Looking to the Future: A New President for AWCI

Steven Ferry

July 2007

Kevin Biddle, president of Mader Construction Co. Inc., in Elma, N.Y., didn’t have any interest in the construction business when he was growing up, even though his father was a partner in a few companies. Baseball was what had his attention through high school and college, until four schools later and still three years away from any of three academic degrees, he decided to take a break. He asked his father, Jim Biddle Sr., if he could work out in the field, which his father agreed to readily. Kevin joined a sister company, Gypsum Systems, where he worked on job sites for six months until the company needed an estimator in December 1985. Kevin moved to the office, estimating under the wing of a Tony Adinolfe, who taught him pretty much everything about estimating. It was during this time that Kevin fell in love with the business and decided to stay with it. As he tells it, "I found that working with different people out in the field and in the office is similar to sports: You have different personalities and your ultimate goal is to get a job done with them.”

"In 1995, I had an opportunity to move over to my father’s company, Mader Construction, where I worked in the purchasing department, trying to learn another facet of the business, dealing with suppliers and such, and estimating as well. About two years later, the purchaser retired and I took over as the full-time purchasing agent until about 2001, when five of us bought my father out of his business, and since that time, I have been the president. Time flies; it’s hard to believe it’s already been 22 years since I first started in the business. But it was a good grounding to be able to work in the different areas; even though I worked in the field only for six months, it was enough to give me a feel for what the guys go through.

"I was also lucky enough to work with and learn from my father on a day-to-day basis for six years. The key for our company was having so many quality people in place, which made the transition pretty smooth. When I took over as president, I didn’t have to change very much, just a little tweaking here and there.”

CD: As a long-term industry player and even president of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry (1982–1983), your father must be happy about passing the baton.

KB: Yes, he is thrilled that I became involved in his trade and business. Back in 1987, he had me become involved with the education committee at AWCI where I had the opportunity to work with some of the great future leaders like Mark Nabity, Phil Vernetti, Mike Heering, Jim Keller, Mike Poellinger and Kelly Boylan—there’s just a long list of people who have done a great amount of service for AWCI. Then I was lucky enough to be appointed to the board about seven years ago, so yes, my father is excited, especially as my brother, Jim, has also been with the company since 1986 and is currently our secretary/treasurer/controller.

CD: In the almost quarter-century you’ve been involved in the industry, what would you say have been the main ways it has changed?

KB: The emergence of construction management has changed the industry greatly, some for the better, some for the worse. The amount of paperwork has become somewhat ridiculous. In the old days, on a $5 million dollar job we would just note "work to date, $4 million” on an invoice and send the bill. Now there are multi-page schedules of values that have to be broken down by material and by labor and by spec section, and it seems that the paperwork is sometimes more important than building the project! For me, though, personality is the key to the business.

CD: That is certainly a change; any others?

KB: In some places, the insurance and workers’ comp issues are putting strains on many companies. Many things are driving changes, but for me, these two are very important changes that I have seen over the past few years.

CD: In terms of the continued use of immigrants in the work force, and with illegal immigrants and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement a matter of concern, and potential legislation on the matter, can you comment how you see these three elements at the moment?

KB: It’s important that we don’t rush to any quick judgments. The reality of illegal immigrants and the immigration problem is, they’re a large percentage of the work force in a large part of the country, and I don’t think we can just send them away. I think we have to find a way to integrate them into the American system and work force, otherwise the construction industry, along with other industries, would come to a screeching halt. There has to be a way for the government to make them legal, have the proper paperwork done so they can continue with their jobs if they so chose. It’s a large problem and I don’t think you can make everybody happy; there’ll always be two sides.

CD: Do you plan to take any specific action as president in this direction?

KB: I believe TSIP, Texans for a Sensible Immigration Policy, under AWCI member Stan Marek and others, has already taken the initiative, and I plan to support the general direction they are moving in. They have done well to address this important issue head on and bring the industry’s stance to the House and Senate committees that are working on the new legislation. The House bill, for instance, has many of the TSIP points included, as I understand it.

CD: Yes, that’s true. Moving to another issue, the housing slowdown and the recession that may result, what is your take on this at the moment?

KB: I believe that the commercial contractors will be seeing more competition from residential contractors moving to our side of the fence. One of the positive signs will be that our industry may see better pricing.

CD: What about green buildings?

KB: Well, green buildings are good for the industry; they seem to be the wave of the future. In our area, most of the bigger buildings under construction are green, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)–type projects. They definitely add some costs. There is a lot of homework to be done, people needing to be educated on LEED. I know AWCI has conducted seminars on it, at the 2007 convention in Florida, for instance.

CD: Will you be arranging for continued education on LEED?

KB: Definitely: Especially when the architects and owners are specifying green technology, systems and materials. Right now, the subject is so new that many buildings are enjoying being the first LEED-friendly projects in their areas. AWCI needs to keep delivering these seminars as stand-alones, if needed, to keep people informed.

CD: Are there any other areas you see as trouble for AWCI members in the year ahead?

KB: I think insurance—workers’ comp—is always troubling, but I think it is starting to steady. In New York state, we have an issue with Labor Law 240/241 driving up the cost of insurance probably 30 percent. It is known as the Scaffold Law, and it states that if someone were to fall from a height above 6 inches—it sounds crazy—the owner and contractor are 100 percent liable. We’re not trying to repeal the law, just reform it to give contractors a say. Right now, if an employee fell off a ladder, he could receive anywhere from $1 million to $2 million for a settlement. It doesn’t matter whether a company has a safety program or if we educate the employee not to do certain things, it is still 100 percent liability to the contractor. So we are trying to get that process, and workers’ comp, righted.

CD: It is surprising there haven’t been reports of kamikaze workers thinking a broken pinkie is worth a cool couple of million.

KB: It sounds crazy, but part of the problem is that the labor side has the impression management doesn’t care about their employees, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth. The law was enacted back in the 1800s when they were doing skyscrapers and so on. But with OSHA out there, things have changed. People are a lot safer. Our reform efforts are not directed to protect the contractor who doesn’t want safety, doesn’t care about it, and just wants to get the job done. They’ll still pay the consequences. But most contractors put a lot of time, money and energy into safety, and if one employee decides he doesn’t want to listen to you, it can cost you a lot of money. Many companies have gone out of business in our area, many roofing companies, steel companies, because of the skyrocketing costs of insurance.

CD: So just the existence of the law has sent up insurance costs, even if the kamikaze people may not have caught on yet.

KB: Yes, like workers’ comp, some bad apples ruin the system for everybody. Workers’ comp is a great funding tool for people who are hurt, but you always have that percentage who tries to take advantage of it, and we have the same problem with our Labor Law.

CD: Do you plan to address this as president of AWCI?

KB: Certainly, I’d like to see people kept informed. AWCI hasn’t been politically aggressive in recent years. By choice, we join coalitions when our goals match those of other organizations, such as the American Subcontractors Association. We need to pick and choose the right battles, but it may not be a bad thing to climb back into the political area of construction, whether regarding workers’ comp, immigration or whatever.

CD: That’s an exciting shift. Do you see any opportunities for the industry in the year ahead—apart from green buildings?

KB: Many changes are possible with the immigration issues being out in front this year.

CD: Right—on the AWCI side, how does the association itself look to you today?

KB: We’re in a great position. In the two decades I’ve been involved with the association, we’ve come full circle. We have an unbelievable executive vice president in Steve Etkin: He does a great job of not only worrying about issues today, but looking ahead two or three years, with some of the white papers being put out by the Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, AWCI’s affiliated research arm. AWCI is financially in the best shape of its life. The new headquarters’ office condominium is a source of pride for our whole association.

We really need to concentrate on the education side—whether we do stand-alone topics around the country, or on green building issues, immigration or the EIFS—Doing It Right program. We have greatly supported the industry with this Doing it Right–themed training. The new Steel—Doing It Right program has been very successful. The Stucco—Doing it Right program under development has potential to be another great program. What people need to realize about this one specifically, is that different areas of the country do certain portions of stucco a little differently, but the core of the program, the core of the stucco application, is the same.

The association is as good as its members, and it has great people involved. One of the issues I intend to discuss as I travel around the country this year is to try to persuade more people to become involved with AWCI, to interest more companies in encouraging their young leaders to become involved, sending people to the educational sessions, whether the EIFS—, Steel— or Stucco—Doing It Right programs, or AWCI’s Academy that is held in the beginning of each year. If they go to one or two of the events, they’ll see what AWCI has to offer. Just like any organization, what you put into it is directly related to what you get out of it.

So that will be a big push from me this year. Along with the educational end I would like to encourage members to become involved in the AWCI Business Forums. To anyone unfamiliar with these, they are a peer group of half-a-dozen, non-competing contractors from around the country, meeting two or three times a year. I’m involved with a Business Forum, and it has been a great help to me in running my company. You open up the financials and let people in your industry take a look, and they give their thoughts on what you could do better, what you’re doing well. These forums are one of the best things AWCI has come up with.

CD: A "help your fellow contractor” drive.

KB: Exactly. Sometimes one can become caught up in one’s own little shell and be uncertain whether or not one is doing things correctly. So to be able to meet with another group of successful contractors and show them and tell them what you’re doing and hear their opinion and so on, that’s invaluable.

CD: It certainly is. Any comments on how the last trade show went?

KB: The 2007 show was the second recent joint trade show with AWCI and the Ceilings & Interior Systems Construction Association, and it’s a great vehicle for the industry that has been pushed through by AWCI Past President Ken Navratil and Etkin and their counterparts at CISCA.

Next year, 2008, we’ll be back in Las Vegas. Since we signed that contract back in 2002, the Intex Expo has grown faster than planned so we’ll be splitting the trade show into two halls. It won’t be easy to do, but both the AWCI and CISCA convention committees are making sure that each hall has the same attendance. We’ll have ways to encourage movement between halls and probably start one show an hour later than the other one. We won’t have all the drywall booths in one hall and all the acoustic booths in the other; they’ll be mixed in both halls.

We do want people to know that it’s just a one-year thing. Until the joint trade shows started, AWCI always had its conventions and their locations projected out five or six years. 2009 in downtown Nashville and onward, we’ll be in one hall again, but both organizations will do all they can to make 2008 as successful as all the shows in the past.

CD: That’s encouraging. Any message you’d like to communicate to the membership?

KB: I’d like to say that I am honored to be the president of AWCI. I am very much looking forward to traveling to the different chapters, meeting people and spreading the AWCI message. Again, my goal is to encourage more people to become involved, to bring more people to AWCI’s Industry Executives’ Conference & Committee Week, to bring in more people to the convention, to the AWCI Academy and all the other educational programs.

And I really want to let everyone know again that I am really looking forward to working this year with Steve [Etkin] and the AWCI staff. They are wonderful and work hard to make things easy for the AWCI Executive Committee to concentrate on the issues. Steve has put together a great group of people.

CD: Before we wrap up, can you let the membership know a bit about the non-professional side of your life?

KB: My wife, Barbara, and I have been together since 1984, married since 1990, and we have two children: Kirsten, who will be 13 this summer, and Jeffrey, who is 10.

I enjoy golf and travel, but my biggest love is watching my kids, coaching them in basketball and baseball, and just being around them. They’re everything to me. Kirsten is a basketball player and a dancer, and Jeffrey is whatever the season is—right now, he’s playing baseball, but he also plays soccer, hockey and basketball.

My brother and I followed in my father’s footsteps, but at 10 and 13, it’s way too soon to see if Jeffrey or Kirsten will follow in mine. I am committed to helping make the industry as viable as I can not only for AWCI and its membership, but also so that if my kids decide to make their career in construction, it will be as rewarding and enjoyable as possible for them.
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