Meet Chip McAlpin
AWCI's 2020-2021 president is ready for change.
Don Procter / July 2020
Chip McAlpin is expecting a most unusual year in his role as the new president of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry. Difficult times lie ahead for many, and while the wall and ceiling industry can’t recover the last few months of production lost because of COVID-19, the 49-year-old is optimistic that member contractors and the construction industry in general will bounce back.
“Everything won’t be normal. There will be different and perhaps better ways of doing things,” says McAlpin, who took over the AWCI reigns from Nancy Brinkerhoff on July 1.
But the division president of the Jackson, Miss., and Louisiana offices of F.L. Crane & Sons says the new normal will bring a number of positives to AWCI members and the construction industry as a whole.
One of those positives is a shift to better sanitation on construction sites. More employers realize that sites with higher sanitation standards are most apt to attract and retain workers. “The temporary restrooms and wash stations we see now are definitely better than they were before the coronavirus, and that should continue after it is gone. It would be a plus not just for our members but for the whole construction industry,” he says.
McAlpin also thinks that the outbreak that spawned a world of physical distancing could advance an agenda that could improve production for many contractors—the deployment of only one worker per task. “We (F.L. Crane and other contractors) have been trying to prove for some time that if two people are working together on one task, at some point one of those workers is not doing anything. The social distancing rules since the virus arrived point to the advantage of one man per task,” he says. There will always be scenarios where pairs of workers are essential and not all AWCI members will place the same value on the one worker per task approach.
The 25-year veteran of F.L. Crane sees another lesson learned from the virus: opportunities for AWCI member contractors—particularly large ones—to build on the prefabrication, panelization and modularization markets. An example is prefabricated partition walls that make up cubicles in field hospitals and other special-use temporary health care and emergency structures. “If this (virus) is around for a couple of years, I wouldn’t be surprised that our industry could mobilize to build a lot of these,” McAlpin says.
During slow economic times, governments might look to stockpile prefabricated cubicles and other emergency-use products to prepare for future health crises, he adds. That could be a new market for some of AWCI’s members. This would help the sector build a reputation as an “essential industry” during times of crisis and make it an attractive career option for more young people.
Looking to his year ahead at AWCI, McAlpin hopes that his job description will include the travel across the country—and possibly abroad—to AWCI chapter events, member firms and other partners.. While health and safety issues in the United States could reign in some of the usual presidential duties, he stresses the importance of hearing different industry perspectives from members across the nation. “I don’t know how well a Southerner like me will fit in in places like New York City, but I am really interested in meeting members there and learning from them,” McAlpin says.
He is confident that AWCI’s Convention & Intex Expo, April 10–14, 2021, in New Orleans will be one of the association’s best, partly to make up for the fact that this year’s convention and trade show were canceled due to COVID-19, and only segments could be presented online. “More importantly,” McAlpin says, “is for the 2021 convention to be a reminder to attendees on what they missed the year prior. If you let people think that they got through the year without going to the convention, they might think they don’t need to go the next year. We need to change that thought and really prove that the convention is hugely beneficial for our members.”
Networking, education and the trade show are key elements to making a successful convention. “I always like going to the trade show and looking at new products, and essentially you could go next year and see two years of new stuff, making up for the missed convention last year. That should be a draw,” he says.
After poring over old issues of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions and other AWCI archives recently, McAlpin was surprised to learn that many of the issues and concerns of members today such as training and skilled labor shortages were problems 15 years ago. “I guess I knew we had those issues back then, but it is hard to believe that we haven’t fixed them today,” he says.
He reminds members that AWCI offers numerous educational courses and now while the construction activity is hampered by the virus, it might be an opportune time for contractors to enroll their employees in a course or two. Along with the Doing It Right programs, the association provides a project manager development program, webinars and a host of other courses in professional skills development. “I hope we don’t see a second wave of the virus but if we do,” McAlpin says, “I hope many of you take advantage of some of these offerings on www.awci.org.”
McAlpin sees continued diversification as important to the industry. Market development of architectural exterior metal paneling is a prime example. He recalls about 15 years ago when “low-end” metal siding products were commonplace, but now more owners are willing to spend a little more for architectural paneling. At F.L. Crane, the shift to the new panel systems partly stemmed from the slowing EIFS market. “We were able to take those EIFS guys and teach them how to do this,” he says.
Training Is Important
Seeing the silver lining in a dark cloud is nothing new for progressive companies. “You have to stay open-minded and look for new ideas and be ready to evolve with the times,” he says.
McAlpin is amazed at the role technology has played in the sector in recent years. F.L. Crane’s use of BIM, 3D modeling and robotic layouts has been seminal to the company’s growth. “When you can go into a room and know (see) what it will look like with a pair of (virtual reality) goggles before any material has been purchased, that is saying a lot,” he says. “You expect the video game industry to have that ability, but you don’t expect it from the construction industry.”
As important as technology is in-house training, says McAlpin, who has been charged with heading his company’s Crane College, a three-step program providing training for everyone from new hires to jobsite foremen. F.L. Crane is no stranger to organized training, but in 2017 it took a big step forward opening up the college, which was developed with assistance from Marek, an AWCI member partner.
The college curriculum covers in-class and on-the-job training that employees are required to complete. As employees move through Crane College, their rate of pay increases. Better pay and training are strong factors in employee retention. “We definitely needed it, and our whole industry needs it,” says McAlpin.
A Little Background
AWCI’s new president, who graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi with a degree in construction engineering technology before taking employment at F.L. Crane 25 years ago, says long-time industry members like Mike Heering, AWCI’s 2006–2007 president and president of F.L. Crane until his retirement (after more than 46 years) in September 2019, have been instrumental in guiding him forward in his career. And he sees a young crop of new people coming into the industry as a welcome addition. “They offer a different perspective,” he says. “We can learn from each other.”
Away from the job, McAlpin has seen his hobbies change as he and his wife Shea have watched their three daughters grow. At one time an avid hunter and fisherman, the father of three teenagers—Anna Grace, Sydney and Mailey—has taken to family activities such as “cheer competitions,” something he never thought he would have come to enjoy as much as he does. “It’s not what I was brought up with,” he says.
As for friends, he says the industry has proven a place to develop long-term friendships: “Some of my customers have also become my good friends.”
McAlpin says he is looking forward to using his year as AWCI’s president to lead the association and guide the industry as everyone adjusts to new ways of doing business after the pandemic. He is optimistic about being able to reconnect—in person—with old industry friends as well as make new friends, and he is excited to face head-on the challenges and opportunities that are yet to come.
Don Procter is a freelance writer in Ontario, Canada.