Widely known as the voice of the construction industry in northwest Illinois, the Northern Illinois Building Contractors Association represents 109 member contractors who have completed more than $1.5 billion worth of construction work over the past year alone. Learn how this organization advocates for local contractors.
In late 1918, America brimmed with chaotic opportunity.
World War I had just ended, leaving the U.S. undisputedly the world’s wealthiest nation. America produced more goods and services than the entire British empire. We possessed and could manufacture more steel and other building materials than anyone else… and we were ready to use them.
The Roaring ’20s were off to an early start.
Vestiges of America’s recent past lingered, too. A rough-and-tumble labor landscape saw both skilled and unskilled tradesmen unionizing to fight dangerous working conditions and to demand an eight-hour day. Women could not yet vote. Political corruption ran amuck. And everything was propped up by an immature and fragile financial system that would unravel 11 years later.
“It’s amazing how many new things happened in and around 1918-1919 because of the end of the first World War,” says Glen Turpoff, who spent 39 years as NIBCA’s executive director between 1975 and 2014. “So many things emanated from that, as they did from World War II. But World War I was kind of a coming-of-age for the United States. We left our shores for the first time and became part of the world as a whole.”
As Americans went to Europe, they saw more than just the war. They saw the Industrial Revolution from a whole new angle: new technology, new methods, new industries and ideas, along with architecture that had not yet come to the U.S. on a grand scale.
All of that expanded knowledge came home with the soldiers in 1918. And it would keep coming as millions of Europeans immigrated to America in the years after the war. Skilled craftsmen formed master guilds featuring an apprenticeship structure – a concept dating to medieval times but now scaled astronomically by industrialization.
The Rockford area experienced all of this, accompanying the movement toward organized labor that had begun at the turn of the century. Laborers, bricklayers, carpenters, electricians plus a few more, all formed local unions between 1900 and 1918.
Meanwhile, the post-war demand for construction materials and equipment was creating a shortage. That led to hoarding and price gouging by those who had them.
“So,” Turpoff says, “a group of the builders locally just got together and said, why don’t we form some sort of a consortium, or a confederacy of sorts, where we would be able to assure that pricing would be reasonable?”
Merchant associations had been springing up around the country, establishing quality standards, maintaining stable prices and working with local governments, and presenting a united approach when bargaining with increasingly powerful local unions. Rockford’s builders met periodically and in late 1918 formalized as the Associated Building Contractors of Rockford. The concept sounded more official than the initial reality.
“They really were just kind of a group that got together,” Turpoff says. “No secretary, no employees, no formalized reason for being.”
Between 1918 and the late 1930s, this loose association grew in its interactions with the area’s unions, working with them on issues like workplace safety education and occasionally pushing back against union demands.
Did it succeed? That’s a matter of interpretation because no written records exist.
“The test, though, is the test of time,” Turpoff says. “If the organization had been failing in what it was to do, it would have disbanded. Instead, it grew.”
By the 1930s the association had expanded to a regional network of contractors covering most of northwest Illinois. Labor relations were the primary focus as the Roosevelt Administration and Congress enacted Social Security and scores of new labor laws focusing on workers’ rights.
“It strengthened the union sector enormously,” Turpoff says. “There were a number of labor laws that came out of this period that became important to the industry and, frankly, still are. And so the contractors then had to deal with a new source of strength and power in the industry.”
This was all occurring with the Great Depression as a backdrop, but some areas of the country were hit far harder than others. Rockford found itself somewhere in the middle. The area had enough sustainable industry to survive economically – and to find itself ready to help save the nation in the 1940s.
World War II meant massive industrialization for Rockford: more manpower and womanpower for new and expanded industries, which needed new and expanded buildings.
“We were essentially a machine and factory town that got converted to war use,” Turpoff says. “And so we thrived. Many of our base industries grew and strengthened.”
The contractors association grew and strengthened along with them. There was more to build, more to remodel, more to do. Member contractors got directly involved in the war effort. Some even had top-secret installations, working on factories at night behind blackened window shades. Where the association had dealt primarily with local unions, now it was forging labor agreements on behalf of its members directly with the U.S. Armed Forces.
World War II’s end ushered in another period of economic boom for Rockford that would last the next 35 years. Much of the huge workforce that had migrated here stayed, and many more would come. They needed infrastructure: not only retooled factories, but also homes, schools, roads, churches and stores.
These were prosperous years for local building contractors, and being organized was essential. In the early 1950s, the Associated Building Contractors of Rockford became an autonomous chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America. It was renamed the Northern Illinois Building Contractors Association (NIBCA), covering nine northwestern counties.
NIBCA quickly ramped up, hiring staff; created safety, health and retirement programs for union employees; bargained contracts on behalf of its collective membership; and hired legislative consultants to deal with everything from state and federal labor laws to local zoning issues.
“It’s very difficult for an individual, unless it’s a very powerful individual, to affect change or secure the status quo, whichever is the goal, without some collective effort,” Turpoff says. “So it was the collective effort of the association that allowed it to succeed into the ’50s and ’60s.”
NIBCA now was holding regular meetings (with minutes, thanks to a full-time secretary), issuing position papers and policy statements, even holding social events. A full-time director would be hired in the mid-1960s. The association’s purpose was a given – then and today.
“The fact that it’s collective action continues,” Turpoff says. “It’s just that the issues change, and the groups you have to deal with. For example, during the Nixon Administration, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) came about (in 1971). And that became a major item of concern for the contractors. They were always concerned about safety, or course, but now it became a legal and definable, penalty-laced item where you had to train your people, your foremen. You had to keep a log of the chemicals and processes that you used. There were inspections and fines.”
NIBCA responded by hiring a full-time safety director, whose safety van became a familiar sight.
“He would go around to members and members’ subcontractors, and do job site visits, do training, just to make sure that the safety rules and regulations outlined by OSHA were kept, and the contractors were saved from major fines,” Turpoff says. “But at the same time, the workmen were safer. When you think about how people used to walk iron, stories up in the air… my god.
“And now, really, everything is thought of. Your air quality is tested on a regular basis,” he adds. “Just about everything that can go wrong is in an OSHA law or regulation someplace now. The contractors sometimes say, ‘Aw, gimme a break.’ But overall, it’s been very good for our industry.”
In fact, NIBCA’s current executive director, David Anspaugh, started as safety director.
“I went around from job site to job site doing inspections like OSHA would do,” Anspaugh says. “Then I would give a report to the contractor, show them what they needed to fix or what they needed to clean up. And then if OSHA would show up and issue a citation, I would go and argue on (the contractor’s) behalf with OSHA to try to dismiss it or reduce it, to give them a better position.”
He still does that, but on a limited basis.
“Now I go out to a job site only if a major problem exists,” he says. “But I do still represent them with OSHA.”
Two major economic downturns tested the area and, in turn, NIBCA. The Rust Belt recession of the early 1980s saw Rockford’s unemployment rate reach 25 percent, the highest in the nation. As factories closed and manufacturing declined, work dried up for building contractors, too. Rockford has never returned to pre-1980s production and employment levels.
The recession of 2008 hit Rockford (and virtually everywhere else) hard, though contractors didn’t immediately feel it because the construction industry usually runs about a year behind the curve, doing work put in place the year before.
“No matter how we like to say we create change in some areas, the construction market is a reactive market,” Turpoff says. “It just is. We’re at the end of the chain. Someone has to see a need to build, based upon an economic desire or some rational reason to remodel or change or build anew. That’s economic-driven. And at the end of their decision-making process, after they go through financing, getting an architect and everything else, comes the contractor.”
NIBCA would downsize over the decade following 2008. When Turpoff retired as executive director in 2014, Anspaugh replaced him and took further steps in the direction his predecessor had begun to set for the association.
“We’ve had to streamline,” Anspaugh says. “We learned a very big lesson coming through the recession of 2008, which came very close to destroying our organization. When the recession hit, it hit us late. And so we were playing catch-up and hanging on by a thread in order to survive.”
Anspaugh and the NIBCA board reduced the association’s staff from four to two – himself and executive assistant Pat Lamb. Both today find themselves as Jack and Jill of all trades rather than specialists. She takes care of things like bookkeeping, membership meetings and events, and managing the website. His duties involve negotiations, grievances and facilitating safety training for members.
“We have a more electronic way of doing business now,” Anspaugh says. “And we’re sitting very well, with almost a year’s worth of reserves in the bank.”
One example of NIBCA’s streamlining is simply updating phone systems so someone doesn’t always have to be in the office. If both are off-site at meetings, calls route to Anspaugh’s cellphone.
“So we’ve actually increased our availability because I answer whether I’m in the office or out of the office,” he says. “We still get every phone call that comes in. We’ve improved on our ability to respond beyond office hours and we’ve done it with less staff because we use technology.”
NIBCA has always provided research for members. Today that’s all been digitized and is quickly accessible, rather than having to send a staffer to hunt through the archives.
Contractors See Benefits
Christie Stenstrom Jarrett, vice president of Stenstrom, says: “NIBCA has always done a great job of a couple things. Advocating for all the contractors here in our community and making sure that we’re a part of as many projects as possible around here, if not all. I also think they’ve done a great job of keeping us united, and together and abreast of issues. At the same time, there’s that delicate balance because we’re also competitors.”
If NIBCA didn’t exist, that sort of order might not exist.
“To be frank, NIBCA encourages a level of mutual courtesy across the board,” Stenstrom Jarrett says. “NIBCA doesn’t have control over any entity, but there’s respect.”
Rob Kapala, president of Rockford Ornamental Iron, finds his NIBCA membership useful in obtaining information on jobs up for bid, updated information on closed bids and who won them. Beyond that, he says, there’s the community aspect of just being part of the local construction industry.
“I like the fact that it’s local players,” Kapala says. “It’s not the National Building Association. That would be of little or no use. It’s a local organization and it makes you part of the community.
“Anything that ties people together is a good thing. Even if you’re just on the directory, and you look down the list of company names, if somebody somewhere is going to use that as a criterion for who they’re going to use as a subcontractor, and your name is on it, it’s worth it.”
NIBCA advocates for its members before federal and state governments, and also at an intensely local level through in groups that advocate and support referendums for better roads, schools and government buildings – projects that translate to more work for local contractors and added value to the community.
People Who Can Build Things
Turpoff, who served NIBCA for nearly 40 percent of its first century, notes that contractors here have built “everything from a nuclear plant to pole buildings.”
“When somebody comes from out of town and says I’d like to build a complex hospital here, we can do it,” he says. “We have the capacity within the confines of our counties to be able to build just about anything anybody would want. And so that’s an economic driver. But it’s capacity driven. We don’t create the need. We supply the connectivity to handle the need.”
Political and economic development leaders can then direct prospects to NIBCA’s website, where they can find member portfolios.
That breeds confidence, Turpoff says.
“We’ve got contractors who are in the top 40 Fortune companies in the country by volume. We’ve got people who can build things.”