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Wisdom You Need

Joe Feldner at AWCI's convention in 1990 in Toronto.


I recently met Joe Feldner, former president of McNulty Brothers Company, Chicago. I’m working on several projects for AWCI, and we had lunch together related to one of those projects. What a resource he is. What a gentleman. What an inspiration.

AWCI’s Lasting Effect

Joe is 90 years old. His mind functions like it’s 25. He remembers crawling on scaffolding as a 19-year-old plastering apprentice like yesterday, and he has plenty of stories from that era to tell. In time, Joe became a journeyman. He started running McNulty crews—later entire jobs, and still later, the entire Detroit market for the firm.


Joe attended his first AWCI convention in 1968 (then the Contracting Plasterers’ and Lathers’ International Association). He was overwhelmed by the experience, but it led to his gaining an industry perspective.


“I had just stepped into taking over Detroit,” he says. “Within a few years, I got slammed into working on several of the association’s committees.”


Joe didn't realize how much work was involved in running association programs. But he handled his assignments. He’d spend one day a week in Detroit, four in Chicago, weekends not always free. But the 1986 convention experience was a lasting one. For Joe, AWCI is source of pride. He never had time to “rotate through the chairs” of the association’s executive committee appointments. But, he served as the association’s convention committee chairman for many years and also on other committees. The work gave Joe unparalleled learning experiences and unending camaraderie.


“The thing that is different today than it was years ago is that we were more dedicated in what we were doing as an association,” says Joe pointedly about his generation’s work ethic.


Joe still goes to work. Earlier this year, he negotiated a four-year contract for Chicago’s taper-finishers union. He negotiated the contract for the city’s union Painters right up to its deadline.


“In the eyes of the union, the men, the business agents and the general contractors, I did a good job. In the eyes of the painting contractors, I screwed it up,” Joe says. “I told them, ‘I'm not going to have my people on the street.’”

Nuggets of Wisdom

As president of McNulty Bros., Joe met weekly with his top managers. He'd open each meeting with something pithy to discuss. They are in fact nuggets of wisdom. Here are a few them.


On success: “The mark of a successful contractor, superintendent and foreman is his or her work habits. Are you committed to a full day of work?”


On growth: “Relationships equal trust, and trust equals a sale. Try it.”


On getting ahead: “Be a master question asker, and then be a super listener.”


On recruitment: “Most companies have difficulty finding top people because … (1) they hire someone for what they know and then fire them for who they are, (2) they hire quickly and fire slowly, which is backward, and (3) they base their hiring decision on a person’s previous experience [rather than his behavioral traits]. A deadly mistake.”


On standards: “Some companies are destined to be successful because they are never content to be just good enough. In our business, this means working continuously on improvement, striving to give customers what they want.”


On safety: “A leader will survey the area where he is assigned to work and take all precautions to avoid any accidents or mistakes.”


On people: “Our workers are our people. They live where we do and work for our company. Their lives and futures are entwined with ours. … Give our workers a voice and the dignity that goes with it.”


On wooing the right young people: “Construction is for … an adventurer, mountain climber, artist and at times even an aerialist. Construction is for action-oriented individuals.”


On modesty: “Seek out opinions from people who see things differently, such as students or at association meetings and seminars.”


On manners: “Have you ever considered or thought about rudeness and how it might affect our bottom line? Give this a lot of thought.”


Can you use any of Joe’s wisdom in your organization? My goodness, it sure is golden.

Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about business leadership. Reach him at @markjohnsoncomm, and at

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