How Robert A. Aird Gets—and Keeps—the Competitive Edge

Thomas G. Dolan

September 2008

Educating for Success "We preach, encourage and foster continual education in the company, both formal and in the field,” says Robert A. Aird, co¬-owner, with his wife, Judy, of Robert A. Aird, Inc., Frederick, Md. "We want our mechanics to show our laborers and apprentices how to do things, our foremen to continually train our mechanics, our supervisors to train our foremen, and project managers to train the supervisors. This way every employee has the oppor¬tunity to move up in the company. We also promote continuous improve¬ment on our core values of service, quality and safety.”

Unlike many company owners in this industry, Aird did not grow up in the business. Not surprisingly, his primary background has been education, with experience in many diverse fields.

Aird earned his undergraduate degree in English and sociology from the University of Maryland in 1971. Among his many jobs, Aird worked as an editor for an educational foundation where he also co authored and edited a book. He then intended to become an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher in Brazil, so that is where he headed his Volkswagen bus, which also served as his mobile home. But he was sidetracked in Guatemala. There he served as a correspondent for a manufacturer; managed the construction of a hotel in the highlands; worked as a sound man for an education film at one of the ancient Mayan ceremonial capitols at Tikal; plus cut, fabricated and sold jade jewelry.

After returning to the United States, Aird started working toward his master’s degree in psychology at Maryland’s Bowie State University. At about this time, Aird recalls, "I was hired as a laborer for a plastering crew. I chopped and mixed plaster, then moved up to mechanic, foreman and superintendent.” After earning his master’s, he traveled to Israel and Holland for about a year.

A Career with a Trowel
Somewhere in the midst of all the education and various jobs, Aird realized he really loved plastering. So, when be returned home, he says, "I had to decide between psychology and construction. I had to ask myself if I was really interested in sitting in an office all day listening to other people’s problems, or being outside seeing the progress of something I was helping to build. I’ve found this was one of the big joys on this profession, watching a project moved toward completion. It’s a huge satisfaction.”

In 1977 Aird started his company with another laborer. In 1980 he married Judy. In 1989 he incorporated and moved out of his house to an office. Today he has about 100 plasterers and 13 office staff, with annual revenues between $5 million and $10 million.

From the start Aird focused on plastering, including cement plaster, stucco, and exterior insulation and finish systems; over the years he added veneer and Venetian plaster.

"Everything we do is with the trowel, no framing or drywall,” Aird says.

But why this narrow focus? Plastering is generally recognized as a dying trade. Those who practice it are often smaller companies, and often come from a family business in which their grandfathers specialized.l/;. Those who continue plastering usually have a need to branch out into the more commodity oriented drywall or other specialties such as fireproofing.

"I didn’t inherit the plastering trade,” Aird replies. "I just happened into it and fell in love with it. It’s truly a joy to work with. Plastering is one of those rare trades that has an artistic component to it. You’re not just banging nails or twisting wrenches.”

Aird adds that, in addition to being much more inexpensive, drywall is generally acknowledged to be much easier to apply and requires much less skill than plaster. But Aird, whose primary orientation has been plaster, and has no experience in framing or drywall, says the latter would be more difficult for him.

"There are thousands of components,” he says. "How do you track them all? God knows how they do it.”

On a less personal and more professional level, Aird says, "I recognized there was a dearth of quality people in plastering. So I have never branched out because I wanted to concentrate and specialize in this value added area where there still is a need, especially in restoration. My approach has been to expand in those areas where we have less competition and can command the market.”

This has resulted in many prestigious jobs for the company, such as the complete plaster restoration of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, DC, including all of the walls, ceilings, cornices and decorative plasters. Robert A. Aird, Inc. is also doing the complete post–9/11 plaster restoration of the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and the company has completed the Rockville Town Square in Rockville, Md.

"We’ve had the great good fortune to have been in business long enough that we have developed good relationships with owners and contractors,” Aird says. "We don’t have to go shopping for work; in fact, we never do. All of our work comes to us through a bid or negotiated work. Sixty percent of our work is negotiated, and 40 percent is bid, which is a good ratio.”

Beauty Is Skin Deep
Closely related exteriors and thus, plastering, is a new area that Aird is pioneering: adding air and water barriers to the skin of the building. Aird Inc. is a member of the Air Barrier Association of America. He explains that this organization, though it’s been around for about 10 years, is promoting an aspect of building envelope science that is still in its industry.

"The need for secondary weather resistant barriers against water has been around for centuries,” Aird says. "The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was built to withstand water leakage from the outside. But building owners are just now beginning to recognize the advantages of an air tight building.”

Aird explains he’s been practicing the use of both air and water barriers for many years in terms of EIFS and stucco, but it didn’t occur to him until fairly recently that the same concept could be expanded to other building skins, such as masonry and metal panels. Aird points out the well known fact that the EIFS industry was galvan-ized to radically improve its offerings due the scandals of water leakage that started in North Carolina more than 10 years ago. Those failures resulted largely due to poor workman¬ship and/or design but the result, nonetheless, is a vastly improved barrier system against both water and air.

"We spend a lot of time talking to and working with owners, contractors, engineers and architects on how these barriers work and the need to be cognizant of it,” Aird says. He cites as an example the brand new Hilton Baltimore Convention Center hotel, 26 stories that Aird furnished with a skin of 200,000 square feet of weather resistive barrier.

These weather barriers, as with plastering, require considerable skill. Here the ongoing training and education play a vital role.

"Typically, it takes a man at least several years to become proficient in EIFS, and still more time for the sophisticated plastering skills,” Aird says.

Long-Term Employees
Even though he trains from within, and given the fact that many wall and ceiling contractors throughout the country find it difficult to attract reliable labor of any kind, how does Aird manage to find—and keep—such highly skilled labor?

In reply, Aird points to the trend in the industry for contractors to hire field personnel for piecework labor, and keep the office staff on hourly wages with year-round employment and benefits. It’s obviously less costly this way. But, as Aird says, "In doing so, you lose control over quality, service and safety. By keeping our field employees on the payroll with benefits, all year round, and give them the training and the opportunity to work their way up in the company, we generate a tremendous loyalty to the company and a commitment to quality.”

As one example, Aird points to Jeff Kemp, who has been with the company 28 years. Kemp rose through the company from laborer to vice president and is now head of the estimating department. There are also field workers who have been with the company for as long as 27 years.

The payoff for Aird has been not only a successful company, but also recognition. This past year, he received a 20-year membership award and Outstanding Subcontractor of the Year Award from his local chapter of the American Subcontractors Association. Simultaneously, the Washington Building Congress, made up of owners, contractors and subcontractors, gave him the craftsmanship award of the year in plaster.

Aird’s company operations are fully computerized, but here he acknowledges that he was not a pioneer. Aird, 60, grew up in a pre computer age, and says, "they had to drag me kicking and shouting into the modern age.” He uses SAGE/Timberline software for accounting, estimating, project management and purchasing.

Aird’s passion for education has extended outside his company. He is currently the sole instructor for the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry’s EIFS—Doing It Right program. He runs about a dozen two-day training sessions a year, at different locations throughout the country. About half are regularly scheduled AWCI programs, and the rest are by request from AWCI members.

And this in addition to a schedule that makes workaholic seem like a euphemism for retired. Aird typically works 12 to 13 hours a day during the week, and six to 10 hours a day on the weekends. "I say that if I’m awake, I’m probably working, and if I’m driving, I’m probably eating,” he says.

Why does he work so hard? "I have an S.O.B. for a boss,” he quips, but adds, "I love what I’m doing and have no intention of retiring.”

In some marriages, keeping the work life separate from the family/home life is something many couples try to maintain for sanity’s sake, but not the Airds. Having his wife working alongside him obviously works for them. "Judy and I have known each other for 42 years, been in business together for 32 years, and married for 28 years,” he says.

Despite his intense work schedule, Aird says he still finds time to jog, spend time with good friends, and, not surprisingly, adds, "I love to read.” Robert A. Aird is a man who obviously believes in continuing education.