The middle years of the last decade were heady times for the state of Florida. The economy was humming along and tourists from colder climes were flocking to the Sunshine State's theme parks by the millions.
The population was booming, which meant there was a need to build schools, commercial buildings, and homes. From 2000 to 2005, annual building permits for single-family homes statewide almost doubled, jumping from 106,599 to 207,939.
Then, the U.S. economy started to slow at the end of 2007, before tanking in 2008 and '09. And Florida, along with California, Arizona, and Nevada, was hardest hit. Those single-family building permits collapsed to a shocking 38,709 in '08. Insurance rates climbed rapidly after hurricanes slammed into Florida in alarming numbers in 2004-05.
If that wasn't bad enough, masonry companies had already been losing workers to residential contractors. “People were working for residential contractors,” recalls Keith Sommer, regional vice president for Pyramid Masonry Contractors' Orlando office. “It was hard to compete with the residential guys for workers. We had a really tough time hiring masons in 2003, 2004, and 2005.”
More bad news: Florida masons were also already dealing with how to keep competing materials from capturing the market. Architects and building owners were turning to tilt-up, metal studs, and sheet-rock in alarming numbers. “We were telling building owners that we just couldn't get to their projects,” says Sommer. “You tell them that and someone else will come in and take over your market.”
Adds Patrick McLaughlin, a long-time consultant to the masonry industry, “The masonry industry in Florida had been losing market share. And we had a down market. It was a double-whammy.”
Sommer stepped into this torrent of trouble in August 2008 when he became chairman of the sleepy, part-time Masonry Association of Florida (MAF). In one short but exhaustive year until his term ended in August 2009, he oversaw hiring McLaughlin as the executive director, turned the association into a full-time organization, and focused like a laser on the two issues he thought were most vital: marketing and apprenticeship.
Sommer revived an association when many were trimming budgets and laying off staff. After all, when business sours, association memberships often are the first expenses to be cut.
“It was a gutsy move,” says McLaughlin. “Keith was instrumental in designing a strategic plan to make the Masonry Association of Florida a more active, formal, and effective organization.”
For his tireless efforts to resurrect masonry in one of the industry's most important states, and for his enthusiasm and generosity in donating his time, MASONRY CONSTRUCTION magazine has named Keith Sommer as its Industry Leader of the Year.
A native of Southern Indiana, Sommer served as a mason apprentice from 1968-71 after serving in the U.S. Army Construction Engineers in Vietnam. Established by C.L. Cook 1976, Sommer landed at Atlanta-based Pyramid in 1981 after stints at various mason contractors in the South. One of his first jobs was the University of Florida football stadium, known as the Swamp. Now, he works in Pyramid's Orlando office.
As chairman of MAF, one of his first tasks was to concentrate on apprenticeships to attract more young people to the industry. McLaughlin was already executive director of the Florida Masonry Apprenticeship and Educational Foundation. Sommer tapped into the foundation, and today both organizations share the same office and staff.
He convinced suppliers such as Cemex, Tarmac, and Vulcan Materials to become more active in MAF. The association formed a ProMasonry committee, which finds jobs and determines who is building which projects. Committee members then meet owners and architects to convince them of masonry's merits. ProMasonry is the MAF's most active committee.
“He'll go anywhere at any time, and do anything for this industry,” says McLaughlin. “We've made many trips in the car, spending seven hours driving from Orlando to Pensacola to attend a masonry chapter meeting.”
Looking back, McLaughlin says Sommer “had everything going against him—losing market share, tough economic times, and people going out of business. I don't know anyone in the masonry business in the state of Florida that is making money right now.”
It's too early to say how much business the renewed efforts will bring. “We're hoping we've hit bottom,” says Sommer. “It's starting to look a little more positive. "2010 isn't going to be better than 2009, but by the first of 2011, things may pick up.”
And if business for Florida masons doesn't improve by then, it won't be for Keith Sommer's lack of trying.