Guy in construction vest

Passion in Action

ABC’s 2023 national board chair, Milton Graugnard, talks expanding the tent, what makes a great leader and why construction is an industry like no other.
By Maggie Murphy
January 30, 2023

What do accounting, a fishing boat and an industry veteran named Lane Grigsby have in common? Nothing, unless you’re Milton Graugnard. It was this perfect storm of influence that led Graugnard to where he is today: 34-year construction veteran, executive vice president of Baton Rouge–based Cajun Industries and, now, 2023 national chair of Associated Builders and Contractors.

Unsure what he wanted to do when he went to college, Graugnard looked to his brother-in- law, Randy Bonnecaze, for inspiration. “I lost my father at an early age, and Randy had stepped in as sort of a surrogate dad,” Graugnard says. “I admired him, and he was a CPA, so I just thought it could be an avenue for me to take.”

After Graugnard graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in accounting, Bonnecaze hired him on at accounting firm Hannis T. Bourgeois, where he practiced for six years. “I found I liked the client interaction and the people who I worked with, but didn’t like the work itself,” Graugnard says, “but I knew accounting would provide me ample opportunities and allow me to go places unimaginable.”

He turned down job opportunities—in banking and automotive dealerships, to name a few—until the day one of his accounting clients, Cajun president and founder Lane Grigsby, called him to say that his CFO was leaving and he wanted Graugnard on board. “Lane called me up and told me I was the perfect fit because I did his tax work and audit work.”

The pair met and interviewed for nearly three hours because, as Graugnard says, “I was kind of playing hard to get.” At the end of the interview, Grigsby asked Graugnard to follow him to Cajun’s warehouse. “He raised the warehouse door, and inside was a 24-foot Grady White fishing boat with twin 200 Yamahas on it,” Graugnard recalls. “And Lane said, ‘If you come and work for Cajun, it can be yours.’”

“One of my passions is saltwater fishing, so obviously I’m excited,” Graugnard says. “I drive home, I’m giddy.” His wife, Jackie, was standing in the front yard watering the plants with “a baby on her hip and another on the way, and she says, ‘Well, did you get the job?’” Graugnard nodded. “So, what are you going to make?” she asked. Graugnard replied: “Well, Jackie, I can’t believe it, but I never asked. But, honey, we have a boat!”

As Jackie Graugnard tells it, “Usually you know just what you’re going to get with Milton, but sometimes he sure does surprise you.” If there’s one thing she thinks will make her husband stand out as ABC’s 2023 chair, it’s this: “You’re always going to know how he feels about things. He cares so much about this industry and the people in it, and I’m so proud to be supporting him.”

In an exclusive interview, Construction Executive speaks to Graugnard about everything from his outdoor adventures, family traditions and achieving work-life balance, to his personal motto, greatest achievements and big plans for ABC this year.

Did you ever think when you first got involved with ABC 30 years ago that one day you were going be the national chair?

No, I never thought that for a minute. I think there are numerous “whys” in everyone’s life. The first one is why were you were born, and the succeeding ones are answering the why are you here, what is your purpose? And this is just one of those whys. I’m really pleased to be in this role. I’m honored. I’m full of humility. I have tremendous respect for those that have come before me. And I intend to honor their work.

Why was this the right time for you to step into this role?

About nine years ago, Lane decided it was time to transfer the company to the next generation of family, and so he sold it to his son and son-in-law, Todd Grigsby and Mike Moran. In that transition, Ken Jacob, who I reported to, retired, and I was asked by Todd and Mike to stay on board. They asked that I get involved with outside associations that have been instrumental in Cajun’s growth. ABC was one of those. Over the past several years, I have slowly weaned myself of daily responsibilities to a point where I’m really set up well to dedicate quite a bit of my time and effort to furthering the business of this great association.

What do you bring to the table as chair that nobody else has?

Well, there’s some big shoes to fill, but I intend to be more of a traditionalist. I want to make sure that regardless of how big the tent becomes, we don’t stray away from our bylaws. I am all about getting people into our association from different walks of life. If they genuinely believe in and espouse the bylaws of the association, I want them in. We are all fighting for the same cause—to prevent unnecessary regulation, restraint of trade and unfair labor practices. It’s exciting to me to travel the country, because although we have different dialects and traditions, we are all fighting for free and open competition.

What do you think are some of the most important qualities in a leader?

Listening. Having humility. Being willing to walk the walk. Being tolerant, but not afraid to voice your opinion. I think every walk of life ought to be part of our industry.

So, from a leadership perspective, I will give you my opinion, and you may not always agree—but if you don’t agree, I’m willing to listen to the alternative opinion. I think one of the problems we have in the country today is people aren’t willing to just sit and talk, to have a dialogue.
I have a deep appreciation for those that work for our company in the field, and the men and women that go to work every day in boots and hard hats and safety glasses. They’re the front line. They’re the ones that truly are leading the way for the betterment of our companies and our industry.

How do you achieve work-life balance? What helps you to de-stress?

I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none. I love to farm on my property in St. Francisville. I put in food plots in the spring and fall and tend to my horses and my dog, Dixie. And I really love spending time with my family there. We also do a lot of fishing on the coast at our camp in Grand Isle, Louisiana. And once a year we try to get to Utah or Colorado to ski.

What advice would you give to companies that are struggling with workforce development?

We’re very fortunate here in Louisiana, because we have a large owners group, an industrial base, that is willing to fund our efforts for craft education. Not every market has that. However, you have to have some form of funding mechanism whether it’s private or public or quasi.
The second item, and it’s a very important one, is reaching out to the high schools and educating them on the merits of our industry. We have to get more young people entering our workforce. We have such a wonderful story to tell in this industry, and part of my focus this year is to try and extract some of those stories.

High schoolers are often told college is the only path to success. How do you break through that message and educate them on the opportunities that exist in the construction industry?

It’s amazing what’s happening to the craft workforce right now in our industrial market. We have operators and carpenters and forepersons and superintendents that are making a great living, many making well over six figures without a college degree or debt. We have so many people who started off as a laborer, moved into the carpenter role, then foreman, and now are successful superintendents. Many have come into the office and are estimators and project managers. There are no limits in this industry.

There is not another industry that provides the upside for those who don’t want to go to college as construction does. There are challenges in our industry, but if you’re interested in showing up, working hard, being safe and getting company-sponsored education along the way, the future is whatever you want it to be.

How can the industry expand entry points for people who may not have considered construction?

We have to get more companies involved in accessing the entry points. ABC has countless entry points and they are well-documented. Take second-chance employment. We have Angola State Prison right down the road from here, and they are training incarcerated individuals with NCCER curriculum, so that when they are released, they have the skills to get a job and be productive citizens.

Veterans are another great example. Someone who’s been in the military is disciplined, is well-trained and is willing to work. These men and women are ripe for our industry.

The real question becomes, how do we get to them? We are not telling the stories enough. If we reach out to our chapter presidents and tell them, “Find me five members who have a story of someone who started as a laborer or a carpenter and has ascended in the ranks of their company”—we can broadcast those stories. Our challenges are great, but we can either stick our heads in the sand or create some of the most American-made success stories any industry has to offer.

How do you get contractors to work together for the betterment of the industry?

This is not always an easy fix. One of the messages I want to give to companies across the country is that we in Louisiana were as challenged as anyone in the country 45 years ago with unions and workforce challenges. It took a concerted effort of some of the fiercest competitors coming together in the boardroom at ABC with common goals of fixing the workforce and the political arena. It takes members being engaged with a common cause, short- and long-term vision and the willingness to put up hard-earned money and effort. Fast forward to today, and in our area unions are non-existent and our political landscape is very business friendly.

What are the greatest achievements in your life, personal or professional?

Well, picking my wife, Jackie, is probably my biggest achievement. Although I consider that part luck.

One of my professional achievements is passing the CPA. I took it four times to pass it, but I didn’t give up. I would not be where I am today without that certification, because Lane Grigsby was not going to hire a CFO that wasn’t a certified public accountant. I consider myself very lucky and blessed to have picked the right company to join some 34 years ago.

The other personal achievement I’m most proud of is raising three kids that are all married to great spouses who I love like my own kids. They are all conservative and believe in America and its founding. And that’s a challenge these days. I’m fortunate that they all live within 30 miles of me. I have five beautiful grandchildren, who are all healthy as well. Having family around me and having them all healthy and happy—I just feel very blessed and value it as one of my greatest personal achievements in life.

Do you have a personal motto?

My personal motto is “work hard, play hard and honor our savior along the way.” And I like to think I do all of these pretty well.

Is there somebody that you would say has inspired you professionally or personally?

There are many people who I admire in our industry, but the most personally and professionally would be my brother-in-law, Randy Bonnecaze. He’s the CPA that got me into accounting. He hired me coming right out of college. I lost my dad at an early age, and he stepped in as kind of a surrogate dad for my family and me. He deferred his entire career to manage our small-town family business. The second person that I’ll name is Lane Grigsby. Lane is a principled person—he is a political pioneer in Louisiana and has changed our industry and political landscape for the good by putting his intellect and money where his mouth is. He always honors his word. He’s been a very impactful person to me and for the good of the merit shop industry.

What do you like to read?

When I read it’s typically about history. Most recently I finished a World War II novel, “Spearhead." I like to focus on that generation—I truly believe it was the greatest generation this country has ever seen.

Are you a homebody or do you like to travel?

I’m definitely not a person to sit at home. When I’m not working and I’m not with my family, I am usually in St. Francisville working on my farm or fishing down in Grand Isle. I’m not a homebody at all, but I’m not a world traveler either. When I retire, certainly I think that Jackie and I will take a trip once a year to see different parts of the world.

What’s the message that you’d like to share with ABC members going into your term?

Create short-term and long-term goals through a well thought out strategic plan, and there’s hope in meeting your objectives. What you measure, gets accomplished. In Louisiana, there was not much hope 45 years ago. And after a lot of money and effort invested in developing the workforce, the Gulf Coast now has the premier industrial construction workforce in the nation. Anywhere in the country we do work, we’re competing with companies and workforces that were trained right here in our region. It’s a long process, but it’s a worthy process.

by Maggie Murphy
Maggie Murphy is managing editor of Construction Executive.

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