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Give Comes Before Receive

Burke Nicholson, CEO of Bayside Interiors in Fremont, Calif., became president of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry on July 1. His company has been a member of the association since 1986. Throughout his membership, Nicholson has served on many AWCI committees and the AWCI board of directors, as well as the boards of the Northern California Drywall Contractors Association and the Bay Area American Subcontractors Association.

CD: How would you describe the state of the industry at present?

BN: Healthy and getting better, but subject to change! Having just come from our AWCI convention and trade show, we heard that most of the markets around the country are very optimistic. We received notice last week that we are going on gypsum board allocation. Although it makes our lives more difficult, it’s sometimes a little easier: If you can procure board, you’re in a better bargaining position. I’m almost afraid to pick up the newspapers because something might happen to spoil the growth! We’re all affected by oil prices, steel prices interest rates and Iraq. If it weren’t for all these events I’d be very optimistic. As it is, I guess you’d say I’m cautiously optimistic.

Other than that, I see one key issue: the quality of trained workers, which definitely includes supervisors at the general contractor level—the increasing lack of training for GC’s superintendents means we are being expected to help run the jobs and coordinate other trades. The way I see us dealing with the issue is to be more proactive in telling our story in high schools, junior colleges and even colleges. We need to convince people that a career in construction can be an excellent choice, which pays higher than many other jobs.

We must continue to improve our image at all levels of the marketplace. We have to promote the idea that there is great satisfaction in being part of our industry. We feel pride driving by buildings knowing that we’ve had a hand in creating something that is not only of lasting value but very attractive and functional.

CD: Indeed. What do you plan for AWCI to be doing along this line?

BN: Obviously, I want to maintain the fine image we have in the construction industry. Our goal is to increase communication to all our members, and explore new ways of responding to their needs. I see this as a big challenge because we represent both union and non-union contractors, suppliers/distributors and manufacturers in the United States, Canada and other parts of the world. On the union side, we can be very supportive of the existing apprenticeship programs. I would encourage the union contractors to be very proactive with the unions in establishing a curriculum that not only trains apprentices but deals with journeyman upgrades and supervisory training.

From the open shop side, it’s more difficult. They have to train in-house and that’s a challenge. If a company spends big dollars for training, there is no guarantee that the apprentice is going to work for them after completing the training program.

CD: Looking then at current or impending legislative, governmental or regulatory initiatives, do you see any that are going to be impacting AWCI members in the next year?

BN: Yes, retention and indemnity clauses. We feel that the current rate of 10 percent held for retention causes an undue burden on the subcontractor. Through AWCI and ASA (American Subcontractors Association) we’re trying to reduce the rate to 5 percent, or the same retention agreement that the general contractor has with the owner. In some cases, the GC is holding 10 percent from us, but he’s only having 5 percent withheld from him.

Regarding the indemnity clauses, in California we call them “Type One Indemnity Clauses.” They state, if lawyers can prove a drywall or plastering subcontractor is even 1 percent at fault, we have to pay the burden of the whole claim. Type One Indemnity Clauses impact the subcontractor in a very negative way by driving up insurance costs. All we want is proper allocation of risk.

CD: Very fair. How is AWCI going to be dealing with these issues under your guidance?

BN: Politically we’ll be working with legislators, being aware of what is happening and working with other trade associations like ASA, who share the same problems. The more we work together, the greater our chances of success.

CD: There’s not really much the individual membership can do except hope that you win the battle?

BN: That’s why you become part of an association: to become bigger, stronger, smarter!

CD: That’s a key phrase! How would you describe the way AWCI has evolved over the years from your perspective?

BN: While our roots date back to 1918, the current organization was formed in the 1970s with the merger of the drywallers and the plasterers. AWCI overcame financial difficulties in the mid-1990s, becoming a financially sound association. I’ve seen what I consider the giants of this industry be willing to give up their time, talent and money, resulting in an absolutely terrific organization. AWCI does everything it can to be active in the services it provides to its members, but reactive when it becomes aware of member needs.

Currently, AWCI hosts a wonderful trade show. It’s an opportunity to meet not only with your colleagues, but also with the material dealers, as well as leaders in manufacturing. We have terrific educational seminars and provide the Academy to educate the “up-and-comers” in our members’ various businesses. We provide Business Forums where we can sit down with our colleagues from various parts of the country and learn “Best Practices” that each of them has developed (including through some real tough years). Sharing experiences helps participants in numerous ways.

AWCI has a Continuing Study Committee whose purpose is to study critical issues within our industry. AWCI publishes the most informative magazine, AWCI’s Construction Dimensions, which has articles every month on management, supervision, safety, estimating and many other industry-related topics. We also have great programs to train applicators and inspectors in the right way to apply and inspect exterior insulation and finish systems. Along with that we have formed an insurance company, AIC, that provides coverage for contractor and supplier members.

Another plus AWCI offers is the “Foundation.” The Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry provides all kinds of technical research libraries. Almost any question can be answered. This valuable information resource is available to all. I was hired for my first job because of my reply to a question the vice president asked me: “What is the most important thing you learned in college?” My answer was, “How little I know, but where I can go to look it up!” He said that was the best answer he had ever heard! I used to know how many shovels of sand it took for a scratch coat and how many shovels for a brown coat and what size shovel you should be using. There’s no way I can tell you that now, but I can go to the Foundation Library and find out!

CD: There are certainly many benefits of membership. What plans do you have for increasing membership even further?

BN: I’m reading a book right now by the man who became CEO of Porsche. He says, “You have to give before you take.” I believe that. I think some people don’t realize that. I think what we have to do is sell the old pet phrase, “You get out of something what you put into it.” But I think it’s more than that, I think you get twice as much out of something as you put into it. Certainly that’s been the case in my experience with AWCI: The more active I became, the more I benefited. That’s sometimes a tough sell to help people realize, particularly in construction business where people tend to be real entrepreneurs, the kind of people who battle through difficulties. We have to sell the idea that there is help here. All you have to do is ask!

Selling the idea comes down to one word: communication. You have to talk to the people in the industry and get the success stories about what they have been able to do because of something that they learned. That’s what we’ll work on selling.

CD: Excellent. What then do you want to see the membership doing to help make AWCI even better?

BN: Participate, participate and participate!

CD: Simple enough. What are your objectives for the association over the next year?

BN: I am going to do everything I can to facilitate the growth of our insurance company. We have a major need to expand it, not only in the states where we can’t offer that package, but in the dollar amount of insurance we can provide. Some of the bigger players need more insurance.

And I want to support the great job that Steve Etkin has been doing as our executive vice president. Recently, he completed putting together a combined convention with AWCI and CISCA (Ceilings & Interior Systems Construction Association) in Long Beach, Calif. Combining the trade shows is going to double the quality of the convention and the educational seminars. It’s also going to save money, because members will only have one convention to attend instead of two, benefiting not only contractors, but suppliers and manufacturers, too.

And finally, AWCI bought and is going to build-out a new office condo as part of a mixed-use project. It’s not an easy project, so our executive board will be deeply involved in choosing the interior design in an effort to showcase the products we represent. It would be folly not to take advantage of this opportunity to express the quality and talent of our contractor members.

CD: We all look forward to that. Any message you would like to communicate to the association’s membership?

BN: Participate and communicate, tell us what you need, get involved, all of the things that apply to any association. It’s the old 80/20 rule, but I would like it to be a 100/0 rule.

CD: Understood. How about telling us about yourself and your career?

BN: I don’t really want to tell people much … I’ve got them convinced I’m fairly young still! I started as a gypsum salesman in Fresno in 1959. I ultimately became regional manager of the Flintkote Company for all of the Western states except Southern California. I spent a lot of time on airplanes! I spent 23 years at Flintkote. I then worked for a drywall contractor as vice president of operations for one-and-a-half years before starting my own company on Feb. 24, 1984. We are a $20 million company with ownership in another company called Bayside Metal Systems, which does struts and access floors. They’re doing very well. We have a great partner in Tim Hogan, president of Bayside Metal Systems.

As for me personally, I play a little golf, that’s about the size of it! We’re a family business. My wife, Norma and our two sons, Michael Nicholson and Steven Rivera, have been active in the business for many years. Recently, our son-in-law, Jean Luc Renson, joined the company to run the painting operation. My ultimate goal would be for one of my grandchildren, boy or girl, to run the company! We’ve expanded our product line—we used to be just a fast-track tenant improvement contractor, now we do painting and acoustical ceilings and the struts and access floors and insulation and all kinds of things. We’re also broadening our geographical area a little bit.

CD: Congratulations. How has your company benefited from its association with AWCI?

BN: Oh, greatly—the ability to network with successful people is priceless. You just can’t go out and buy a book that will give you the hands-on advice that you can get from someone in AWCI who has already had the same problem and solved it.

About the Author

Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based in Clearwater, Fla.

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