AWCI’s New President, Jim Keller:

Steven Ferry

July 2008

With thanks to Kevin Biddle for a successful year as president of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, we take the opportunity to pry a few minutes out of the incoming president’s schedule to interview him: introducing Jim Keller executive vice president of Grayhawk, Louisville, Ky. To those who know him, he has a tough exterior; his wife, Susan, assures us, however, that there’s a marshmallow inside. She should know: She has known him for three decades. But she also acknowledges the driving force that is Keller: "He really believes in AWCI and always gives 110 percent to everything he does, whether in sports or business. That’s why he is so successful.”

ACD: How does the construction industry look right now?
JK: It depends on the area of the country. Residential is down all over; for commercial, some areas of the country are beginning to experience a serious downturn, others not. Miami is seeing high-rise construction dry up. Certain parts up north, in the rustbelt area—Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo—they’re really hurting. On the other hand, our area is strong, there’s a lot of work downtown, there’s a lot of work in cities that are around military bases due to the Base Realignment and Closure of 2005. I just returned from an AWCI Board Meeting and some people are starting to feel the pinch, they’re worried about 2009. On the other hand, we’re looking good in 2009 and looking forward to 2010. Overall, things are a touch down from last year, when commercial building was up a lot, which means even this year, commercial on a national scale will still be up over what in the past was deemed good years.

ACD: What areas do you see as most important for the future welfare of the industry?
JK: Availability and pricing of materials; availability and education of the workforce.

ACD: Does that tie into the lack of access or threatened lack of access to immigrant workers?
JK: Yes, a long ways: If the flow of immigration dries up or political parties have immigrants pack their bags and go back home, it would be extremely detrimental to the construction industry.

ACD: What current and impending legislative, governmental or regulatory initiatives do you see impacting AWCI members?
JK: Mandated document checking and verification of IDs with Hispanics. Everybody should do due diligence, but one can only do so much. We, as employers, are not the FBI. We don’t know if we have false documents or not—that’s why we turn in Social Security numbers as our policy, and wait for approval.

Throwing employers in jail who are trying to follow the letter of the law and doing what we perceive as due diligence is ridiculous; for the government to reduce or eliminate the work force just because they are immigrants is ridiculous. Not all immigrants are bad! That’s like saying all citizens are good—it doesn’t work like that. There are unquestionably unscrupulous people who are bootlegging people in, knowingly hiring illegals. Absolutely, these businesses should be shut down and these people thrown in jail.

Our industry has undergone a change with the advent of technology. Now, most kids out of high school look at computerized entry jobs, not dirtying their hands and ripping their clothes in the construction trades. From the roofing to concrete to drywall, we rely heavily on Hispanics. Seventy percent of our work force is Hispanic, and they are all legal—we go to great lengths.

ACD: How has AWCI been dealing with this immigration issue and how do you plan to continue to direct it?
JK: AWCI wrote a paper through the Foundation a year ago on immigration that was an excellent piece. Obviously, this issue is not going away, so we’ll do more things like that. AWCI needs to become involved in the political process to push votes in the right direction on legislation. We need to find people to protect the laws but not let others hit the panic button: "Let’s just send everyone packing who looks Hispanic, because they’re all illegals.” That is not the way to handle the problem.

AWCI’s Web site can set up more links on resources and information on filing the proper I-9s, how to identify and ensure Social Security numbers are clear. Maybe even set up more seminars for people who have not yet tapped into the Hispanic population for a work force.

We conducted education seminars at our Industry Executives’ Conference & Committee Week last year and at our convention just a few months ago, on how to work with the immigrant workforce, their expectations, religions, holidays, work ethics and their lives in general, because they are different. They’re a hard-working force: supervisors and superintendents need to understand them, respect their traditions and their ways.

ACD: Absolutely. How does AWCI itself look today?
JK: It couldn’t be any stronger. It continues to grow in membership. It is the most respected trade organization for the wall and ceiling industry. By and large the members are all prominent in the industry in their respective areas and some nationally.

Financially, AWCI has never been better off in terms of programs funded, finding better speakers, developing more seminars, providing bigger exhibits at the trade shows, etc.

AWCI just continues to grow every year, both in membership and in our convention. Less than 15 years ago, we had fewer than 800 members; now we have nearly 2,300. We’ve gone from leasing and jumping around office spaces to owning our own office condo. We are all very proud of that in DC—it was quite an expenditure and fully paid for, in cash, already. Ten years ago, the members would never have envisioned this is where we’d be today.

ACD: That speaks well to its leadership as well membership.
JK: Yes, to its membership and to our executive vice president, Steve Etkin. Our board hired Steve about14 years ago, and we’ve never looked back—a tremendous asset for the association.

ACD: What other value do you see AWCI bringing to its membership?
JK: Networking at conventions, for instance, with counterparts from around the country, exchanging on shared problems and solutions—whether union or non-union contractors, suppliers or manufacturers—we have the same problems. We may even have the same customers, and not be competitors because our regions are different. And the jobs are the same—a hospital is a hospital, an office building is an office building. So discussing the impact of how tight money has become, for instance, or the adversarial relationships some GCs assume off the bat with their extremely unilateral contract forms, is helpful. Some of my best friends are across the country. When in a bind, I call these guys and, "Gee, I didn’t think of that!” AWCI is a tremendous opportunity to expand one’s knowledge and stature in the industry.

Schedules are now extremely unforgiving and there’s probably not a wall and ceiling contractor who isn’t behind on Day 1 of the job. The GC has already dug a hole and expects the wall and ceiling contractor to bail him out.

Then there are scarce and expensive raw materials: Take steel, which the industry is sending to the Middle East and China for a larger return. Any steel left in the US is at an absolute premium—up almost 70 percent nationally this year alone— and that’s affecting some businesses.

ACD: What can the membership do to get more out of AWCI?
JK: Become involved. AWCI is not a drive-thru where one can order off a menu, pull up to the window and take possession. You only get out of AWCI what you put into it. It’s a tremendous organization, tremendous resource, tremendous platform for networking and for information; there’re no better way of getting to know your suppliers on a national basis. But it doesn’t just happen by subscribing to the magazine or sending one of the guys to a seminar once or twice. It takes coming to the convention, becoming involved in the committees, etc.

Some people think it is neat to become an officer of AWCI or get onto the board of directors, but you have to earn that position. You have to become involved in the committees, see what it is all about and get a feel for it before you jump into these other things. All officers of the organization have served on numerous committees. I’ve been on the board of directors for 15 years now, on and off, getting a feeling for what the organization is all about. The more you become involved, the more you find the organization can give back to you.

ACD: You’ve served on more boards and committees than most people have fingers to count on, starting with your 1979 participation in the AWCI Young Executives Committee. What has driven you to serve?
JK: The AWCI board was worried where its next generation of leadership was going in 1979, so I was part of the creation of the second generation of leadership. I think 10 AWCI presidents have come out of that original group. It eventually morphed into the Academy and then the Education Council about 20 years ago, but the premise is still there: get involved. Many of those involved in the Young Execs stayed through the Academy and then the Education Council and then the board of directors. My father never forced me into it; it was more like, "If you want to go, I think it can help you.” I developed some great relationships out of it. Basically everything I have—my knowledge, position in the industry, my company—ties back to AWCI over the past three decades.

ACD: Excellent! Of all the boards and committees you’ve been on, what stands out as the most effective program that was initiated, that you’ve personally been involved in?
JK: Probably the biggest for me personally and for AWCI, would be the Young Execs. Steve (Etkin) and I are going to try to resurrect it somehow this year, cultivate another generation of leadership for the next couple of decades.

ACD: What other objectives do you have for the association in the year ahead?
JK: We’ve had some problems with the convention falling over the Easter holidays the past couple of years. We can avoid that by future planning. Also, reinvigorating our AWCI Lifetime Members program. We have been at around 65 members for a couple of years, whereas it really took off when it began 15 years ago. I have some ideas and maybe some programs to go out there and knock on doors of key people who may or may not be really aware of the Lifetime Members program and what it can offer. If you’re a player in the industry and planning to be around, there’s no reason in the world that you shouldn’t look at becoming a lifetime member. You’re saving money in the long run, so I want to bring that program out into the forefront of the industry again.

ACD: Is there any message you would like to communicate to the membership as their incoming president?
JK: BECOME INVOLVED! I’ve seen what some people can get out of AWCI by being involved and others that just keep showing up year after year, sitting on the sidelines. The association will be better off with your help, and you will be better off by being involved.

ACD: You started in the industry during your junior year at high school, working on sites. That’s almost four decades ago now. What was the operating environment like then?
JK: I started out in the early 1970s laboring for my father. We were a union lathe and plaster and drywall company, and I spent my summers either tending fireproofing and plaster pumps, or helping to build scaffold or cleaning up jobs. I had the grunt’s work! It helped pay for my expenses. I really didn’t have any expenses when I was in high school, but my dad wasn’t going to let me sit at home either. When I was in college, I worked for him on bigger jobs and for all four summers that I was off from school.

ACD: What issues were you aware of back then in the industry?
JK: I was more concerned about grappling through every day, getting home alive, not having the guys pin me up on a trailer or something!

AWCI changed from the Contractors Plasterers Lathers International Association before that, which my dad was a member of also. But much before I got into the office in 1979, I wasn’t really too concerned about industry standards.

ACD: As the decades rolled by, what do you think have been the most influential changes that have occurred since then?
JK: The research and the ties working with union contractors and helping structure international labor agreements with the unions. I know when I was a union contractor that was invaluable. Steve’s predecessor, Joe Baker, had a lot of ties in Washington and was very good at putting out fires if you had a jurisdictional dispute as a union contractor back then. Every time my father’s company would go into Detroit or Cleveland or something, I remember my father getting on the phone with Joe and saying, "You’ve got to get these guys off my back.” And sure enough, Joe would do it.

The programs that AWCI has developed, such as seminars, particularly since the early 1980s, have been critical, too. They have been especially good for young people coming into the industry.

ACD: Going back to you personally, which position have you most enjoyed holding?
JK: Probably the best experience I have had has been going through the chairs these past three years. I have been going through the chairs following one of my best friends, Mike Herring. He was president the year before last, so most of the time I have been going through the chairs, it’s been with him and his wife. The traveling, the experience, the bonding with your fellow officers—even though I have been a member of the board for 15 years and knew everybody, it’s nice to be able to go to these conventions that have 3,000 to 4,000 people running around—and you know damn near everybody! And again, that comes with going to these things for years. Sure, people feel intimidated the first time they get there—I used to hear the common complaint, "I don’t want to be involved because there are cliques.” Well, there aren’t cliques; it’s just that we know each other. All you have to do is extend your hand.

But going through the chairs has been a tremendous experience. The AWCI Executive Committee has four meetings a year, one is during AWCI’s fall conference, the other is at our convention, and then the executive officers get away once in June and once in January for meetings, too. Being involved in the chairs for three or four years gives insight on what’s supposed to happen as president. But as two of the predecessors who owned our company were past presidents, I knew what I was getting into! We are the first company with three presidents who were not father-and-son teams. J&B Acoustical out of Mansfield, Ohio, has had three presidents: one was the son-in-law, one was the son and one was the father. And Ray Boyd Plastering in Texas was the other company that’s had three presidents: the father Ray Boyd, and Pat and Mike Boyd, who are brothers.

ACD: The closing of the family business in 1993 must have been a bit disappointing. Did you take anything away from the experience in terms of a better understanding of business or the industry, which then gave you subsequent insight into managing companies or events?
JK: Starting in 1990 was another of those every-10-years depressions. When the automotive industry is down in Toledo, so goes the economy. We were very heavily tied to the construction industry due to the automotive industry between Cleveland and Detroit. We went from running 150 to 200 guys down to 25 in 16 months. Work just dried up. We couldn’t buy a job. I could have stayed open, but I would have eroded all the company’s net worth for nothing and my father’s nest egg. So from that aspect, it was a good business decision. I didn’t think the economy was going to come back for a couple of years after we closed down and in light of what transpired, I was about right on.

I was sorry to close the business down because I was third generation, but it was a decision my father supported. I think the growth has been more in the southern regions, where we are now and even further south. We miss Toledo, my wife and I. We’ve spent two-thirds of our lives up there, and most of our friends are still up there. I miss the work force—I had a bunch of really good guys, a lot of very hard workers. A lot of them had been with my dad so they were approaching retirement age anyways, though.

One of the things I learned is that the northern construction attitude doesn’t really work too well down here (laughs)! Up North, everybody is used to getting in your face and you getting in their face, that kind of an attitude, and nobody thinks anything about it. Down here, it’s a slower pace and you just don’t do that!

ACD: What do you think has been the greatest achievement in your career?
JK: Probably starting this Grayhawk Louisville office from scratch. They had tried it on two different occasions in the 1970s and the 1980s out of the Lexington office and just couldn’t make a go of it. When Mark Nabity [the current president of Lexington’s Grayhawk office] approached me after we closed down our business, he knew of my capabilities from the size of our Toledo business, and asked us to make a run of it. I literally started on my own. After a week, I hired a secretary. After about three weeks, I had hired a very skilled tradesman from a competitor with the idea of him being a superintendent eventually of a big wall and ceiling contractor. Well, that was all pie in the sky because it was the three of us and no contracts! They stuck with me and we grew.

The former owner of Grayhawk drove over to Louisville when we closed our first contract and said to me, "Are you, nuts? How are you going to do a half a million dollar job?” I told him, "Don’t worry about it, we’ll get it done.” And we did; it was one of the best jobs we ever did! Now, we have more than 100 employees and have continued to increase business volume over those 15 years. We are the pre-eminent wall and ceiling contractor in the city of Louisville. Yet during the first year, I was driving a truck delivering jobs during the mornings and seeing what was going on, I was in the office during the afternoons, and in the evenings, I’d estimate from home.

ACD: On a personal note, you met your wife 30 years ago, didn’t you?
JK: Yes, and married in 1982, so we just celebrated our 25th anniversary. She is several years younger. I met her one evening and we dated for a couple of years: I guess she was trying to decide if this was the best she could do and eventually she reluctantly threw in the hat (laughs).

She was in charge of the fertilizer division and the second-highest staff employee at the Andersons Company in Ohio—now a billion-dollar grain and feed store combine. She quit when we started having the kids and was a housewife until the kids went away to college. We have a daughter who’s graduating with a degree in nursing this year; our son is graduating this spring, a year ahead of time, to go into med school next year at the University of Kentucky. The kids didn’t get their smarts from me, believe me! They may have gotten their drive from me, but they did very well in school. We’re very pleased. So I’d say Susan did a good job raising those kids and I guess she became bored after they left, because now she is working at the airport part-time for TSA.

ACD: You spent three years racing the high seas after high school and you’ve not just collected sailing pennants, but you swam your way to some rather impressive masters times (ranking around 12th in the country). How have sailing and competitive sports influenced your work?
JK: Well, that’s just it. My wife says I don’t do anything to relax. Everything I do is pretty much competitive and intense. My wife learned a long time ago not to go sailing with me, because it’s racing right from the moment we leave the dock. I’ve never cruised, just racing and delivering boats.

When my kids roped me into swimming, I had laid off the sport for 27 years—I was a collegiate swimmer for four years. But one won’t make a living being a professional swimmer. So that was that. But when I was 48, I was at a state competition with my daughter (she rides horses, too) and she noticed a brochure for competitive swimming and said to me: "Look, they have an old farts competition, why don’t you enter for a grin, see how good you really are!”

We have an indoor, in-ground pool at our house, and so I started swimming a little bit and liked it. My wife thought I was just doing it for stress relief, but it’s grown perhaps predictably into something very competitive. I’ve moved from local to state level and have been to the nationals several times, where I did well. Next year, I’ll compete in the Worlds down in Australia.

Sailing has been the same way. My father involved me and we raced small boats and then we raced a large boat around the Great Lakes while I was in college. When I left college, I took off for a few years and worked for a couple of people going around the world, basically, sailing and racing. A lot of ocean racing and Great Lake sailing. I still have a small boat that I race down here with my son every now and then, and I’m still partners in a large sailboat that I keep up in Detroit and we go up and race that a couple times a year with my son.

ACD: What do you like most about doing that?
JK: Sailing competitively, and sailing with my son has been extremely enjoyable. I’ve been sailing now for 40 years, and he’s been sailing with me now for the past eight. Being in control, skippering the boat and making the decisions and helping it go fast. I’m one of the helmsmen so I like to drive, I don’t do any of the young stuff anymore, I used to do foredeck but I’m too old for that now.

ACD: Well, you’ve certainly worked your way up to being the boss. Is there anything else you would like to say to the membership?
JK: When people are going through hard times, maybe this year and next, they tend to pull in their horns and say they can’t spend money on education seminars, on association membership renewal and that kind of stuff. Well, that’s shortsighted. AWCI membership costs less than $600 a year, maybe not even that much*, (I don’t know anymore because we’re a lifetime member). The seminars certainly are peanuts in the big (picture). If your estimators are sitting around with their feet up on their desk, then put them to work, send them to seminars. This is the time to get back to your roots, re-educate your workforce. When you’re busy, you don’t have time to train, you’re too busy putting out fires.

This is probably the third downturn in the economy since I’ve been involved in the industry, it happens every ten or so years. I’ve seen it before. Cutting $600 out of your budget isn’t going to save you. My partner and I have both gone through AWCI’s EIFS—Doing it Right education program, and we’re both certified. We are in the process of getting our whole office to go to Steel—Doing it Right because of what is going on in the industry, we feel it’s so invaluable. It will help everyone in the industry.

ACD: Which brings us back to what you said initially: personnel and training are two key issues.
JK: Absolutely. *A standard membership in AWCI is only $585 per year.