Contractor to Contractor: Stevens Masonry, Inc.
For three generations, the Stevens family has laid a solid foundation for both their name and their business. With years of experience, Stevens Masonry, Inc. of Newcastle, Pa. has helped construct medical, school, hospital, retail, church, government, civic, non-profit, office and industrial buildings. President Edwin Stevens took time to talk with Masonry about the keys to his company's success, what he perceives as the industry's biggest misconception, and where the masonry industry is headed in the future.
Masonry: Tell us a little more about Stevens Masonry's company history.
Stevens: We were founded on May 2, 1986, by Edwin C. and Esther F. Stevens. We are a third-generation masonry company. The original company, founded by George W. Stevens. our grandfather, was continued by George C. Stevens, our uncle. The current company was founded by Ed and Esther, our father and mother, and is operated by Edwin G. and George M. Stevens.
Masonry: What do you think has been the key to Stevens Masonry's growth and success over the years?
Stevens: God's grace, for sure. A lot of mistakes have been made. I'm not a college graduate, but I'm an International Masonry Institute Contractor College graduate of the first class of February 2002. At this point in time, I think I'm working on a master's or a Ph.D. with as many mistakes as I've made. Without God's grace to help me through and keep this company out of bad situations, it'd all be over.
Along with that, I'd say hard work and perseverance. There's just no two ways about it. Nothing comes to you; you have to go fight for everything. You have to work hard, you have to persevere, and it has to be in your heart to chase this, because it can let you down in a whole lot of ways.
And then education - the school of "hard knocks." A man or woman is lucky if he or she can learn from mistakes and still have time to change before it's all gone. That's been a learning experience and a big help for me.
Masonry: With three generations of Stevens working in the industry, do you think the years of family involvement have made your company stronger than the typical masonry business?
Stevens: I would think coming from a good family name helps a lot. My family name in this area probably started before World War II with my grandfather. When people heard the name, although there where different areas of construction and different owners, some things stayed the same: honesty, integrity and ethical work. We've just always had a good name. You hear that with employees and vendors. I also hear it to this day from people that worked with my grandfather, uncle and father that are now older, retired folks.
My grandfather learned the firebrick trade in a tin mill in the '20s and '30s. Then, through the depression, he was a bricklayer with Local 17 New Castle, Pa., then a masonry contractor and a homebuilder.
When World War II was over, my uncle and my dad came back from fighting and my dad stayed with my grandfather on the residential and light commercial/industrial side. After a short stay, my uncle went his own way on industrial and commercial work. ... Through [my father's] career, he had built numerous schools, commercial and other buildings, and that's what we tend to do now. Our industrial work is just a small part of it.
Masonry: Your company completes institutional, industrial and commercial projects, ranging in size from office structures to 300,000-sq.-ft. shopping plazas. To what do you attribute this diverse portfolio?
Stevens: By adapting and being aggressive. We bid, chase and follow through on job leads and job bid invitations. We seldom say no to anyone who has called for work opportunities, even to a fault.
Masonry: You won Honorable Mention for the New Castle High Jr./Sr. School project. Tell us a little more about this project and what made it particularly special.
Stevens: We are very proud to have been named Honorable Mention for the New Castle High School project from the Mason Contractors of Western Pennsylvania 2005. This project is a complete new school, and encompasses approximately 250,000 square feet new, and 50,000 square feet of a renovated field house and locker complex. The project is the single largest project in New Castle, Pa., in 80 years. It is a state-of-the-art structure that houses 1,200 to 1,500 students, ranging from grades seven through 12. The auditorium seats 3,000, and the field house seats 5,000. It is a dynamic, stately brick/cast stone/ground-face CMU structure. It is a combination of steel and masonry loadbearing.
Our whole family are graduates of the original New Castle High School. Seldom do you get the opportunity to construct a brand new school, in your own community, especially your alma mater.
Masonry: What advice would you offer a budding mason contractor?
Stevens: Keep your nose to the grindstone. Persevere. Be honest. Work hard. Treat everyone fairly, including yourself. Too many times, we as good people, let ourselves be taken advantage of by unscrupulous contractors, developers and owners ... and sometimes even associates. [Budding mason contractors] should work for companies that share their ideals and move away from those that don't. Keep good, knowledgeable, productive people around you and get rid of the dead weight.
Masonry: What has been your most challenging project to date, and how did you overcome the obstacles it presented?
Stevens: The most challenging job thus far has been the New Castle Jr./Sr. High School. We overcame the obstacles by meeting or exceeding all scheduling dates, properly manning the project, being a team player and communicating with the general contractor and contract manager, and on occasion, the owner. We produced quality masonry work in an economic, timely manner for the benefit of all involved: the owner, the students and the taxpayers.
Masonry: What do you feel is the biggest misconception about the masonry industry?
Stevens: One of the biggest misconceptions is that we are just "dumb bricklayers." We are far from that. We all may not have degrees, but our education, for the most part, is self-taught. Without us, buildings would not be built. We are the backbone of the construction site.
A construction management professor once told me, "Masons have the shortest arms in the building trades." We in the class asked what he meant by that. He said masons and mason contractors never pat ourselves on the back! It's about time we did.
Masonry: What would you do to change that misconception?
Stevens: Educate the owners, architects, developers, general contractors and construction managers. Educate these groups by way of the MCAA and various associations we belong to. Promote masonry from within. Educate at the local school career days and job fairs. There are many avenues to utilize. I particularly enjoy the benefits of the International Masonry Institute (IMI). As a signatory BAC contractor, we enjoy the expertise and resources of the IMI, along with the numerous benefits of the MCAA.
Masonry: What are your three biggest concerns in keeping your company successful?
Stevens: A qualified, ambitious, drug-free, intelligent workforce; diminishing market share; and prompt payment issues.
The drug-free, qualified workforce is something I think everyone's struggling with. I see that as being a major problem. I don't see the unions taking this seriously enough. I see them telling the rank and file when the drug test will be held - three months from now at the local union meeting. Well, that's not doing the contractor, or the individual, or the industry any good. You're giving a guy a chance to clean up [temporarily, just to pass the test]. I think it's time for the industry to take it very seriously.
Within the industry, I don't think masonry is thought of very highly. I think we're thought of as grunt workers and hard workers. But without us, you couldn't build America. The people who are so-called "educated" tend to look down on us. There is a bias against the blue-collar worker and the blue-collar construction company. I think one way to help correct that bias is to take the drug problem seriously. Find out if it's out there. Put steps in to correct it. If that means getting a new workforce, then get it. We're not doing anybody any good by looking the other way. The idea is to get everyone to better themselves, and if they want to make a career of it, then be the best. It all comes back to accountability and individual choices.
Payment issues are also a major concern. I would say we're a mid-size company and we find that bond claims and lawsuits that we've dealt with - $50,000 bond claims and under - are just about useless. They will fight you every step of the way, dollar for dollar. For instance, we had a case where we were owed $17,000 or $18,000. We finally got a check for $13,500, and I had to pay the lawyer $13,000. So, you have one year of stress, aggravation and non-productivity, in a certain sense, because it's always on your mind. It wears on you. You burn bridges because people are not honest, because certain things have happened out of their control, because bonding companies don't do what they're supposed to do.
We need laws and the MCAA legislative committee to lobby for laws that have some teeth. Unless there's a problem, the owner should not be allowed to occupy his building until all his or her debts are free and clear. That doesn't seem unreasonable. We're held to the fire every day that we sign a contract. We have schedules and commitments and we have to work, probably, as one of the hardest trades out there and usually make up for everyone's lost schedule time. ... If you're performing how you're supposed to perform, and you're accountable for what you do, then they should be accountable to pay. There shouldn't be all these gray areas and loopholes.
Finally, I think the market share, in our case [union], is diminishing more and more with other materials, non-union contractors and "double-breasted union" contractors. I've seen a lot of tilt-up buildings in our area, as well as poured foundation and basement walls, partly due to a lack of qualified manpower and partly because of scheduling. It seems they can't find enough qualified masons - union or non-union - to construct housing in our area. Although we are not currently involved in the residential market, it is my understanding those contractors face the same issues.
So, we lose market on the tilt-up, on the steel studs/drywall fire systems and interior partitions. We lose market on exterior curtain-wall systems, panelized masonry and EIFS applications. We also lose market because architects and owners seem to have this premise, when they value engineer a building, so to speak, the first thing they start "whacking" is masonry. And that may be good for the budget and for the school board, or owner to approve it short term, but is it really good for the lifecycle building? You just cut a 50- to 100-year lifecycle lease down to 15 years. And then there's the possibility of lawsuits from mold, along with higher lifecycle maintenance costs.
I think our industry has to do a better job promoting the longevity, the beauty and the endurance of masonry.
Masonry: What do you feel is the industry's biggest challenge in the near future?
Stevens: Qualified personnel and a qualified workforce. Once, masons and trade schools were proud to teach young men a trade. Now it seems that most masons want their sons and daughters to go to college. Most high school career offices push college. Few guidance counselors and student peers discuss building trades in general, and masonry in particular, as a solid career choice.
Again, get involved with your respective associations. Take advantage of continued training offered by the BAC/IMI and MCAA. If we don't promote masonry, who will? A good productive, qualified journeyman mason can earn a good living in this trade - upwards to $40,000 to $60,000 a year, including benefits. We need to get that message out.
Masonry: Where do you think the masonry industry is going to be 10 years from now?
Stevens: In a five- to 10-year outlook, I see masonry losing more and more of it's market share, with the introduction of more different, less labor intensive and less "skilled" methods of construction. ... Less and less drug-free, motivated Americans want to be involved with hard work and building trades. ...
I also see the unions losing more and more market share. They are not pro-active enough to be competitive. I also see the masonry industry consisting of very large contractors and very small contractors, with the mid-sized builder, such as ourselves, being pushed further and further out of the market, especially on the union side.
Although those candid observations look bleak, we will not give up; it's just another challenge to overcome, and Stevens Masonry will.
Masonry: What do you think will be the masonry industry's biggest competitor in 10 years?
Stevens: Speaking from a union mason point of view, I think the biggest competitor will probably be the third-world, Spanish-speaking immigrants that will comprise the main workforce. ... With the masons I've talked to, nobody cares if they're brown, black, yellow or green; all they care about is drug-free, quality, good people. If [the unions] don't organize some of these folks and get them in the workforce as we lose more [workers], we're going to be at a real disadvantage. We're going to have an aging workforce with a high cost value. The industry as a whole is going to change dramatically.
Some of my non-union friends that I know through the MCAA also seem to be affected with this kind of issue. Each group of immigrants that comes seems to cut the price of the one before it. It drives labor down, which is not good for the industry because you will not attract quality people; you'll just attract people to do this for a little while and move on.
Masonry: Which group do you feel has the bigger impact on masonry's future: architects, engineers or general contractors?
Stevens: Architects, by far. They design the structures that we build. We need to lobby architects and educate them. We need to get involved and show the cost comparisons and the lifecycle costs. The most prudent designers and architects will incorporate masonry.
Masonry: What do you like most about being a member of MCAA?
Stevens: I like that they have a technology advantage. I have since asked to join their Legislative Committee. I think they're the only group that I know of that will actually go down and have face-to-face meetings with our legislators. No matter all the different points of view that may be brought into a meeting or all the different contractors, at least you're going there with one voice to express concerns on behalf of the whole industry.
On the union side, with as many years as being a union mason contractor - celebrating 20 years this year - I don't remember once anyone going to speak for us, except they would maybe tell you to vote Democrat or to vote for a certain candidate. I don't remember any kind of forum where you could go talk to them on any of these issues.
I think the MCAA is progressive and they're proactive.
About the Author
Masonry, the official publication of the Mason Contractors Association of America, covers every aspect of the mason contractor profession - equipment and techniques, building codes and standards, business planning, promoting your business, legal issues and more. Read or subscribe to Masonry magazine at www.masonrymagazine.com.