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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Editorial Advisory Roundtable (l to r) Matt Smith, Barnhill Contracting Company; Donna Emmary, Frank L Blum Construction Co., Bob Kruhm, NC Construction News, Shan-Te’ Johnson, MACTEC Engineering and Consulting, Mark Buckshon, Construction News Group and Burke Wilson, Sharpe Images.

I learned some important things during my brief visit to Raleigh, North Carolina, yesterday. The most important lesson is how successful regional businesses survive and thrive through generations and changing economic circumstances and technologies. They maintain their cohesive and simple values of respect, integrity, and respect for competence -- while adapting, consistently, to the changing environment.

Barnhill Contracting Company has been around for 65 years and Frank L Blum Construction Company has been in business for 85 years -- Donna Emmary says her company has the second oldest active North Carolina construction business registration. And Sharpe Images, represented by Burke Wilson, has been in North Carolina for 50 years. Shan-Te’ Johnson, MACTEC Engineering and Consulting, represents the new era as larger, multi-state businesses form through expansion and mergers and change the shape of the business landscape.

Matt Smith from Barnhill Contracting and Donna Emmary at Frank L. Blum both observed they are facing new competitive challenges as out of state contractors, many of which are well funded and established, are setting up North Carolina branches to capture one of the most vibrant markets in the South. While residential construction has declined along with private-sector commercial construction, much work is either under construction or in the pipeline in infrastructure and institutional areas -- and the State has avoided the worst elements of the mortgage crisis (it implemented anti-predatory lending legislation and avoided the worst excess's of high-risk mortgages that have plagued other Southern markets.)

Everyone agreed that expertise in issues such as Building Information Management and environmental sustainability -- LEED certifications -- are now essential for survival; competence in these areas doesn't carry too much marketing weight in itself, but lack of these capacities will set them back. Burke Wilson said his business generally does better in slower times, as more copies of plans and documents must be printed for the higher number of bidders for each job. Of course, the reprographics business is undergoing its own challenges -- with electronic communications, use of conventional blueprints is declining, but opportunities still can be found -- Wilson's company, for example, has just set up a private electronic plans room with Frank L. Blum.

Changing values of course reflect the environment -- and everyone is aware that the rules of the game may shift after the November election, with the surge in black voter registrations. Panelists noted to me that since county and state officials are also elected at the same time as the federal elections, there could be major changes in the balance of local political power. No one sees this as necessarily a bad thing. North Carolina publisher Bob Kruhm remembers how, as a younger person, he sought to register to vote in neighbouring Virginia. He said he was instructed to visit some one's home, presumably to inspect him and verify his race (White) would be suitable to be allowed to be on the voter's roll.

"How can a publication serve this dynamic market?", I thought. And the answer, while not earth-shattering, is as simple as the meeting: Good will, mutual respect, and an acknowledgement that construction businesses both need to maintain their relationships while adapting and innovating -- and our role as publishers should be to encourage and engage in these relationships and provide information and insights, and work on enhancing the community and its spirit.

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