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Meet Johnny Barnes, AWCI’s New Leader

AWCI’s new president is passionate about the next generation, prefab and family

As the new president of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, Johnny Barnes has a full slate but he embraces the challenges and comes prepared with a wealth of industry experience.

Barnes embarked on his professional journey in 1984, refining his craft in estimating for a mid-size drywall contractor in central Texas. His dedication and proficiency soon propelled him to Dallas, where he broadened his horizons with another mid-size contractor. Climbing the ranks from estimator to project manager and beyond, Barnes has dedicated over 28 years to shaping the landscape of the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex, leading two prominent drywall contractors. With four decades of industry acumen, Barnes recently started a new venture, relocating to Florida to launch his own business. Reflecting on his journey, Barnes echoes the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, which he has instilled in his own daughters, that you are never too old to set a new goal, or to dream a new dream.

Careers and Dreams

If there is one thing Barnes is passionate about, it’s mentoring the next generation. Barnes emphasizes the importance of recruiting young people into the industry, not just to help fill the growing void left as aging workers retire, but also to bring new ideas to the field. It is partly why he formed Gainesville, Florida–based TriCoast Building Group, LLC recently with his eldest daughter Corie Patton.

Barnes takes his role as a mentor seriously, priding himself on his efforts to recruit and nurture young talent as they progress through the ranks. “When they succeed, the entire industry benefits,” he says. Among his most cherished memories is an incident from two decades ago when a shop teacher from his daughter’s high school approached him for assistance in obtaining building materials.

“The high school was in the process of establishing a construction apprenticeship program. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of industry partners and a shared commitment to support, donations poured in.”
For a 10-year period and after his children graduated, requests for help continued—a testament to the enduring dedication to shaping futures. “Together with our industry partners, we harnessed the power of community,” he says. “Looking back, it’s clear that many within our industry played a crucial role in laying the foundation for both careers and dreams.”

That experience sparked his interest in recruitment at colleges. Reflecting on his first career fair at Texas A&M University, he recalls his surprise at the scarcity of subcontractors in attendance. “I found myself competing solely with general contractors,” he says. “Yet, it presented an excellent marketing opportunity, enabling me to connect with clients and identify young talent.”

Barnes emphasizes the significance of subcontracting as a promising career path, noting its often-overlooked potential. “Introducing students to the diverse opportunities within the subcontractor community is truly eye-opening,” he says. “By shedding light on the career trajectories and potentials, we help students envision the countless possibilities available to them.”

Since then, he’s attended countless university, college and high school career fairs throughout Texas and Florida employing his recruitment strategy. His efforts have yielded substantial rewards over the years. Barnes recounts the success stories of his recruits, with six now overseeing company divisions and another half dozen ascending to executive positions, steadily climbing the corporate ladder. Additionally, several others have ventured into entrepreneurship, operating their own thriving businesses.

“For me, this is incredibly fulfilling and what life is about. Knowing that I’ve played a small part in helping someone improve their life,” Barnes says, adding the support and mentorship provided by those around him has been integral to making it work. “Others took the time to guide me along the way, and I was fortunate to work for great companies that recognized the importance of skilled labor decades ago.”

At the AWCI’s Build24 convention earlier this year in Florida, Barnes spearheaded the initiative to invite a dozen construction management students from the University of Florida’s Rinker School of Construction Management. Despite their initial unfamiliarity with the field, they left with a newfound appreciation for the field’s dynamism and the opportunities it presents. Barnes explains: “Observing them engage with our industry leaders and forward-thinking innovators, spanning regions and sometimes even international borders, was incredibly motivating. For me, the primary goal isn’t merely to recruit them into our company, but rather to stimulate their interest in joining our trade.”

Prefab for the Win

Barnes sees the value in developing a prefabrication sector in the field. In 2014, along with the Nevell Group, Barnes played a key role in introducing exterior prefabrication to HCA Healthcare and its benefits for their projects. Today, HCA incorporates exterior prefabrication into most of their construction projects.

“It’s advantageous for drywall contractors nationwide to establish prefab shops,” Barnes says. “With this setup, exterior framing panels can be produced more efficiently, requiring fewer workers and ensuring a safer work environment. Additionally, there’s a growing trend in interior prefabrication, including quarter racks, corridor walls, OR ceilings and pods, which directly tackles the ongoing worker shortage issues.”

Prefabrication has expanded to encompass other commercial and institutional sectors, such as higher education, K–12 schools and hotels. With many states grappling with affordable housing shortages, could prefab offer a crucial solution? Barnes believes it could. Furthermore, he sees potential for AWCI residential contractors to contribute pre-assembled elements, thus raising the prefab standard.

While Barnes places his faith in the ingenuity and drive of young professionals within the industry to pioneer innovative approaches, he also emphasizes the indispensable role of experienced workers in driving change in construction practices. He advises against underestimating any member of the staff to ensure the smooth operation of a business.

“People may not fully grasp the extent of the work they contribute,” Barnes says. “Roles such as project managers, estimators, superintendents and safety personnel are able to excel in their responsibilities because of the support provided by administrative staff. Understanding the intricacies of material procurement, delivery logistics and invoicing processes is essential to appreciating their value. It’s crucial to me that every team member feels equally recognized for their contributions.”

Pet Projects

Barnes has played a significant role in a multitude of high-profile projects throughout his career. Among those one standout project is the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. Barnes recalls his team’s involvement in creating a complex convex and concave ceiling, a task that demanded thousands of precise layout points to design. “It was a unique challenge that our team tackled head-on 12 years ago, at a time when robotic point layouts were just beginning to gain traction. The result was nothing short of spectacular.”

Another project close to Barnes’ heart is Kyle Field, the iconic football stadium at Texas A&M University in College Station, completed in 2015. The project presented a formidable test for the team, with its fast-track timeline and intricate scheduling requirements. “The sheer scale of the project, coupled with its expansive footprint and myriad walls and renovations, posed significant challenges,” he says. “Despite the complexities and inefficiencies inherent in the process, it remains one of the most demanding yet rewarding projects I’ve ever been a part of.”

Today’s construction world faces some unique challenges, and high interest rates have led to project delays and cancellations, adding strain to the industry. Another factor that could impact the sector is the outcome of the federal election in November. Barnes wishes that today’s politicians were less combative and more willing to sit down and have a dialogue in a civilized fashion.

The new AWCI president says he feels “very blessed” to have found fulfillment in his career. Echoing the timeless wisdom of Confucius, he says the importance of pursuing one’s passion is a principle he has instilled in his children and mentees alike: “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Reflecting on the industry’s impact, Barnes acknowledges its immense contributions not only to his own life but also to his family and countless others. With a heartfelt sentiment, he underscores the potential of industry to enrich lives and shape the world for the better. “We have an industry of extremely talented tradespeople who build these incredibly complicated projects. … I am happy to have chosen this career,” he says.

When off the job Barnes and his wife Donna enjoy visiting their children and grandchildren, and indulging in their shared passion of traveling the world. Married to Donna for four decades, Barnes cherishes family above all else. With three daughters—Corie (Emery) Patton in Florida, Kelli (Matt) Fritsch and Randi (Zach) Dickson in central Texas—and six grandchildren, family remains their cornerstone. Whether cheering on their grandchildren at various activities or simply spending quality time together, the Barnes family finds joy and fulfillment in each other’s company.

Don Procter is a freelance writer in Ontario, Canada.

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