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ABC National Chairman Commits to Promoting the Merit Shop Philosophy in 2013

Greg Hoberock exhibits a competitive nature in just about everything he does—from getting up at 5 a.m. for an hour of “self-inflicted pain” at the hands of a personal trainer to earning his pilot’s license 20 years ago so he could reduce the length of business trips and be more effective as CEO of hth companies, inc., Union, Mo.

“I actually don’t enjoy flying; it scares me to death,” he says. “But it makes me better at my job.”

Anyone who has logged 2,500 uneasy hours in the pilot’s seat is adept at taking on new challenges. During Hoberock’s more than 30 years in the construction industry, his can-do spirit has helped him grow a one-man pipe insulation company into a multifaceted firm licensed to work in eight states,  deal with union threats, and step up to serve as 2013 national chairman of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

Greg Hoberock“Every day is a competition in the construction industry. Winning the bid is just the first victory. Following through and doing what the owner wants safely, on time and with a profit is like a Friday night football game for me,” Hoberock says.

“I love that the people in this industry have a competitive, entrepreneurial spirit. Construction company owners put everything they have on the line every day. They’ve gone to the banks and signed away their houses to go forward with a dream.” 

A Rocky Path to Business Ownership
Hoberock entered the construction industry by way of a degree in agriculture and biochemistry from the University of Missouri. When veterinary school didn’t work out, he tried (and hated) working as a bench chemist for a year. Then a friend suggested he interview for a Cincinnati-based trainee position with a union piping and insulation company. In his early twenties and not sure what else to do career-wise, Hoberock agreed to give construction a try.

After a couple years on the job, he moved back to the St. Louis area to work for a union mechanical contractor. When he got laid off from that company, he returned to his first piping employer as a salesman and eventually a branch manager.

While managing a small powerhouse project in Missouri, Hoberock began thinking there must be a better way than union construction. It came down to a payroll dispute: a union worker submitted eight hours on his timecard even though he never showed up on the jobsite.

“The union demanded we pay him for eight hours or they would pull the entire workforce from the project. Management capitulated, and I decided right then and there I was done,” Hoberock says. “I quit on my 30th birthday with a three-month-old baby at home and started my own company.”

Like many open shop contractors in union-dominated areas, Hoberock needed a few big breaks to get his business off the ground. The first infusion of support came in the mid-1980s from a local open shop plumber. “He encouraged me to start a nonunion pipe insulation company and wrote me a contract for $72,000 to help get me started. It laid on my desk at home for a while until finally I decided to give it a go.”

For two years, Hoberock performed work wherever he could find it. Then his second big break came—this time from a union mechanical contractor. Hoberock committed to doing a job for $100,000 less than another union firm’s bid, so the mechanical contractor took a chance.

“That was one of the first times we saw a mixture of nonunion and union workers on the same jobsite,” he says. “We were successful and the job made money, which opened the eyes of other union contractors.”

Backed by a reputation for competitive bids, cooperative craft professionals and quality work, hth companies grew rapidly. “I can remember the days I had five employees and did a $1 million project. I felt on top of the world,” Hoberock says. “Now we do $3 million to $4 million per month and have about 450 employees.”

The early years of success brought a fair share of challenges, too. Hoberock spent most of his time in the field and out selling work, then did estimating at night and on the weekends while his son and two daughters played in his home office. He also experienced backlash from unions that were unhappy with open shop contractors blazing a trail in Missouri.
“You need bravery to work in this industry,” Hoberock says. “I’ve been personally threatened by union members and have been the victim of job targeting campaigns. You’ll face hurdle after hurdle, so you need the drive to bust through that next barrier and the self-confidence to believe you can do it.”

Industrial-Sized Problem Solving
As the open shop philosophy permeated Missouri, hth companies capitalized on opportunities to expand by acquiring or starting five entities focused on sheet metal, electrical contracting, general contracting, steel erection and construction rentals. Another crucial decision made about 15 years ago shifted the company’s focus from pipe insulation exclusively in the commercial marketplace to working predominantly in the industrial marketplace. The change allowed hth companies to provide more services to each client—from building scaffolding and pouring concrete to performing high-pressure water blasting, setting steel and even mowing grass.

hth companies, inc.“We adopted the attitude of, ‘You got a problem? We’ll fix it,’” Hoberock says. “We will do whatever our end users want us to do well and on time. We say ‘yes’ and then figure out how to do it.”

The relationships hth companies built with its industrial clients have been a welcome reward for Hoberock. “They recognize you have it out on the line every day and they appreciate it. If my crews get called at 1 a.m. to get a plant back up and running, the emails I get thanking us for our hard work are worth everything.”

Though Hoberock misses his time in the field—instead focusing on setting the direction for the company, reviewing financials and solving problems—he relishes the opportunity to coach young managers, especially in the area of decision-making. He learned long ago to trust his staff, to delegate responsibilities, and that failing to make decisions is one of the worst things someone can do.

“I try not to make decisions for people; instead, I ask questions so they come to their own decision—good or bad,” he says. “Once you get people accustomed to making decisions and taking responsibility for them, they start making better decisions.”

Hoberock also has the joy of working with two of his children. His oldest daughter Erin joined hth companies as an accountant after working for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, and his middle child Douglas came on board a year ago after earning a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Missouri and working for Kiewit Construction in Kansas City. He’s now in Lafayette, Ind., learning about the project management and estimating side of the business. Hoberock’s youngest daughter Alex is carrying on the Missouri Tiger tradition as an accounting/finance student, with plans to go to law school after graduation. 

Leading the ABC Family

ABC has been a vital component of hth companies’ success. Although the firm initially joined the Heart of America Chapter 25 years ago for apprenticeship training, Hoberock quickly latched on to the merit shop philosophy.

“We should be awarded work based on merit, quality of construction and financial strength. Union affiliation should have nothing to do with it,” he says. “To stand together and defend our right to compete for work and follow our dreams is the foundation of my love of ABC.”

Hoberock served on ABC’s Construction Legal Rights Foundation for 10 years, fighting against project labor agreements, job targeting and other union-favoring schemes. His other volunteer leadership positions at the ABC chapter and national levels largely have dealt with defending the merit shop philosophy and free enterprise system. Going forward as 2013 national chairman, Hoberock wants to shift to promoting the merit shop philosophy.

“We need to take our philosophy out to legislators and communities and tell them why it’s the best way to do business,” he says. “We need to tell them to use the contractor that will meet their quality, safety and on-time delivery needs—with no regard for union affiliation.”

It’s particularly crucial for large, national owners to get this message as the nonresidential sector struggles to recover from the economic downturn. Awareness of ABC members’ access to top-notch craft, business and safety training will help prevent private and public project labor agreements—presenting additional opportunities for open shop contractors to bid more work and earn more profits in the coming years.

“Eighty-five percent of the projects I work on have union and nonunion workers side by side every day. They work in harmony to meet the owner’s expectations; that is the merit shop philosophy. There is no room for favoritism in our industry,” Hoberock says.

Along those lines, ABC is creating a strategic plan that outlines how the association will develop the safest, most skilled workforce to fully promote the advantages of merit shop construction. In addition to committing resources to the strategic plan, ABC needs the input and support of members at the local level. By joining a committee or board of directors, members have an opportunity to express their vision for ABC and trigger a higher level of success in advancing the merit shop philosophy, Hoberock says.

“We can create excitement about ABC’s future world-class safety and training programs, but people have to be willing to engage themselves, stand up for what they believe in and accept that change can be painful.

“To really advance the merit shop philosophy, people have to feel free to express their opinions openly and honestly. If I can present that environment for you, I ask that you commit to the final decision going forward.” 

Joanna Masterson is assistant editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email masterson@abc.org, visit www.constructionexec.com or follow @ConstructionMag.  

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