AWCI’s incoming president, Scott Casabona, is president and CEO of Sloan & Company, a large New Jersey–based drywall contractor celebrating its 50th year in business. With offices in West Caldwell, N.J., the contractor was founded as an acoustic ceiling company when drywall and ceilings were largely performed by separate contractors. As the industry evolved, the company’s clients increasingly wanted a one-stop-shop contractor. Diversification came not just with a move into drywall, but eventually into custom millwork—a smart move for a number of reasons.
While millwork represents only about 15 to 20 percent of the company’s overall portfolio, it has proven to be one of the best ways to get the company noticed. Millwork is visual and can be very striking—even a small millwork job can have a huge impact on someone’s impression of a company. “You can do a 40-story building and it’s just repetitive walls,” says Casabona, “but when you put a reception desk in the lobby everybody says, ‘Wow!’”
Today, the contractor works in such sectors as pharmaceutical, medical, educational, financial and high-rise residential primarily in New Jersey. It employs an office staff of about 30 and about 240 tradespeople. In boom times that number was closer to 600 tradespeople.
Casabona, 52, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and landed his first job in his early 20s at a large multi-national construction management company specializing in transportation. Several years later a light went on and his career path changed directions. While supervising a railroad project that included construction of a train maintenance building, he realized he enjoyed building construction much more than heavy construction. “The finish trades made such a visual impact on me that I knew I’d be happier in building construction than heavy highway and civil construction,” he says.
He was hired as an estimator for Sloan & Company in 1988. Five years later, as New Jersey’s economy slumped, Casabona left Sloan for a New York City–based drywall contractor. Along with a booming economy in New York, the glitz and glamour of life in the Big Apple was a draw. In 1998 he came back to work for Sloan, taking over the project management group as vice president of operations. When then-president and company founder Peter Shanley retired in 2002, Casabona was appointed president and CEO of Sloan, a post he has held since.
Casabona says the job is anything but predictable or routine, which is largely why he likes it so much. And while the industry is a challenging one, it is also rewarding. “Every day is different. I come to my office, check my emails, phone messages and the day can turn on a dime. That’s what makes it fun. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says.
No stranger to AWCI involvement, Casabona has been active in the association for more than 10 years. This year as president, he expects to meet many contractors across the country: “I will be travelling a lot more and getting a chance to get to know others in the industry, not only through my time at AWCI’s Convention & Intex Expo or AWCI’s Industry Executives’ Conference & Committee Meetings, but also through my travels from state to state to visit various chapters. It is a chance to really promote what AWCI has to offer them.”
Let’s learn more from and about AWCI’s new president in the interview that continues below.
AWCI: Tell us more about that goal: reaching out to member companies of the AWCI and why it is important to you.
Casabona: The subcontracting world is very fragmented—full of small and mid-size companies that are either very localized or regional. The top 10 manufacturers of many other industries represent a much larger segment of their industry than the top 10 contractors do in the wall and ceiling industry. I don’t think we’re going to change that, and I don’t think it is actually a bad thing because you do have small companies that can model their business on their philosophies, and those of their clients.
There is a downside though. It is challenging to reach so many different companies. But a key benefit to belonging to the AWCI is that these smaller companies can tap into the multitude of resources provided by the association. These are the types of resources normally only much larger firms would be able to provide for themselves.
Consequently, one of my goals this year as president of the AWCI is to get the message to small and mid-size companies that their participation in the association will net them positive returns. That doesn’t mean they have to get involved on an executive committee or committee level or even as a director. By just attending some of the events including educational seminars and networking with people gives them a great opportunity to gain from the resources of the AWCI. I just think there is so much there that people could take advantage of that they aren’t taking advantage of now.
As the economy gets back up on its feet, how do you see things shaping up for our industry in your region and elsewhere?
While the economy in New Jersey is behind the pace of neighboring New York City and Philadelphia, I see relief coming. A tell-tale sign comes from our estimating department, which has been busier than it has been for years. We should reap benefits in six to 12 months from now.
Profit margins remain tight throughout the industry in New Jersey and many regions of the nation. Still, there is an air of optimism I’m hearing around here anyway. That wasn’t the case a couple of years ago.
What are the big issues facing contractors across the country?
When I talk to contractors in the Southwestern states, immigration (undocumented workers) and a lack of skilled workers are big, but they are not factors in the Northeast. Here we’re more concerned with the overall business climate—tax policy and erroneous regulations, for example. Those are some of the things that are forcing industry and businesses to leave the state. That has a detrimental impact on job creation and ultimately impacts new construction.
From a national perspective, as the Pension Protection Act is about to expire, a big concern is unfunded pension liability of multi-employer pension plans. As a contractor, having this liability hanging over our head causes some uncertainty. Although no one is sure how much of a liability it is, it’s the type of thing that weighs heavily on the business. My hat goes off to the AWCI for taking an active role with a coalition of employer and labor groups in the United States to find solutions that will help everyone.
What technological changes should the industry be paying special attention to?
One of the big technological shifts that wall and ceiling contractors can greatly benefit from is robotics layout or total station layouts with GPS coordinates. The move, which has already gained traction, will replace traditional methods of laying out walls with tape measures, pencils and chalklines. It’s more like a survey crew with a total station mounted to a tripod, a rod man and a prism and a laser used as tools to precisely mark points. I think that’s going to be the norm on how we lay out projects in the future.
Along with saving time, I see total station layouts as a means of improving job coordination and eliminating potential mistakes. While it is uncommon in the drywall world in New Jersey at this point, I see it coming soon. You have to find the right project to roll it out on. We have one in-house now that we are going to experiment with.
What about BIM and the drywall contractor?
Sloan has worked on a few BIM projects, but there is a still a huge learning curve for the interior trades. BIM is very prevalent in the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and even structural, but it is really just starting to trickle down to the interior-architectural trades.
While construction managers and owners want interior finishing contractors to participate in BIM, they aren’t sure what they want us to do yet. I have customers say, ‘We want you to do BIM on this job’ and I say, ‘OK, what is it you want us to do?’ And they reply, ‘You know—BIM.’”
Where do you stand on the rapid evolution of communications technology?
The leap in communications technology over the past decade or so comes with good and bad points. Emails, text messages, collaboration websites are great tools and they make us more productive; we can share more information with more individuals. At the same time though, the technology has taken a lot of the personal contact out of the business, which makes it harder to develop meaningful relationships with customers and peers.
Everybody wants to email you or text you, and we’ve lost that face time with people.
Why should face time be important?
Because it is more difficult to build personal relationships without it. Those relationships can be vital in certain situations such as where problems develop on a job site that requires collaboration to find creative solutions. Sometimes the lack of having a relationship makes it hard to find the solution.
Finding a way to make sure key personnel meet in person with clients and other contractors they work with is part of our business philosophy at Sloan. It’s for good reason because roughly a dozen of our customers—representing 80 percent of our business—are repeat clients. Part of delivering superior service to those customers is being available, being out on the job site, listening to their concerns and taking those issues back to the office to find solutions.
At 52, I’m part of a generation that grew up talking to people on the phone or in person. More young people today are used to electronic communication, and not all of them are quite as comfortable with face-to-face communication.
What other issues concern you?
The proposed new rules concerning crystalline silica put forth by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. If the new rules pass into legislation, they will dramatically lower the allowable exposure threshold for construction workers, and they will have an impact on almost every contractor working in any type of construction to comply with these rules.
The rules could create a significant burden on drywall contractors. Because exposure to silica dust is linked to respiratory ailments including lung cancer, wall and ceiling contractors will require increased respiratory protection equipment, and there will be restrictions on working in certain areas. There might even be a level of protection we would have to provide with special clothing or suits to prevent our workers from transporting silica dust from the job site to their home. Although other contractors might be creating the silica dust—such as a contractor cutting or chipping concrete, we will have to protect our employees from it.
National groups, including AWCI, are working with OSHA to clarify, redefine points in the new legislation or retract it all together.
Successorship planning: How important is it?
As a union contractor, Sloan & Company sees a readily available pool of workers from labor halls throughout the region. The same could be said for many contractors in the Northeast. However, down the road, things might be different. How to get young people into the trade will be a challenge in the next five or so years when many current tradespeople start to retire.
Can you tell us a bit about your family and life away from the job?
I have been married to Anna for 22 years. We have two grown children, Michael, 20, and Lauren, 18. Neither of them plans to follow in my footsteps. Michael is finance major with plans to work as an investment banker on Wall Street, while Lauren, the creative one in the family, plans to major in film and television with emphasis on film production.
When I’m not working, I spend a lot of time with my family at our vacation house in Cape May, N.J., three hours from our home in Northwest New Jersey. It seems like our life has revolved around going to work and going to the beach. Next year when both our kids are in college and the house feels empty, my wife and I are going to have to find some other hobbies.