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Challenged Chair

Tom Finch leads a nimble National Concrete Masonry Association

A global health crisis raised humbling prospects less than three weeks into Tom Finch’s term as 2020 National Concrete Masonry Association Chair of the Board: How effectively could he function after a radically altered business landscape quelled requisite interface with NCMA directors, members and staff? Could association commitments be balanced with challenges he confronted as vice president of California-based RCP Block & Brick Inc., an essential business contending with national and state lockdown measures?

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Tom Finch

Amplifying chair’s duty concerns were the leading 2020 agenda items: NCMA’s assistance in a time-sensitive industry awareness campaign that the allied Concrete Masonry Checkoff Initiative is conducting with U.S. Department of Commerce oversight; and, formal discussion on a stronger Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute partnership as both organizations weigh resources, synergies and management transitions.

“The giant goal of a CMU Checkoff referendum happened to land in my year,” says Finch, whose brother Mike served as 2009 NCMA chairman. “Creating Checkoff awareness and bringing a vote on the formation of a concrete masonry industry board are top priorities.” As external outreach drives Checkoff campaign activities for the better part of 2020, he adds, the newly approved NCMA and ICPI Collaboration Exploration Committee entails much internal discussion.

Checkoff Initiative and Collaboration Committee stakeholders aim to have conventional gatherings later this year, but for now are meeting online, thanks to the Zoom Video Communications platform. Instead of customary spring NCMA Executive Committee meetings in Washington, D.C., notes Tom Finch, “We did two days of Zoom conferences. That’s been the new way of getting things done, and how we are likely to handle our Midyear Meeting instead of traveling to Milwaukee.”

He entered the chair’s term mindful of a need to consider new ways of doing things as an association. Zoom conferencing proves a solid option. As the mid-March national lockdown took hold, NCMA staff leveraged the technology for a series of forums, typically drawing 10 to 25 producer or associate members. The first involved participants sharing best practices on how plant management and crews were working with pandemic response measures; many told similar stories and reflected on the relatively high amount of business they were able to maintain.

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RCP supplied split face units in a range of colors—randomly blended to emulate the warmth and texture of natural stone—for the Cathedral Catholic High School, part of a 54-acre campus with 11 masonry buildings. Precision CMU in base coursing and window surrounds accent, contrast and provide depth to the building facade. Project principals: Sundt Construction, Williams & Sons Masonry, Architects Mosher Drew.
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NCMA scheduled additional forums around different geographic areas or regions for producers in the U.S. and Canada, who continue to build best practices for protecting and communicating with employees; establishing plant or yard social distancing methods; operating without open building or hardscape showrooms; contending with construction shut down orders; and, applying for CARES Act program relief. Other Zoom gatherings have been conducted or scheduled for NCMA Young Professionals, Concrete Women Connect, safety personnel, and architectural sales representatives.

“We are all learning from each other,” Finch explains. “That’s the beauty of NCMA: People willing to help fellow members. Forum participants see it as a duty to share ideas and help peers. That has been the silver lining in the COVID-19 crisis.”

While travel and business conditions leading into this month have favored a Midyear Meeting via virtual board and committee conferences, plans for the ICON Expo 2021 Machinery & Equipment Show in Nashville remain firm. Next year’s gathering will continue a 2018 format, where every third year the ICON–Xchange Innovation Center expands from hotel ballroom tabletop booths to larger convention center exhibits, including block and paver machines.

CONCRETE MASONRY CHECKOFF

Pent-up meeting and buying demand might not be the only factors contributing to an upbeat mood at the second ICON Machinery & Equipment Show. The Concrete Masonry Products Research, Education, and Promotion Act of 2018 positioned the Concrete Masonry Checkoff Initiative to lead 2019-2020 industry outreach efforts toward a Commerce Department-administered national referendum in which qualifying concrete block producers vote on the formation of a Concrete Masonry Products Board. If the program is approved by a majority of voting block manufacturers representing a majority of the voting manufacturing capacity, it would become only the second such program for building materials (softwood lumber created one in 2012) and the first under Commerce. The concrete masonry checkoff would follow the models that food and fiber commodity interests have established through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Concrete Masonry Checkoff Initiative submitted to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross a proposed order outlining Department oversight of a referendum approving and empowering a Concrete Masonry Products Board. The proposal’s mid-April delivery provides time for review and clarification ahead of Commerce publishing an official order in the Federal Register. An ensuing 30-day public comment period would set the stage for voting producer registration and mail-in balloting later in the calendar.

Referencing the Act, CMU Checkoff Initiative Chairman Major Ogilvie (Cemex USA) tells Secretary Ross: “We truly believe that if this legislation is executed correctly, the future work performed as part of this program will not only better position our manufacturers to grow, it will allow us to enter new markets by focusing on growth and innovation, and thus expanding both our capital investments and our professional and skilled workforce.”

The proposed order outlines the Board’s composition and function as a checkoff entity authorized to initially assess 1 cent on each concrete masonry unit sold in the U.S. Fifteen to 25 members would represent concrete block producers across five regions, each consisting of three districts, which in turn would span one to five states. Commerce would designate the members of the Concrete Masonry Products Board based on nominations from qualified parties.

Concrete Masonry Products Board support mechanisms would go hand in hand with priorities central to Tom Finch’s term as NCMA chair. “We are bringing greater awareness to decision makers through projects like BIM for Masonry and Direct Design Software,” he observes. “I want to place even more emphasis on influencing them and sustaining the message that masonry is the best way to build.” The program would also have tight fund allocation parameters: A minimum of 50 percent of a region’s collections would have to remain within its states and districts to support research, education and promotion, he adds.

Another major initiative during NCMA’s 2020 Convention in Salt Lake City was approval of the NCMA and ICPI Collaboration Exploration Committee. “NCMA and ICPI representatives will be working with a third-party facilitator to see if an expanded level of partnership makes sense,” explains Finch. While the two organizations already share a number of member companies, Finch believes that a focus on how to improve support to expand members’ opportunities in the market will drive decisions and that the process is just getting started.

MARKET INITIATIVES

NCMA focuses on three unique product segments—concrete masonry, segmental retaining walls, and manufactured stone masonry veneer—each with its own market challenges and opportunities. Earlier this year, NCMA collaborated with The Masonry Society (TMS) in creating a Segmental Retaining Wall Committee at TMS, with the goal of developing a consensus standard for SRW design. This standard would broaden the acceptance of SRWs and provide an accepted document that could be referenced in the building code for the design community.

Two new certification programs for manufactured stone veneer are also valuable initiatives. The first, a product certification for manufactured stone veneer units, is available now and will help broaden acceptance of these products and simplify the specification process. The second, an installer certification program, is under development to provide needed recognition to promote those who have the knowledge and experience to install manufactured stone the proper way.

Investments continue for developing new and improved tools for designers using concrete masonry in building construction. Released last year, the Direct Design Software can be used to design entire structures in minutes with complete design transparency. In addition, NCMA will soon release a new element-based structural design software program allowing users to design individual components—walls, columns, beams, etc. This digital tool will help current and next generation practitioners design concrete masonry more efficiently.

“The primary reason that companies join and participate in NCMA is to propel our products forward in the market. Our members continue to value advocacy efforts, both with building codes and on Capitol Hill, as well as the technical of our staff to support and educate designers and contractors,” says Tom Finch. “Efforts for a checkoff and improved collaboration with our partners are intended to put our industry in an even better position for more aggressive future direct promotion.”

ROAD AHEAD

All of this work proceeds against a backdrop of unknown market variables. Shedding some light on expectations for the next 12-18 months are results from the “Covid-19 Impact & Implementation Survey” by Ohio’s Industry Insights in early April. Respondents included just over 100 NCMA and ICPI members, who were joined by peers in 24 other Industry Insights client sectors.

More than 90 percent of respondents expressed concerns over national, state and local government actions, especially during the second quarter of 2020, and the substantial negative effect they will have on business through mid-2021. While many concrete masonry product manufacturers have fared well during the early phases of the pandemic (with most being deemed ‘essential’), 95 percent of respondents expect negative revenue impacts as a result of the pandemic, while 30 percent see “very negative” impacts. In addition to revenue concerns, 63 percent of respondents worry market uncertainties will require staff reductions; 40 percent see lower technology investment than originally planned for 2020-2021.

“Early on, construction was deemed essential in California, and we have continued supplying orders for projects like hospitals and schools,” notes Finch, whose company operates one major production facility in San Diego, plus six retail sites and masonry showrooms in southern California. “We have modified the way we do business. It has been a challenge, especially for our retail stores, where service is curbside and runners take orders and customers stay in their vehicles.”

“We closed about half our operations by the middle of March, but have slowly been adding production since,” he adds. “Our biggest challenges have been working with skeleton crews in some instances, and calling back certain people who have ended up making other job arrangements or are not comfortable in an outside work environment due to family concerns at home. One thing we know for sure: Our people are as resilient as the product they make.”

RCP Block & Brick customers indicate that contracting activity and project starts in the second half of 2020 and into next year could depress near-term revenues into the low double digits when measured against initial forecasts. “We have been talking to commercial mason contractors,” Finch observes. “They were painting a pretty positive picture early in the year, but now report some large projects being placed on the back burner. People are waiting to see how the pandemic response and virus spread play out.” Much of this concern stems from various leading indicators such as the steep decline in AIA’s Architectural Billings Index over the past two months, signaling a significant slowdown in the design pipeline.

With more than three decades in block and hardscape unit operation, he has seen a few budget cycles where top lines are off 10 percent or more. He approaches challenges in his NCMA chair’s term with perspective gleaned from successful colleagues and allies. “You can’t replace experience within a family owned business,” Finch affirms. “I have had great mentors throughout my career and found that to grow as a leader, you have to have your trials and be allowed to make mistakes. We will use that model for the coming year.”


RCP BLOCK & BRICK - At-A-Glance

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RCP produces a full range of gray and architectural block at its Otay, Calif., operation near San Diego. The company supplied Chestnut and La Paz Split Face concrete masonry units, plus Precision block bands, for the lower and upper portions of the Bachelors Enlisted Quarters Campus at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif. One of the underlying goals for the 500,000-sq.-ft. job was creation of an atmosphere that doesn’t look or feel like a typical military installation. Project principals: Webcor / R.A. Burch Joint Venture, general contractor; Haxton Masonry; Vazquez Marshall Architects. PHOTOS: RCP BLOCK & BRICK
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NATIONAL CONCRETE MASONRY ASSOCIATION - At-A-Glance

2020 CHAIRMAN   IMMEDIATE PAST CHAIRMAN    VICE CHAIRMAN
TOM FINCH  DARRYL WINEGAR ROCKY JENKINS
RCP Block & Brick, Inc.    Midwest Block & Brick, Inc.  Cemex USA
Lemon Grove, California     Jefferson City, Missouri  Houston, Texas