Longtime executive director of SIBA Tim Garvey is going to retire in August. The board named Donna Richter, of Freeburg, to fill the position of chief executive officer effective Jan. 1.
IBJ: What is your background coming in to this job?
Richter: I’ve been with the office since August 1981. I started as the secretary for Len Boyer, who was safety director. When he moved up to be executive director, I was his secretary there. Then, over the years, I’ve held many positions. Director of operations. Membership director. IT manager. I’ve done a little bit of everything. In 2001, when Tim took over as executive director, I became the assistant executive director and was chief operating officer before I became CEO.
IBJ: Your organization is turning 70 this year. Are there any plans to mark that anniversary?
Richter: No, I think they talked about doing something when we are at 75 years.
IBJ: Are you going to be there another five years?
Richter: (laughs) I’m hoping.
IBJ: I’m guessing this might be your “exit job” as you work toward eventual retirement?
Richter: Yes, in fact we’re in the process of hiring someone to take care of labor and legislative issues and we’re hoping to transition this individual (to CEO) when I do decide to retire.
IBJ: An awful lot has changed for America’s industries since 1981. What was the nature of things when you started vs. now?
Richter: It’s a lot different. When I first started we had well over 1,000 members and now we have half that — 500. When I started all we had was a typewriter. Now you have to have computers and laptops and cellphones. If you’re not up with the times, you can lose a project. Labor conditions were a lot different back then than they are now. We have an on-line plan room now, where our members can see plans and specs. Years ago, all they had was a physical plan room, and it was full of people every day, bidding these jobs.
IBJ: Does politics play a more important role in what you do now? Everyone has their own interests in trying to progress and move forward.
Richter: Right now, living in the state of Illinois and all the problems existing, there is not a lot of work out there through the Capital Development Board and the Illinois Department of Transportation. There’s no state funding. You never know if they’re going to have highway lettings for our highway contractors to bid work. The economy is so hard on our members that if they don’t have private work, they are going to have a hard time making it.
IBJ: Who comprises your membership? It’s not just contractors.
Richter: We have about 80 general contractors. Subcontractors, we have about 250 of those, and we have about 180 suppliers, banks, lawyers, insurance companies ...
IBJ: What are some of the big challenges in the year ahead?
Richter: Right now, we’re really trying to make our on-line plan room bigger and better than some of the other competing plan rooms that are out there. Another big improvement (to address) is the lack of skilled workers out there. We’re trying to come up with some way to meet the needs of our construction companies to be able to find the skilled workers they need.
IBJ: You do some kind of training events each year, don’t you?
Richter: We sponsor two career expos where we invite the crafts to come in. It’s over a three- or four-day period and we run high school students through there. The one we just finished up, we had 700. The students come in for about two hours and they visit every booth. And that gives them a hands-on look at what those job responsibilities are for those particular craft people. We had nine different crafts participate this year. A lot of these high school kids are pushed to the four-year universities, and construction is not even thought about. We see some positive results but we don’t know if it’s going to be enough or not.
IBJ: How is this lack of skilled workers actually playing out through industry right now?
Richter: There’s not a lot of work and it’s hard to convince people there is a need for skilled workers when so many union people are sitting on the bench right now, but they are saying that by the year 2017-18 a lot of these workers are going to be retiring and we won’t have enough people coming up to man these jobs.
IBJ: You have a legislative lobbying arm, don’t you?
Richter: We belong to a group called the Illinois Construction Industry Committee, and they have three lobbyists on board. We get together about three or four times a year and go over the bills, see if we approve of them or if they need to be changed. There are about 13 associations in the state that belong to this group. We also sit on the Advisory Committee to the Capital Development Board, which is the government entity which puts out the government building projects for the state of Illinois.
We try to stay in constant contact with our legislators in our area to let them know how important it is to support certain legislation that will help the construction industry. They are the ones who have to get a transportation bill passed, a capital bill passed. That’s key to getting the necessary funding to get our people back to work.
IBJ: I guess you’ve seen some highs and lows in 30-plus years. Is this as bad as you’ve seen?
Richter: Oh, no. I think 2006-2007 was really bad. Every year since then we’ve seen some improvements, but we’re not back to where we were 15 or 20 years ago when the height of construction was going on. I think it’s slowly coming back but it’s not as good as it has been.