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Three Little Words

South Dakota has a strong agricultural base. In fact, it’s the largest industry in the state. Hay, sunflowers, soybeans, rye and wheat are among its crops. And much in the way that some of the oldest construction companies are family businesses, so, too, is farming. Where he’s from, says incoming AGC of America President Mark Knight, that pitch-in-and-help mentality is almost a prerequisite.

“In a rural agricultural area, the farm community needed help from the kids,” he explains. As such, in the days he was growing up they were hardly playing with Matchbox cars. “At 13, my friends were driving grain trucks,” he laughs.

For Knight, however, it was a Push Cat, which he ran for his father’s small construction company in the summertime. At 14, he graduated to a scraper. “In South Dakota, kids get their learner’s permits at 14, but I didn’t need one. I was already driving heavy equipment!”

In fact, but for a short stint in 1977, when he graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in business administration, he has worked in the construction business – primarily highway-related construction – his entire life.

“Back then, we didn’t travel much,” he says. “Now we can’t get within a hundred miles of home; we work in multiple states – Wyoming, Montana, western North Dakota…” As such, Knight finds himself driving a lot, and on the stretch of Highway 12 that runs between his office and home, he often reflects – because his company, Foothills Contracting, built most of it.

“That’s the thing with the construction business,” he says, like so many other AGC members, “when you’re done at the end of the day you get to see what you built; it brings tremendous satisfaction.”

“Mark is a builder’s builder as well as an industry leader,” says outgoing AGC President Chuck Greco. “He will lead AGC with a calm, decisive demeanor.” His style, says Greco, “is like someone who unquestionably guides construction professionals to execute successful projects, but also has the ability to be impactful with those who are not builders, but related to the success of our industry efforts.”

And so Knight’s theme for 2016 – Ready, willing and able to meet the industry’s needs – will be in part about tapping into the wonderful resources AGC has at its disposal, creating new opportunities for members to shine and infusing fresh young blood into the leadership, allowing the association to evolve into something even more suited to tackle its needs and the challenges members are facing.

This part of the 2016 plan comes two-fold, a one-two punch of existing experience and the knowledge that new ones are always there to be had.

“We really are ready,” Knight says. “AGC has a great staff – loyal, honest, and hard-working. It shows up with Steve Sandherr and Dave Lukens and their senior staff. I think they’ve been at it for 20 years or something on average…It points to our organization’s credibility and knowledge, our great group of volunteer contractors.”

That last bit, he notes, is why it all works. “The reason we have such good contractor involvement is because AGC believes in being contractor-led. Steve and Dave encourage the leaders to take the reins, but we’re very cautious, making sure that we stay true to our values and our history, but yet willing to evolve.”

Over the years, Knight has found that AGC does an exemplary job of cluing in the membership on why decisions are made. We’d like to go out and talk to the membership,” he explains, “vetting whatever the issue is, very well, and getting really good buy-in before we make a move.”

That said, times are always changing. Evolution is essential for survival. This can be a hard lesson for those who are set in their ways. Knight has nearly 30 years of active AGC involvement on his resume, but his earliest experiences are what solidified his belief that change – and a steady infusion of new blood – is one of the things that keeps the association vital and healthy.

In 1986, Knight received a call from a fellow contractor. He was 31 at the time.

“He was an older gentleman and sat on the AGC board – he may have been president of our state chapter at the time. And he said, ‘We’re trying to get some good, young people involved in our association.”

Knight was interested.

“I went to my first meeting and everyone was wearing coats and ties, dressed to the hilt, looking proper and businesslike. They seemed really old,” he laughs. “I realize now that they weren’t that old. But I watched and I learned. I wanted to emulate them. I wanted to lead.”

Much like the members who pulled him into the fold, so, too, does Knight want to inspire the same service in AGC’s youngest members. And so with his wild-card picks – the
board positions an incoming president can appoint at his or her discretion – Knight is filling the dance card with the young, vibrant members who will help assimilate AGC’s up-and coming into the membership where their influence can be felt.

“The oldest members aren’t very shy,” he says emphatically. “We just say what we think, but we’re often full of older ideas because, ‘Yeah, these are the ways we always did it.’”

Conversely, Knight says, he’s hoping there will be activists amid the young blood.

“Once in a while, I need someone to raise their hand and say, ‘Bullsh*t… Look guys, you’re looking at this wrong. This is how we see it.’”

The new crop, he says, do things differently, communicate differently.

“They do things we older members don’t do – don’t want to do. Twitter is a great example. We don’t like it!” he laughs. One of his board-member selections, a young woman, brought that up at a recent meeting.

“Tweet this and hashtag that. We don’t hashtag!” he says, before turning serious. “Many of us don’t understand how the younger generations communicate but we have to find a way to assimilate things like social media. These members are the future of our association. And they are willing, excited even, to participate. But we can’t expect them to do it the way we have in the past.”

As a young man helping to run the family business – then a newly infused member of AGC amid the membership that was the old guard at the time – he quickly learned the value of asking questions.

“It’s something I still do to this day,” he says, and being able to do that is one of the benefits of being in AGC. “You’re involved, you’re building relationships with others…”

Years back, when design-build was growing in popularity, Knight never thought his company would need to work on such a project. “Out in the middle of the country these things often take six, seven years to get to us from the coasts,” he jokes.

Lo and behold, a $3 million design-build project comes up not long after.

With no real experience, Knight knew it would have taken an eon to learn the process. Instead, he made two phone calls – to AGC colleagues who were already well-versed in it and willing to share their knowledge.

“Within a half-day,” he says, “I had all the information I needed, proven and tested because these people have been through the process already. I didn’t have to recreate the wheel.”

That’s the value, he notes, of belonging to an association and building relationships and making friends: the sharing of information.

At the annual convention, says Knight, he will stand up in front of roughly a thousand people.

“And when I look out there I’ll be able to say that every day, Americans get up, drink clean water, and they drive on a highway, go over a bridge, head to school, or a hospital,
or an office building; they may go shopping at a mall, and buy goods and services that get to the store by railroad. Wherever it is they’re going: we built it. Every person in that
room will have touched something that Americans depend on every day.”

AGC, he notes, covers it all, “from buildings to highways to rail to airports to ports of entry and military bases – we represent constructors from all walks. We’ve got all the resources available to do whatever the membership needs: we are ready. The staff is eager to take on anything that comes along: we are willing. And we have built such great relationships within the federal agencies in our nation’s capital, within the congressional delegations, with one another – plus we are strong financially, so we are able.”

Greco echoes his successor’s sentiments and touts his abilities to put the plans into action.

“When [Mark] starts his presidency there will not be a learning period; he is ready now to make an impact and knows the idiosyncrasies for AGC of America like the back
of his hand,” he says. “He is truly an AGC patriot.”