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The Time Is Here for Confidence and a Positive Outlook

It is that time of year when a new president takes over the helm of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry. Tim Weis has done an admirable job as last year’s president, and we salute his achievements, but as of July 1, 2012, Jeff Burley has taken on the task of leadership. Burley’s vision for the future is based on the harsh realities of current conditions, and is tempered with confidence and a positive outlook.

Burley begins his term of office as AWCI president with 40 years’ experience in the construction industry. He is currently the president and CEO of the Florida based contracting firm, B&B Interior Systems, Inc. The firm was incorporated in 1980, and is certified under the state of Florida as a drywall specialty contractor. The company specializes in interior finishing contracting with a focus on the commercial, institutional and industrial sectors of construction.

Burley who spent his college years at Akron University in Akron, Ohio, has served on the AWCI board of directors and is past president of the Florida Wall & Ceiling Contractors Association. Locally, he is vice president of the Plantation Gateway Advisory Board. Plantation Gateway is a Safe Neighborhood District and Community Redevelopment Area. He is also currently an active mortgage and real estate broker.

A recent conversation with Burley revealed a man with a realistic attitude to business and life and a positive vision for the future.

What is your view on the state of the construction industry today?

The industry has obviously been in a depressed state for a few years. It has certainly affected some states more than others. The state of Florida, where we operate and I reside, has really fallen pretty far from its previous construction volumes. The construction industry—which by the way is a great industry and it’s great that we, as contractors, can produce items that are part of the growth of all the venues that we live in—is still modestly moving forward, I think, in the right direction.

Unfortunately, we still have a lot ground to make up. Construction unemployment is still double digits in most areas including here in the state of Florida. Fortunately, 2012 is trending in a positive direction. As the residential—what I call the “habitational” sector—continues to pick up in Florida, it will help lead us out of this construction recession.

As for the economy, there are more demands being made for architectural services, and that bodes well for the future. This increased demand is substantiated in that architectural billings, an indicator of architectural firm activity, are trending upward—a very positive sign for the future. It may be a year from now before any of these projects get a “shovel in the dirt” so to speak. Even though the projects are a ways from when the construction actually breaks ground, it means that the future increase in construction will diminish the residential doldrums that we have found ourselves in.

What is the single most important issue facing contractors and AWCI members today? What keeps you awake at night?

There are a lot of things that keep me awake at night, but from my perspective there are two main things. Managing our bottom lines is very, very difficult because revenues are off so much. You spend 35 years building a company, building up your relationships, building key personnel, and because of the current business climate a lot of that has been dismantled over the last three years. So as you dismantle key personnel and get a little leaner, you have to put on more hats and work a little harder. Managing the bottom line with reduced volume, reduced revenues and also the razor thin margins that we are operating on, is probably the most important issue that keeps me awake at night.

The other item that is coming down the road as things pick up is the high probability of qualified labor shortages. When our industry suffers like this, a lot of people are forced to go into other sectors of business just to survive, and that drastically changes the labor market. Good employees go out and get other jobs, such as for retail or even out of state. The net effect is that they are no longer in our construction industry in the numbers that they were. As construction picks up—and it will, there will be labor shortages.

So those are the two items that I think that contractors and AWCI members are really struggling to resolve. The “great recession” has impacted both profitability and the lack of trained personnel, and they are going to be issues down the road. When we were busy and we had 300 people working for us, plus there was training and succession with all the young people that we brought in, it was very vibrant time, and you had a lot of moving parts. To survive during this recession contractors were forced to downsize, and eliminate many of those same parts. For example, both the training and nurturing of the younger talent has been lost.

Looking 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?

The one issue that, in my opinion, will impact AWCI members is the proposed legislation on “card check.” Earlier this year it was voted down as presented, and set for modification. I think the issue was side-stepped for now, but it will return. I am concerned about this because it impacts all of the construction industry, and we need to stay aware of any future developments.

How does AWCI itself look to you today?

There is a certain irony here. AWCI is an organization within the construction industry. I have to separate AWCI from that industry. Even though the industry has been teetering from weakness, AWCI remains a pretty strong force. I think AWCI is stronger than ever. The people that are involved as members in AWCI can really see the benefits of the association’s efforts and how much AWCI does for our industry. There are a lot of people who just go to work every day in the construction industry and even in our small segment of the total industry who have no idea what AWCI does. These same people are just getting by in their little vacuum, and as long as there is work or they are just doing their job, they don’t see AWCI’s impact. A lot of your CEOs, COOs, presidents and owners see and appreciate the benefit. Sometimes the other employees don’t see it as much.

AWCI has done an excellent job policing our industry and taking the initiative to jump on certain issues or an impending sink hole or upheaval in our industry that needs attention. They have the vision that recognizes that there may be an issue or an immediate problem in our industry. They also are the voice that alerts us of these issues. Further, AWCI has the vitality to get involved and provide solutions to any potential roadblocks. Steve Etkin [AWCI’s executive vice president and CEO] and his staff are very, very good at being aware of anything that affects our membership. For example, the EIFS industry had serious issues with insurance some time back, and AWCI got into the insurance business. We had to do it to help the contractors who were struggling to get the right kind of insurance so they could compete. More recently they’ve gotten involved in the steel framing industry with a goal to solidify that highly fragmented business. They touch everything that comes up, and it usually comes out with some benefits for the membership. AWCI is the strongest that it has ever been.

In your vision, what should AWCI’s role be in shaping the future?

Like any industry, we change, we evolve. Somebody has to be monitoring the changes that come as a result of this evolving process. They have to stay abreast of what is occurring throughout the world. We’re global. We’re not just one country when we’re talking about this industry. AWCI is an international organization so their involvement must be in the gathering and assessing of information that keeps us all current across the globe.

A particular emphasis should be with innovation and new products. It is vitally important that AWCI’s function include communicating and disseminating all that pertinent information to our membership. That’s where AWCI is pretty critical, and like I mentioned before, when there are problems in the field, they are right at the forefront in providing solutions that enhance our companies in this highly competitive commodity arena. These solutions could have their roots in new technologies or products. AWCI should be and is involved with all this information that needs to be disseminated to the membership. Their role there is as important as it ever was.

As far as shaping the future, AWCI is more of a guiding hand. They are the person that we call upon when we, as a contractor, have a problem. If I don’t know how to solve a problem, I need resources. AWCI has been the resource over the years; it’s just incredible what information I can get out of AWCI. They’re a huge resource for us, for every contractor.

Do you have any particular message for the membership?

Hang in there, better times are coming. Do what you’ve got to do. Change is necessary to be around for the next wave of construction, and that wave is coming. There are better times arriving, but the current conditions have certainly taken their toll on us. In some respects we are leaner, we’ve had to become reacquainted with what we do, and we’ve gotten more involved with what we do because you don’t have the layers of management that were so common in the past.

Getting back in touch with our business has been a good thing. There’s always some small seed of benefit that comes out of adversity; however, there is still some adversity to overcome. We need to maximize our customer base with maybe a look for more revenue. What can we do to increase scope, provide more service to our existing customer base? That’s what we do here at B&B Interior Systems. There is that core group of people we have done work for, year in and year out. Your new source of revenue may be from the customers that you already have. Plus you still have to bring in new clients all the time.

We also have to become more full service. Our customers think of drywall as a commodity. I find it beneficial if I can provide additional services that wrap around that commodity. General contractors are out there commodity shopping, they go for the lower price. A good business strategy is providing more value by adding other services; give your clients more of a “one-stop shop.” That will help our situation and ultimately us.

Unfortunately, that means that as a commodity there are a lot of general contractors who will still look for that commodity pricing only. They will take and break down each and every section of the industry. There will be contractors who will look for the low price. You can find those projects on the Internet; it is so easy to find commodity pricing projects. We get invited to projects like this all the time, and we can’t bid everything we see. So I would just say, avoid commodity only pricing. You can only take so much cost out of any system.

Further, I would suggest that it is important to strategize a little and position yourself as a value-added contractor because there is more than just the lowest price.

What are your objectives during your tenure?

Tenure is only a year long, and it goes by pretty quick. Fortunately we will be climbing out of this “great recession,” and I want to maintain a positive outlook about moving forward. As simple as this sounds, it is my goal to instill a little confidence and a positive outlook to our membership. I feel that many members are worn out. However, they may be worn out, but they’re certainly not down and out. Right now we have to think positive, move forward, and employ a little more strategic thinking about how we can get work, how we can improve our bottom line. I’m going to concentrate on that, and I’m anxious to meet with as many AWCI chapters as possible. I’ll try to visit and learn about all the individual challenges and opportunities that the chapters are experiencing.

What is the one thing you want to accomplish as president?

If I had a magic wand, I would make sure we all had good margins.

One of the more important things that I would like to accomplish is increased involvement of that younger generation—all the young generations in the whole industry, not just the one, because there are obviously more than just one. When we got lean, that was one loss, but there was also a lot of talent that had just graduated from college. That talent wanted to get involved in the construction industry. We can’t bring them on board right now. So as the revenues tick upward, I would like to see all of our membership do a better job of bringing in younger talent. That is one of my goals.

How would you describe your philosophy on life in general, and on construction in particular?

A common phrase I’ve often used in this world and in this business is, “You get what you give.” It’s a simple phrase but a meaningful one. It’s my experience that too many people take; they don’t want to give back. Whether it’s apathy or it’s lack of good cultural upbringing, you can’t just be a taker. Sometimes we’re just like locusts that feed, destroy and then move on to the next area for feeding. It is imperative that we do give back. That’s true of all things in life. Whether it’s our industry, your family, your planet or it’s your religious beliefs, you’ve got to bring something to the table. You have to bring something, produce something, and it doesn’t have to be manufactured by your hands. Sometimes you just have to just give your time. That is one of my philosophies. That is why I’ve gotten involved with my local chapter, that’s why I’ve gotten involved with AWCI.

This industry has been very, very good to me and my family. So is it worth it to give back? Yes, definitely. Is it tough to give back? Whew, it’s really tough, especially right now. So giving back is a big part of it, but I’m optimistic. I think that people, given the opportunity, will eventually do the right thing. We have to work hard, we have to work smart, we have to keep our ears to the ground if you want a better chance for success—those are key ingredients. Nothing replaces hard work, smart work and listening and learning from others.

I have benefited so much from simply listening, I may not have the answers, but I know how to listen to people. When they have a good idea, I certainly try and embrace it. I encourage my children and the people who work around me to listen and learn. It doesn’t matter if that person is sweeping the streets or a company’s CEO, they all have something to bring to the table. That is why we have two ears and one mouth. We have to listen more than we talk if we want to be successful.

In your career, what are you most proud of?

In my career, whenever we complete a quality project—that is big. I [like to] walk through our completed projects and see that we’ve done a good job, we did it right. People who are hiring us are happy to have us. That’s also a very prideful moment.

One of the other biggest things in this industry has been relationships. Those relationships that I have forged through this industry are another item that I’m pretty proud of. I cherish those relationships very much. They have been very beneficial.
What hobbies or personal interests do you have outside of construction?
As my body ages, my hobbies change. Now I find that all I can do is play golf, and I can barely do that.

My bride and I like to travel, we like music, we like the arts, and of course, our families. Spending time with the family is just as important as anything.

Do you have any final thoughts?

Keep in mind that we all have to work very, very hard these days. One thing we cannot predict is the constant change that is going on, and how to adjust to that change. It’s difficult because we resist change. People don’t like change. So try to stay abreast of all the change that is inevitably forthcoming. That’s always an effort because we like to stay in our comfort zone.

Don’t resist change, embrace it.

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