and used it in its presidential gaffes segment, along with me laughing in the background! – Bill Fairchild, 2008 ABC National Chairman, R.W. Murray Co. (retired)

What’s the most significant thing that happened during your tenure as ABC National chairman?
In the late 1960s and 1970s, contractors were being bludgeoned by not only absurd wage demands, but also non-productive work rules. The booming construction industry and the shortage of skilled labor made the time ripe for unions to flex their muscles. In addition, squabbles among different unions led to jurisdictional disputes, which resulted in costly job shutdowns. We appealed to ABC National to develop curriculum to train our employees to become proficient in all trades, and the Executive Committee recommended to the Board of Directors that we embark on this effort. This was formalized as the “Wheels of Learning” under the guidance of Ted Kennedy, our 1980 president. – Robert Turner

During my inauguration as chairman at the Fontainebleau in Miami, the unions brought in busloads of picketers. It scared the daylights out of everyone there. This was the first time the president of the building trades union was at the head of the parade. The press came, so everyone pushed me out and said I had to make a statement. What a way to start my presidency! I went out and spoke to the press and TV cameramen and told them thanks for coming to our convention. This was the first time the building trades even recognized ABC, so I said I’m glad they finally recognize we’re the alternative in the construction marketplace. The unions thought they’d coerce us, but in fact it gave us a shot in the arm and had a great impact on changing the perception that open shop contractors were unskilled. –  Pat Alibrandi, 1984 ABC National Chairman, Interstate Electrical Services (retired)

During a very trying time, we ended up having many accomplishments. Among other things, we thwarted an attack by the unions to coerce owners into union-only contracts, we won the initial Safety Excellence Award from the Business Roundtable and we established a management education partnership with Clemson University. – Mike Perkins

We finally agreed to make the commitment to get into the training business in a serious and effective way by setting a $20 million fundraising goal and then eventually established the independent training organization, the NCCER. – Steve Westra, 1992 ABC National Chairman, W.D.S. Construction, Inc.

The most significant thing that happened was the election of George W. Bush in 2004, including ABC’s early endorsement, and raising more than $100,000 at one board meeting by simply asking—which resulted in me being in a Rolling Stone article on campaign fundraising. – Carole Bionda, 2004 ABC National Chairman, Nova Group, Inc.
What did you take away from your experience as ABC National chairman?
Because I was a very small contractor, I treasured the interaction with fellow Executive Committee members and used these contacts as my management education program. – Mike Perkins

The relationships established with the Executive Committee members, the National Board of Directors, and the national and chapter staff members were very impactful and important to me as a person and as a businessman. – Steve Westra

A lesson I learned in the legislative arena was compromise is better than defeat. President Clinton had been elected in November 1996 and things changed quickly for labor in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country. Project labor agreements and salting took the front burner and most of our time. – John Jennings

I had no idea being the chair of ABC would be so much fun. I loved visiting the chapters and meeting members whom I did not know—making friends for life, realizing that we are far more alike than our regional, geographical and trade group differences. – Carole Bionda

One of ABC’s core strengths is the organizational structure that gives local chapters autonomy  while allowing the national organization to set a direction and provide resources. However, this structure also makes the organization a challenge to manage on a day-to-day basis. I gained a great deal personally as I learned from the staff and our members how to communicate our message and gain consensus from such a large, diverse group of individuals. – Gary Roden

What has changed the most in the association/industry since your time as ABC National chairman?

We had turbulent times when I was chairman. We had threats to our lives and we had a shopping center that was attacked by several thousand construction workers who beat people up. When people were being attacked or their employees were being scared, they had ABC as an ally. We weren’t doing it alone. Most of the people in ABC today don’t know what the original members went through to get things going. Back then it was survival of the fittest. Members came to meetings with mud on their boots to talk about problems they had on the jobsite that day. Now it’s more sophisticated. –  Pat Alibrandi

I joined ABC in 1977 because I needed to be part of a group to counteract union violence. ABC has now moved on to provide members with the means to become better contractors. – Mike Perkins

In the past, we have had marvelous opportunities in the political arena that we did not take full advantage of. Hopefully, the association and its members have learned how to hold our local, state and federal political “friends” more accountable today than we did 20 years ago. The recent election should give us the opportunity right now to do some good for the country and the industry. If we do not hold their feet to the fire or make them stick their political necks out on unpopular issues with the press—and then wonder in a few years why we continue to have an increasing burden of regulations and taxes, and another Clinton administration in the White House—we will have no one to blame but ourselves. – Steve Westra

In 2005, BIM and interoperability were just beginning to be discussed in the industry. Today, these concepts are a part of our daily lives. Utilization of technology and learning to integrate the various design and construction project team members has not been an easy transition, but will pay huge dividends as our industry works to attract and retain the best and brightest to our companies. – Gary Roden

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