AWCI 2021–2022 President Shawn Burnum (left) presents the gavel to AWCI 2022–2023 President Travis Vap.
As the incoming president of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, Travis Vap takes the baton from Shawn Burnum this summer. While the economic path ahead for the country might be unclear, Vap has reason to feel optimistic about the direction AWCI is headed. That is partly because Vap has worked closely with Burnum and other board executives on the association’s way forward through its new strategic plan established last summer. He sees that plan as a blueprint that will help the AWCI stay the course with a common set of goals for future presidents to follow.
“We in leadership roles are now talking about how to work together, reinforce the strategic plan so we don’t have a haphazard approach from year to year,” Vap says. “We have a great responsibility in our roles to better our industry and better those around us, and we will do these things.”
Near the top of his to-do list this year will be the continued development of the AWCI’s Emerging Leaders program, a one-year educational experience for young contractors, manufacturers and suppliers. The program, which has seen 14 graduates in its first year, covers technical training, soft skills and peer-to-peer learning. Applications are being accepted from members for the second edition of the program.
Vap is also enthusiastic about the future of the safety professional education track in the association. It along with a general track and the AWCI Emerging Leaders Program will be on the agenda at the AWCI Industry Leaders Conference in New York City, Oct. 11–14. At that event members can complete a “curated experience” together where they learn more about their selected track in a class and at a job site, regardless of whether they are enrolled in an AWCI program or not. “We have a diverse membership group and we have to provide for all of it, not just one segment,” Vap says.
Continued development of recruitment and educational initiatives is important to strengthening the AWCI’s place in the industry, he says. Tackling important industry issues at AWCI-hosted events such as the annual convention are vital as is drawing more members to those events. “Our industry improves when more of us are working together, benchmarking, sharing ideas and lessons learned, talking about our industry issues. These things push us to be better at what we do,” he says.
Over his coming year in office one of his priorities will be to address the growing specialty and acoustical ceilings market. “I think Shawn (Burnum), in his past-president’s role, will be able to help develop this with help from our ceilings task force and our executive committee,” Vap explains, “and we will have the same conversation with Travis Winsor (treasurer) on how we can help him when he becomes president next year.”
About the Company
Vap is the CEO of Metro Denver–based South Valley Drywall, Inc. In his 20 years at the company he can attest to the value of the membership in AWCI. “I can go back through my career and tell you that the association has been instrumental in my personal/professional growth along with our company’s growth,” he says. “If we (South Valley Drywall) weren’t involved with AWCI, we would be nowhere near where we are today. These people have pushed us, and we’re very appreciative of that.”
South Valley Drywall’s relationship with the association goes back to the 1980s, and it became a Lifetime Member in 2000. One of the reasons the company joined is because it needed a formalized safety program, and AWCI had a template on how to put one together. “That was a big benefit, along with the fellowship and other things,” Vap says.
Originally founded by his father Richard as Richard’s Drywall in 1974, the company was incorporated as South Valley Drywall, Inc. in 1976. In the early 2000s his father started thinking about selling the company to his partners and he recruited Travis to help run the commercial division. Travis agreed to take the post but not without conditions. One of them was that he should work in the field for six months to get a handle on that side of the business and if he didn’t meet company expectations that he would be let go. “I’m really sensitive about nepotism,” he says. “If you are a family member I think you need to outhustle everybody at all times, prove yourself worthy of the position.”
In 2007, Vap decided that he’d rather buy the company than work for a different owner, so he made an offer to buy his father and his business partners out. Only 28 years old at the time, Vap didn’t know what he didn’t know but thought he was ready to take on the challenge of an enterprise generating $35 million to $40 million in work annually. “Sometimes being naïve and having no fear is a big asset when you are young because you will do things that later in life you think you would never have the risk tolerance to do,” he says.
Moving Forward with Technology
That same year the company acquired 3D modelling software for its commercial division, making South Valley Drywall one of earliest adaptors in the wall and ceiling industry.
Vap says, “I thought, ‘Why are our guys hand-measuring studs and then cutting each individual piece? Why aren’t we pre-cutting these?’”
To make the transition to building information modeling systems, South Valley looked for help from the homebuilding sector where 3D modeling had been well established for more than a decade. Genesee Homes introduced Vap to one of their partners, a company that used BIM for wood prefabrication for Genesee’s houses. That company rewrote its software to be applicable for metal studs so that South Valley could apply it in commercial applications.
Continued Growth and Expansion
Stressing that the company’s success is not about himself but rather about the people around him, Vap says his goal at the helm is to give employees opportunities to grow and prosper, which will ensure that the company does well. What would please Vap in a decade from now is seeing long-term employees move up the ladder and prosper because of the support and opportunities the company has provided. “We find out just how far our company can go through our people,” he says.
That’s in keeping with South Valley’s philosophy decades earlier when the then single-family home contractor added a commercial wall and ceiling division in 1987.
Today the contractor has four divisions—each with its own management and employees—in residential, commercial, prefabrication and, in 2019, DLH Interiors, which does architectural glass. The seed for its prefab division came in 2010 after South Valley prefabricated the exterior of Denver’s Saint Joseph Hospital with backup panels and followed by developing work installing finish exterior wall panels. In 2012 South Valley Prefab opened as a separate business unit and over the next decade “it has become one of the predominate prefabrication companies in North America,” says Vap, adding that its prefab production capacity will triple when it moves into its new 75,000 square foot facility by year’s end.
2012 was also the year that he brought his brother Garrett on as a partner in the company. Both complement each other and agree that critical to South Valley’s success is putting the needs of their employees and clients above their own needs.
Today, metal-stud work in hospitals, mid-rises and various interior fit-outs is a primary focus in the commercial sector. The residential division focuses on single-family homes for regional builders. Building on that success, South Valley is opening a second residential division in Fort Collins, Colo. “It will be led by one of the company’s up-and-coming people,” Vap says, “a 10-year employee who has earned the right to start the division.”
Repeat customers represent 90% of all of its work at the three divisions. “We always like to add customers but we want to support the ones who have helped us get to where we are,” Vap says.
Surviving the Pandemic
While the company has experienced many challenges common to other wall and ceiling contractors through the pandemic, the tech-savvy contractor had created its own cloud 15 years ago and had become comfortable working in a virtual world by the time COVID-19 arrived. Vap says the company has “been used to remote work environments, flex environments for some time now.”
If anything, the pandemic has taught the construction industry to be less “centric focused” and has put a spotlight on its successes, showing the state and country “how many good, strong, thoughtful and intelligent people there are in this industry. That’s good to highlight because we need to draw more people to our field,” Vap says.
Not so good about the pandemic, however, have been the supply chain challenges that Vap calls “a materials crisis on steroids. It is like you had orders for a product you thought you could get now, and the next thing you knew is that you were 40 weeks out.” While the worst of those shortages appears to have passed, Vap understands that the company’s client base, supportive trade partners and the team at AWCI have been and will continue to be seminal in “navigating the hardships.”
Deemed an essential service through COVID-19, the construction industry has worked through a potential health and safety crisis in the field over the past two years and surfaced with a number of new procedural positives. “General contractors see that if they do less trade stacking and do more sequencing to let people (subs) complete their work in an area … they can actually be more productive with less people,” Vap says, adding that this has been a common practice for years in residential.
The “big uncertainty” ahead is where the industry will land in 2023–2024, largely because of the impact of rising prices on the profit margins of GCs. “People have work now, but the big unknown is what will happen in two years because of the decisions today in construction,” he says. “We will know soon what people’s appetite for building is with these escalating costs.”
If the United States faces a recession, how deep it will be and its effect on the contracting world is what keeps builders up at night. COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine illustrate just how “economically interconnected” the world is, but if there is a positive to come from it, it is that the state-side manufacturing base could increase. “It will help our country become even stronger,” Vap says.
Don Procter is a freelance writer in Ontario, Canada.