As any professional knows, a successful project is greater than the sum of its parts. This is nowhere truer than in the construction industry, where many complex moving parts must come together in creating a building that meets all the necessary requirements in terms of form, function, and safety. As most project managers will tell you, finding the right people for the job is the most essential, and often the most challenging part of this process. In a booming construction industry, with many options to choose from, on what basis should the right contractors be selected for a given project?
ABC Delaware, the state’s chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, firmly believes there is only one answer to this question: merit. In the words of Ed Capodanno, ABC Delaware’s current President, “Our core value is that we believe in open competition and free enterprise, and we believe that construction contracts in Delaware should be given based upon the lowest responsible bidder regardless of affiliation. That’s what we’ve always believed in, and that’s what we push.”
This, in a nutshell, epitomizes the merit shop philosophy on which ABC was founded in 1950 by a group of seven prominent contractors in Baltimore, MD. Their dedication to the merit shop as an alternative to the much more prevalent union-based mindset of the time proved to be a powerful force in the national construction industry, changing the way in which contracts were awarded and empowering non-union contractors to claim a seat at the table. ABC Delaware followed in 1981. As Capodanno describes it, “It was a group of contractors in Delaware who got together and decided that there was strength in numbers, and they needed to protect the interests of merit shop contractors in Delaware and to try to begin to make merit shop contractors more formidable in the industry.”
Strength in numbers would prove to be the greatest initial challenge for ABC Delaware, but ultimately where it would find its greatest power. Capodanno tells the story of the early difficulties faced by the organization at the start of his tenure: “I think my challenge here when I came on board at ABC was the limited membership and limited financial resources. The only way we were going to grow is if we had somebody working every day to sell memberships and telling the ABC story to merit shop contractors who weren’t members, preaching the benefits that that come along with strength in numbers and working together to create the same goal.” It’s a challenge he and his team have navigated successfully, as Capodanno proudly notes: “Over the years we’ve progressed into a 500-member company doing 87% of the work in Delaware.”
Some challenges that ABC Delaware faced in the early years, particularly those of a political nature, continue to present obstacles that the organization has had to navigate, though not unsuccessfully. Being located in what Capodanno refers to as a “union stronghold” and as a conservative-leaning organization in a state that has shifted dramatically from Republican to overwhelmingly Democrat in Capodanno’s 30-year tenure, means that ABC Delaware has had to fight hard to defend its core values as well as its position in the market.
As he points out, “What happened in the last election is Republicans lost even more seats. So now that they have a supermajority in the House and Senate, we’re really up against it. They’ve elected more progressives and liberals to the Delaware General Assembly, and it’s been a difficult run the last couple years. Now it’s 2020 and the President of the United States is from our state. He’s a 1000% union supporter and has said he’s the biggest union supporter president in history. So, what’s happening now is his beliefs and his theories around union organization and union work have trickled down into the General Assembly and Delaware because he’s the President of the United States and he comes from our state.”
“Strength in numbers would prove to be the greatest initial challenge for ABC Delaware, but ultimately where it would find its greatest power.”
Despite the challenging political environment, Capodanno and his team have largely succeeded in sticking to their values and adapting to these challenges. As he puts it, “we’re 100% a political organization, but our philosophy is that the only way we can continue to be successful politically is to try to forge some relationships with business-friendly Democrats. In order for us to be successful politically, we believe we have to reach across the aisle. We don’t have any choice. You have to do what you think is in the best interest of your organization.”
This approach plays out not only in the legislation, where ABC works hard to advance the cause of the merit shop on a political level, but also on the level of the workforce itself. Capodanno sees this aspect of ABC Delaware’s operations as essential, particularly in an industry that is suffering from the widespread skilled labor shortage. The organization’s list of initiatives in this area makes for impressive reading, as he explains: “We’re heavily involved in the co-op programme in the vo-tech [vocational-technical] schools, hiring their graduates. We take part in their summer camps. We do a hands-on trade show every year. We’re making presentations in the middle schools to try to get those students involved. So, we’re heavily involved in workforce development. We’re involved in pre-apprenticeship programmes. We’re involved in prison-to-work programmes. We spend a tremendous amount of time trying to help our members to find qualified employees for the future and trying to find the next generation of construction professionals and leaders.”
This forward-thinking approach, particularly when it comes to educating the youth on the potential of a career in the construction industry, is something Capodanno sees as vital to the long-term goals of ABC Delaware. He insightfully notes that it’s not just the kids they need to get through to, but their parents as well: “You know, if you ask parents or you ask kids nowadays, you know what their image is of construction – it’s probably not a very positive one. It’s probably dirty, hard work, low paying. We haven’t done a very good job of promoting our industry. We’ve got to get beyond the students, because if the student has interest but the parent doesn’t think it’s a viable career, then you face a little bit of an uphill battle there. So, we’ve got to find a way to get to the parents and start to explain to them that there is a career path. Yes, you’re going to start in the field, but then you can become an estimator. You can become a project manager. You can go into the office, and eventually you can own your own business. A lot of the businesses in Delaware are owned by individuals like you and me.”
With all of the above in mind, it comes as no surprise that a strong sense of community-building is central to the ethos of ABC Delaware. As Capodanno puts it, “Our members are heavily involved in ABC. They’re committed, they’re passionate, they’re loyal to the organization. A lot of them have been around even before I got here. They drive this organization; they tell us where we need to go, and they help us. I’m probably biased, but it’s probably the most loyal group of people I’ve ever been around. We would not be anywhere near 500 members or as successful as we are as an organization without our members. It just would not happen.”
This camaraderie and community spirit will doubtless stand ABC Delaware in good stead as it faces the continuing challenges of the near future. As an organization that stands as a testament to tenacity and value-driven action, there’s little doubt that it will continue to provide a strong foundation and a powerful voice for Delaware’s merit shop for many years to come.