AWCI's Centennial: The 1990s
“The association is in a particular crunch now, and there is no cushion.”
The 1990s stock market had one of its biggest wealth-building runs of all time. The decade saw rapid technological advancement. “But it was the commercialization of the Internet that led to the greatest expansion of capital growth the [world] had ever seen,” says Investopedia. “Approximately 360 million people, or roughly 6 percent of the world’s population” had access to the World Wide Web, says Encyclopedia Britannica.
Stocks surged as upstart dotcom companies went public. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan tried to temper the enthusiasm by hinting in a now famous 1996 speech that investors’ “irrational exuberance” may have “unduly escalated asset values.” Was the boon in stocks over? Some thought so. Time magazine said in 1997, “It may be time for investors to slow down, cash in and cross their fingers.” Esquire was more cynical: “Rule 1—Don’t Panic, Rule 2—Panic First,” it titled a 1998 article.
The bull market continued. People saw their 401(k) account balances balloon. America made money.
During the 1990s, new products flooded the wall and ceiling industry, giving contractors opportunities to expand their businesses.
The 1992 Wall and Ceiling Exposition at the 75th convention of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industries—International in Washington, D.C., showed products for the first time anywhere. Tools to quickly install cornerbead, project tracking software, new exterior insulation and finish systems, new spray-on fireproofing, improved fasteners and new ceiling systems were some of the products shown at that exposition.
Innovation in a few product categories transformed the industry.
Synthetic gypsum board. The Clean Air Act amended in 1990 required power plants to begin scrubbing their sulfur dioxide emissions. Many used flue gas desulfurization (FGD), a technology pioneered in the 1960s in Europe, to produce synthetic calcium sulfate as a byproduct of burning coal. Synthetic calcium sulfate is the real thing, “chemically identical to natural gypsum,” Construction Dimensions wrote in 1999.
USG and National Gypsum first used FGD in the United States in 1986 and 1991 respectively. In due course, American Gypsum, CertainTeed, Continental and Georgia-Pacific produced synthetic gypsum board, too. By the mid-1990s, synthetic ore accounted for 5 percent of total U.S. gypsum panel production. It reached 47 percent in the first quarter of 2017, according to the Gypsum Association.
Glass mat faced gypsum board. Georgia-Pacific introduced DensGlass Gold® exterior sheathing in 1987. By 1990, the company had several glass mat products, and all board manufacturers eventually introduced a fiberglass-faced product. In time, non-organic glass mat faced panels featured integrated biocides, which made gypsum board “more sustainable, durable and resistant to moisture degradation,” said Steven A. Etkin, AWCI executive vice president and CEO.
Cold-formed steel. To protect the endangered northern spotted owl, a federal judge in 1992 blocked logging in all old-growth forests owned by the United States Bureau of Land Management. Immediately, lumber prices surged. Cold-formed steel framing had an open door to grab market share. CFS framing grew by leaps and bounds during the 1990s.
EIFS. Exterior insulation and finish systems gained wide acceptance within the architectural and building community during the 1990s. AWCI spearheaded EIFS education and certification. Hundreds of mechanics, industry professionals and inspectors were certified in EIF system application during the 1990s, assisting the industry with “raising the bar” and achieving a higher level of installation quality.
AWCI entered the 1990s running a budget deficit. On July 13, 1989, Ronald P. Brady, AWCI president, chaired the executive committee meeting at AWCI’s headquarters in Alexandria, Va. Brady commended the prior administration for having “given AWCI a good foothold” despite operating with “restricted funds.” Then, Immediate Past President and Budget Committee Chairman Burton Fisher delivered the bad news: “AWCI is looking at an overall deficit of $125,000,” he said.
Dues delinquencies, the loss of some chapters and the Asbestos Abatement Council of AWCI contributed to the shortfall. Of the $125,000 deficit, $81,000 was attributed to the Asbestos Abatement Council.
For several years, the Asbestos Abatement Council made money for AWCI. Now, however, the asbestos abatement industry was in decline, and the council’s financial situation was deteriorating. In July 1989, executives forecast the council would end the fiscal year with net income of $100,000. Three months later, they expected only to break even. Three months after that, AWCI Director of Administration Ann Williams calculated the council was in the red by $69,000.
The problem was, AWCI couldn’t just shut down the Asbestos Abatement Council. About 25 percent of AWCI’s membership was part of it.
Parting ways. On Jan. 21, 1990, the AWCI executive committee debated what to do. The meeting at the Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami began at 8:05 a.m. President Brady presided. The executive committee discussed briefly the current year’s audit. Then, Lloyd Fox, the Asbestos Abatement Council executive director, joined the meeting.
For several hours, Fox and the members of AWCI’s executive committee reviewed the Asbestos Abatement Council’s performance—its high points and low points, its needs and concerns. Eventually, the discussion turned to “the relationship between AWCI and AAC,” the minutes state.
“I need to know what AWCI is planning for its future,” Fox said.
“The concept is to wind up with one umbrella association with several industry segments,” Brady replied.
“But what are the leaders of the various segments supposed to do?” Fox asked.
“Feed information through AWCI’s technical committees—ideas as to how AWCI can provide services,” Brady said. “And they develop their membership.”
Fox then asked the executive committee to consider the council’s potential. Despite its financial woes, registrations for the council’s 1990 World Congress IV were up two-fold from the prior year, 293 attendees had pre-paid and 1,000 were expected at the event. “We must be a family that likes its relatives,” Fox said.
Brady agreed; the Asbestos Abatement Council deserved to fit in. However, it was creating staff friction, and it was behaving independently.
Fox admitted: “All the AAC wants is to be left alone.”
Brady was frustrated. It was getting close to noon, and most of the morning had been spent hashing out the Asbestos Abatement Council’s problems. It was time for a decision. Fox was excused. Brady turned to the rest of the executive committee.
“Fox’s message was loud and clear,” he said. “The AAC is environmentally driven, and they want to be left alone.”
“The committee is postponing the inevitable,” said William A. Bell, AWCI secretary. “AAC doesn’t fit in.”
Bell called for AWCI and the council to part ways. AWCI First Vice President Steven J. Watkins agreed. Fisher, AWCI’s treasurer, advocated “a complete divorce.” The decision was made. The Asbestos Abatement Council was out.
Later that afternoon, the executives addressed another money problem. AWCI owned an office building with a poorly constructed parking lot (garbage trucks could not even use it to reach the trash bins), cracks in the exterior brick and a revolving door of tenants. This was 1600 Cameron St., Alexandria, Va.
The Recovery Plan. Owning a building meant dealing with a bank. In March 1991, AWCI’s bank wanted $100,000 of additional collateral to meet its loan requirement. AWCI’s executive committee discussed the situation. AWCI had $150,000 in certificates of deposit and a $50,000 deposit account at the bank. So, was additional collateral really needed?
It was true that AWCI’s asset base had fallen, and this may have been a bank concern. Whereas AWCI had $596,000 in receivables on June 30, 1990, the receivables had shrunk to $139,000 by Feb. 28, 1991.
On the other side of the ledger, the association owed money to two printers and needed to cut refund checks to exhibitors who had sent in deposits for the now defunct Asbestos Abatement Council and its canceled 1991 World Congress V.
“The association is in a particular crunch now, and there is no cushion,” said Robert F. Watkins, AWCI treasurer, at an October 1991 executive committee meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii. “It is cash starved.”
To help with short-term cash flow, AWCI’s Continuing Study Council suggested the association borrow from its members. The program was called “The Recovery Plan.”
Some AWCI board members had already pledged money. At the board meeting in the fall of 1991 in Newport, Rhode Island, members pledged $130,000 in loans, board minutes state. Even the Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry kicked in a $100,000 loan, AWCI documents show.
“Yes, the association was going broke,” said McNulty Bros. President Joseph Feldner, AWCI’s convention committee chairman and a member of the board. Feldner was present in Newport to make a pledge on behalf of McNulty Bros. “We were asked to contribute in $10,000 increments.”
In January 1992, AWCI solicited its members at large to make loans of $5,000 at 10 percent interest on the principal. The loans would be repaid once the Alexandria office building was sold.
“You can’t get 10 percent interest anywhere, so this is a good deal,” AWCI Executive Director Joe M. Baker Jr. told the membership in the January 1992 issue of Directly for Directors newsletter.
Notes from a January 1992 executive committee meeting show that the bank was still concerned about the loan covenant. It required an assets-to-liabilities ratio of 1 to 1, but AWCI’s ratio was now 0.6 to 1. The association was too highly leveraged.
“The only thing to prevent a collision with the bank is the sale of the building,” said Steven Watkins. He motioned that authority be given to President Michael R. Boyd and Treasurer Robert F. Watkins to select a real estate agent. The motion carried.
Feldner said that Bell, who succeed Boyd as AWCI president, sold the Cameron Street building sometime during his 1992–1993 term. All members who had made loans under the recovery plan got their money back, Feldner said.
Streamlining. Steven A. Etkin attended the executive committee meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 1995, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel in Boston. The new executive vice president and CEO would officially begin work on Oct. 23, 1995.
AWCI President Tom McCartney was delighted to have Etkin on board. With consulting experience and nine years at the American Institute of Architects, Etkin had the ideal background to serve AWCI’s members. McCartney and the executive committee were eager to get working on projects. After Joe Baker Jr. retired in March 1992, three people had occupied the executive director’s chair. Two from staff served as co-executive directors—Gary McKenzie, AWCI chief financial officer, and Judy Peck, AWCI director of marketing and conventions. Afterward, Marshall Besch was chief staff executive for slightly more than a year.
Etkin arrived with a strong sense of direction. True, he wasn’t much for cozy, chatty talk like the prior executive vice president Baker. Etkin was more soft-spoken. He was comfortable saying little. He lived in a historic home in Arlington, Va., and that would get him talking. But, overall, Etkin was someone who set agendas, structured tasks and wrote correspondence with an economy of words. He didn’t need to say much to affect big ideas. And Etkin’s big idea for AWCI was to simplify.
On this point, McCartney and Etkin were alike. McCartney had initiated a streamlining program for the association. He reduced the number of AWCI committees in the hopes of boosting member involvement. When Stephen R. Baker, president of Baker Drywall Co. Inc., Dallas, became AWCI president in 1996, he, too, hoped to continue the streamlining process. Baker applauded McCartney’s move as a “revitalization” of the association, he told AWCI’s Construction Dimensions.
For his part, Etkin restructured AWCI Committee Week. He renamed it the Industry Leaders’ Conference. Instead of focusing solely on committee meetings, the Industry Leaders’ Conference would be a true executive’s conference, a cannot-miss educational event of forecasting sessions, featured speakers and information targeting wall and ceiling issues. About 100 enthusiastic construction industry leaders attended the first Industry Leaders’ Conference, Oct. 3–5, 1996, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The program included sessions on retirement planning, succession planning and the future-looking “Changes in Construction Markets.”
At the same conference, Baker enacted his vision of change. “A basic aspect of the revitalization of the committees has been empowering them to accomplish their tasks,” Baker told AWCI’s Construction Dimensions.
In Rancho Mirage, Baker’s efforts had results. The AWCI awards committee, for example, acted decisively. They pruned the association’s awards program. Whereas AWCI had a plethora of awards—The Pinnacle Award, The J.D. McNulty Award, the Young Member Achievement Award, AWCI’s Supplier Member of the Year, AWCI’s Outstanding Committee Chairman, the Outstanding Regional Chairman, the Unsung Hero Award and more—the awards committee reduced the count to the most important.
The Pinnacle Award remained. The Excellence in Construction Award, which became AWCI’s Excellence in Construction Quality Award, was introduced. And, in 1998, AWCI’s Excellence in Construction Safety Award was added. AWCI would also give from time to time the President’s Award for individual outstanding achievement on behalf of the industry.
The new awards structure set a high standard for member contractors, suppliers and manufacturers. The first award for project excellence, in 1997, featured the 100,000-square-foot concourse addition to Columbia Airport, Columbia, S.C. The second, in 1998, recognized the work done at Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Northern California—1.5 million square feet of drywall, 200,000 square feet of acoustical ceilings, 5,000 square feet of wood ceilings, 30,000 bags of fireproofing.
Suddenly, the industry was abuzz over the high-profile awards competition. Proud companies wanted to win the AWCI award for their projects. Simplification had boosted industry excitement—and AWCI’s brand awareness.
$1 million reserve. As the 1990s ended, AWCI’s financial troubles were in the past. The association turned to building out its education programs. AWCI produced Spanish-language handbooks and safety manuals. It planned two-day Academy seminars for the year 2000. It produced new EIFS education videos and rewrote the 150-page EIFS workbook. Now, industry mechanics could receive EIFS education while they studied at home. In April 2000, both the seminar and self-study program were renamed EIFS—Doing It Right (later a registered trademark).
AWCI started the decade with a $125,000 budget deficit. By November 1997, the balance sheet showed $1.5 million in financial assets. In April 1998, the general reserve fund topped $1 million. The goal of the 1985 Lifetime membership program had been reached.
During the 1990s, many people made lasting contributions to the health and vibrancy of AWCI. These include several energetic presidents and other self-directed individuals.
Steven J. Watkins of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was AWCI president, 1990–1991. Watkins had a long career with AWCI, including participating in AWCI’s Young Executives Council in the early 1980s. He was AWCI’s Outstanding Committee Chairman in 1986. As president, Watkins worked closely with international unions, signing milestone agreements with four unions in December 1990.
Watkins believed in surrounding himself with a team having diverse points of view. “Your way is not the only way, and it’s also not necessarily the best way,” Watkins told AWCI’s Construction Dimension in 2015. “Keep an open mind. Act like a sponge as you take in new ideas.” Watkins received the 1995 Pinnacle Award, AWCI’s most prestigious and elite honor.
Michael R. Boyd of Garland, Texas, was AWCI president, 1991–1992. Boyd and his brother, Pat (2002–2003 AWCI president and 2013 Pinnacle Award winner), grew up around construction, and started working for their parents at age 11. Boyd won AWCI’s Outstanding Young Member award in 1975. He served on numerous AWCI committees, frequently as committee chairman. Boyd was instrumental in developing AWCI’s highly successful EIFS education and certificate program and served for a time as chairman of AWCI’s EIFS Curriculum Committee. Boyd received the Pinnacle Award in 2001.
William A. Bell, chief executive officer of Grayhawk Corporation, Lexington, Ky., was AWCI president, 1992–1993. He was his high school basketball team’s “flashy little guard,” Construction Dimensions said. He had a “special brand of enthusiasm.” In 1967, Bell bought Drywall Inc., ran the business from his garage and built it quickly into a $6 million operation. Bell diversified into commercial drywall, metal framing, insulation, acoustical tile and panel fabrication.
Bell chaired the AWCI Convention Committee and was 1985 Outstanding Regional Chairman. He received the J. D. McNulty Award in 1987, for his work with prefabrication. In 1997, Bell received the Pinnacle Award, AWCI’s top honor.
James Mark Cassidy, owner and president of Cassidy Brothers Inc., Rosemont, Ill., was AWCI president, 1993–1994. He partnered with his father in the early 1970s. Cassidy Brothers did the interior plastering work on high-profile projects such as Chicago’s Sears Tower (now Willis Tower).
Cassidy promoted the industry tirelessly. He was president of the Gypsum Drywall Contractors of Northern Illinois, president of the Construction Employers Association, chairman of the Joint Conference Board of Cook County and founder of the Chicagoland Construction Safety Council. Cassidy received AWCI’s Pinnacle Award in 1988.
Michael L. Chambers, president of J & B Acoustical, Mansfield, Ohio, was AWCI president, 1994–1995. Born into a family of lathers, Chambers’ father, Donald J. Chambers (1977 AWCI president and 1990 Pinnacle Award winner), started J&B Acoustical in a barn on June 9, 1957. Chambers started working for the company when he was 8 years old and, at age 31, took over as president. He was voted AWCI’s Outstanding Young Member in 1983.
Chambers is known for having served on many AWCI committees, for community and civic involvement and for his leadership. “It will not surprise me if you hear the words integrity, loyalty, compassionate, generous, and yes, funny, when other people describe him,” said Chambers’ wife, Carol. “He can be the toughest guy I know and the most gentle.” Chambers received the 2009 Pinnacle Award.
Thomas J. McCartney, president of T. J. McCartney Inc., Hollis, N.H., was AWCI president, 1995–1996. A former U.S. Marine fighter pilot who flew carrier jets, McCartney believed that AWCI membership was profitable. “We’re a good example of what an association can bring to a small company,” McCartney said. “[AWCI] puts us on a par with the big guys.”
As president, McCartney turned AWCI’s conventions into all-inclusive trade show events. He led the way in enhancing AWCI’s technical reputation by producing many manuals, seminars and education programs for the association.
Stephen R. Baker, president and CEO of Baker Triangle Company, Dallas, was AWCI president, 1996–1997. Baker has been an AWCI member since 1983 and, when appointed president, had 16 years with the American Subcontractors Association. “What we must do is continue operating as a business,” Baker said as president. He called for “new and fresh ideas that adapt to the changing needs of our members.” Baker received the Pinnacle Award in 2010.
R. Gabe Reitter II, president of Reitter Wall Systems in Columbus, Ohio, was AWCI president, 1997–1998. Reitter believed the industry’s single greatest challenge was maintaining a high quality end-product in a low-margin business. “You can’t cut down your quality and say, ‘Everyone else bids it this way, so I’ve got to bid it that way,’” he said. Reitter’s solution to work quality was to invest in quality people. “You’ve got to be people-minded and make sure you have a strong, seasoned, trained workforce,” he said.
Reitter received AWCI’s Pinnacle Award in 2003.
Mark E. Nabity, president of Grayhawk Corporation, Lexington, Ky., was AWCI president, 1998–1999. Nabity helped Grayhawk grow its prefabricated EIFS panel operations but credited much of his company’s success to AWCI. “The money we’ve spent on the organization we’ve gotten back many times over,” Nabity said. “We’ve been able to pick up work by networking with other AWCI members, and AWCI has provided industry training not available anywhere else.”
Nabity received AWCI’s Young Member Achievement Award in 1991. He was a contributing author of the Foundation’s “Light Gage Steel Framing Primer: A Guide to Understanding and Application,” released in 1992. In 2000, Nabity received AWCI’s Pinnacle Award.
Robert Geyer of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, was AWCI president, 1999–2000. Geyer was vice president at Grabber, the first manufacturer and non-contractor to serve on AWCI’s executive committee and AWCI’s first manufacturer and non-contractor to become president. He also received AWCI’s Pinnacle Award in 2008. “I live and breathe this industry,” he said. “I can’t think of anything I don’t like about it.”
As AWCI president, Geyer focused on membership. He created a membership staff position and urged suppliers to recruit. “We have to find ways to reach out to smaller contractors,” Geyer said.
Other key players.
Joseph A. Feldner was president of McNulty Brothers Company, Chicago. Feldner was AWCI Convention Committee Chairman for five years. He served on AWCI’s board of directors in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, representing the Great Lakes Conference (later the Mid-Central Conference) and as a contractor at large. Feldner was a pro-union contractor who continues to negotiate contracts for Chicago union plasterers, carpenters and the tapers and painters. He served on the technical committee and the ASTM Subcommittee in the 1970s.
“Just as diamonds are known by their color, cut, clarity and carat weight, AWCI is known by its own four Cs—character, courage, conviction and conscientiousness,” Feldner said during his general session speech at the 1992 convention. “They are the qualities that allow us to reflect on a proud past and to prepare for a prosperous future.”
Feldner won several AWCI Outstanding Regional Chairman Awards. He received the Pinnacle Award in 1983.
Brenton C. Stone joined AWCI in 1990 as advertising manager of Construction Dimensions and immediately reinvigorated relationships with manufacturer members. Along with relaunching the magazine’s media planner and updating promotional campaigns, he launched several new marketing vehicles including AWCI’s Member Products Catalog and the Product and Literature Showcases. The efforts quickly bore fruit with single issue sales records being set nearly every year. By the end of the decade, annual advertising revenue had increased 400 percent. Today, Stone is associate publisher of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions and AWCI’s senior director.
Laura M. Porinchak joined AWCI in June 1993 as editor of Construction Dimensions. In her first year, Porinchak added a new magazine department called “Construction Trends,” which quickly became among the most popular with readers, brought the New Products section to the front of the magazine and redesigned the magazine to distinguish departments from feature stories. She also brought the magazine’s production into the electronic age. In 1993, Porinchak and Stone proposed a heavier magazine cover stock and nearly doubled the magazine’s circulation during the 1990s. Today, Porinchak is editor of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions and AWCI’s director of communications.
Steven A. Etkin, AWCI executive vice president and CEO, took office in 1995. Immediately prior to AWCI, he ran a consulting firm advising construction information services companies. At the American Institute of Architects, Etkin was responsible for its national convention and trade exposition, Masterspec, AIA Online and the industry’s first digital contracts and forms service. When he took office in 1995, AWCI had 800 members and assets of $400,000. In two years, membership grew to 1,000 and assets had ballooned to $1.5 million.
AWCI began the 1990s barely in the black. A Recovery Plan solicited funds from members, paying 10 percent for their money. The loans were repaid after the Alexandria, Va., office building was sold. There was also a changing of the guard. In his 37 years as AWCI’s executive director, Joe Baker Jr. had united plasterers and drywallers and developed opportunities for members in firestop, EIFS and metal framing. Steve Etkin arrived and saw an opportunity to build out AWCI’s publishing efforts, educational programs and technical expertise. The association resolved its money problems during the decade, but new—and terrifying—tests lay just ahead.