After more than three decades at the helm of various AGC chapters, Michael Dunham, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Georgia, Inc., still loves coming to work every day. He attributes his success to the many great mentors, role models and generous veteran members he sought out early in his career, and now that he’s a mentor it’s time to continue the AGC tradition of paying it forward.
Association Adviser: Mike, tell us a little about AGC Georgia.
Michael Dunham: AGC Georgia was founded back in 1928. We’re the leading, statewide professional trade association representing 550 top commercial construction companies industry in Georgia. We have 11 full-time staff and are one of 92 chapters affiliated with the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC of America), which represents over 26,000 firms nationwide.
AA: Is there such a thing as a typical AGC Georgia member?
MD: Not really. Our membership is as diverse as the commercial construction industry we serve. Some members have over $1 billion in revenue and hundreds of employees. Others are family-owned businesses of under $2 million and less than 20 employees. Most are either general contractors, specialty contractors, or service and supplier companies that support the industry. You will also see design builders, municipal-utility contractors, and “heavy and highway” contractors. Individuals employed at member firms are also considered AGC Georgia members. What our members tend to have in common is that they’re strong entrepreneurial personalities who work in a very challenging market.
AA: Do you have a background building, construction or engineering?
MD: Actually, I have a pre-law degree. Right after college I was planning to get an MBA in city planning, but when my wife and I found out we were going to have a baby, I had to find something that paid better than being a graduate assistant. Long story short, AGC hired me at age 24 to run a chapter in Louisiana. I knew very little about running an association. But, AGC (national) has a very good training program, and they brought me in to the national office for one week and that proved to be an incredible opportunity to get baptized on all things AGC. I met so many people and everyone stepped up to help me. I was pretty up to speed when I got back to the Louisiana chapter office for my first job. After eight years in Louisiana, I ran a chapter in Jacksonville, Florida, for six years and then came up to Atlanta to run this chapter in 1995 where I’ve been ever since.
AA: It sounds like mentoring was an important part of your career development
MD: I was blessed to have many veteran members willing to guide and advise me. I could call them any time up to ask a question. I also spent a lot of time riding around in their pickup trucks listening to their war stories. I attended meetings where they were articulating the problems they were having. Every step of the way, at every chapter I worked for, there have always been seasoned members and other chapter heads willing to show me how to connect with contractors, deal with governmental agencies and negotiate agreements. Fast forward to today. All of a sudden I’m one of those guys with 35 years of experience who’s mentoring the younger folks. It’s all about paying it forward.
AA: What are biggest challenges faced by AGC Georgia members and how are you helping them?
MD: Outside of restaurants, I can’t think of another industry where you go in and out of business more often. I grew up on a farm, and the government was always there to help us out if we had a bad year—but there’s no one there to bail out contractors. It’s the opposite. Government agencies seem to be working overtime to put in rules and regulations that impact our industry. We work hard to keep members current so they don’t run afoul of all the new rules. We also help them apply the costs of those regulatory burdens into their businesses. We’re also trying to get all members—not just the younger ones—to adopt computerization and advanced productivity techniques in the construction process. Remember, you’re always going to have resource and logistical challenges when you build on the scale that many of our members do. Finally, there’s the workforce development challenge. We need more talent. For every new person who enters our industry, four to five boomers are “retiring out.” One of our primary focuses is to get the word out about how you can make a very good living in the construction trade if you’re skilled and willing to work hard.
AA: Do have other special strategies for connecting with your NextGen members, staff and volunteers?
MD: Keeping the association relevant for the younger generation of members is Job No. 1 for a lot of our chapters. Like I said, Georgia was one of the first AGC chapters to have a Young Leaders Program when we introduced it over 16 years ago. I attribute the success of that program to a wise, longstanding member who saw two things we needed to get out in front of: (a) young leaders and (b) technology. We formed committees on both, and on the tech side we invite experts to come in and talk about the latest software or 3D modeling or the use of drones. Sharing all this information and best practices helps our members be as competitive as they can be.
AA: Tell us more about drones. Aren’t they used for military purposes?
MD: Drones can be very helpful for obtaining job site progress photos, for doing safety checks and for evaluating warranty issues without putting people in harm’s way. Suppose you have a window leak on the eighth floor of one of your buildings. You have two choices: You can bring in a big crane and raise it up to the eighth floor so a person in the bucket can take a look. Or you can have a drone with a high definition camera hover outside the leaky window and send back photos of the damaged area. Drones are a lot faster, cheaper and safer than using heavy equipment. Same thing for inspecting a tall smokestack or for looking underneath a suspension bridge.
AA: Let’s talk about career development. Your website says a “person is never too old or too experienced to learn.”
MD: A wise person once said, “The only thing worse than training your people and losing them is not training them and keeping them.” When I speak to university students on construction and architecture, I let them know that just because they’re graduating from school and getting their first job, their learning is not over. It’s only getting started. Folks who’ve been out there and doing it for a while have so much to share about how things work. That opportunity to share best practices is a lot of what we do in our educational training programs. We assemble a group of [industry veterans] as a panel discussion every year for the Young Leaders Program. We like them to step up and share those experiences and make sure we don’t let that generation get away from the industry without imparting their wisdom to the rest of us.
AA: What do you like best about working in the association world?
MD: Our members tend to be the leaders of our industry. They are the creators and innovators who see the challenges and want to make a difference. They’re the ones who give not only of their money (dues), but of their time (commitment). You get to work with those kinds of people every day. And because there are always plenty of challenges to address in our industry, there’s never a day when you don’t have lots to do [chuckling].
AA: How would you describe your leadership style?
MD: It’s about building consensus with finite budget and resources. Some issues are pretty black and white. Others are not that clear and it takes time to get people to a consensus. Since new board leadership comes in every year I have to be the one constant. Our board has a big representation due to all the different segments we serve. I know the trend is toward smaller boards, but I like having a big board. It’s 31 people with a different admiral to lead them every year. The management of that process—getting all those people up to speed so they are effective right from the beginning of their term—is quite an art form.
AA: What do you enjoy most about association work?
MD: It’s like having three jobs in one. You’ve got to know the world of association management—legal issues, bylaws and budgets. You also have to deal with volunteers and boards, and of course walk the talk for the industry you represent. It’s very demanding, but it’s fun. I’ve got one bumper sticker in my office that says, “Work shouldn’t be work.” I have another that says, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”
I’m surrounded by incredibly talented people who get up every day ready to challenge the status quo so we can address all the changes in our marketplace—regulation, succession planning, technology, project delivery systems, 3D animation, etc. Ours has not been a stagnant industry the last few years. I also enjoy the fact that AGC’s 92 chapters are like one big family. We help each other out and share information about best practices and new regulations to look out for.
AA: How does AGC Georgia bring new ideas to the table? Do you have a formal innovation process or is it more ad hoc?
MD: If you have all the money in the world and a lot of staff you can just sit around, throw out a bunch of ideas and see what sticks. That’s not the case here. You need to go stay alert, identify needs that must be filled and then look for creative ways to solve them. My job is to find out what members need before they know they need it and then have a solution waiting when they get there. For example, the current regulatory environment is going to create new challenges with regard to lead-based paint used in certain types of buildings. So before the new regs goes into effect on July 1, 2017 we’re going to have [member guidelines] in place and will be ready to teach them what they need to know. That’s been part of our culture for many years. We were the first AGC chapter to have an internet plan room. We were the first to move plans and specifications through the internet rather than through paper bags—a process that went on to become iSqFt. Somebody approached us with an idea, and we could see there was a need for speed and efficiency. Being out ahead of your market before the rank and file member knows it, puts you in a great position to help people.
AA: What’s keeping you up at night (work-related)?
MD: There’s a line from an old war move: “In confusion there’s profit.” The world is changing so fast from technology to the political landscape. Being aware and staying engaged is a tremendous opportunity for the association to play a key part in members’ lives. Members’ time is the most valuable thing we compete for.