Association must be ready to reinvent itself to thrive in the new procurement and demographic environment
Ontario Construction Report staff writer
Dave Baxter has experienced challenges and change in his first year as the London and District Construction Association’s (LDCA) executive director. Mark Buckshon from Ontario Construction Report invited him to answer some questions in a wide-ranging interview. Here are his thoughts.
How would you describe your first year at the job as LDCA’s executive director?
It’s been very interesting. I did not have a robust background in construction before coming here. My career has mainly been in technology-related industries, especially fibre optics. I was in Ottawa for example with JDS Uniphase, when the meltdown came in 2001, we laid off 12,000 people . . .
I had a “first retirement” and began a septic component distribution company with a partner, who died. We sold off the business, and moved on. In that same retirement period, I had a landscaping business, but I can’t say that I was an expert on construction before taking this job.
What would you say have been your greatest lessons learned in your first year here?
There’s been many things I’ve learned. I’m finding I’m having a challenge in establishing a value proposition for my members. We need to do a lot more work in making sure that the LDCA is actually offering the types of services its members want.
Next year, I have five retiring board members. That’s unprecedented here. We have an ageing population . . . and the reason some of the traditional members, the long-time serving members, would have joined the associations, are not the same reasons that the younger association members necessarily value.
There’s truly a changing of the guard going on. We’ve got to make sure that we are offering the services the new generation of members value. Otherwise, we’ll see declining membership over the next few years.
What are these changes? Is it the decline of the traditional plans room in the electronic age?
The electronic plans room is one of the big issues – for associations it represents a significant part of the revenue stream. Take that away, and we’ll be scratching our head about where we get the next dollar from.
The biggest challenge is the change in the whole marketplace over the last few years. In the past, as the local construction association, you had great relationships with local owners, the city or township you operated in, which saw you as local presence, colleges and universities in town, you had great relationships with people, and it was the automatic thing to do when they had construction projects, to send the plans to you.
That’s all changed now. We don’t work just with the people who are responsible for facilities, who are no longer buying construction services. Instead, construction is being bought by central purchasing departments, but buying a school is not the same as buying a school bus.
Large corporations like Merx and Biddingo are now offering the a soup to nuts procurement environment, and local construction associations have fallen behind the curve on this. If you talk to procurement departments for big public sector organizations, they say ‘we cannot do something that does one part of the puzzle, we need to do it all on the one site.’
How can you address this challenge?
In Ontario, the local construction associations have been focused on improving and reinventing ourselves, with what used to be the electronic plans room, and we’re looking at providing an environment which is really a procurement environment solution — we need to go beyond purely construction.
Several vendors are competing to offer services to construction associations in this aspect, such as Wadetech.
There’s 12 local construction associations in Ontario. Eleven are actively engaged in acquiring a new system. We are close to figuring out which one we want, but I couldn’t say it will be imminent that we will decide. From the LDCA’s perspective this decision will be made in the next four to six months.
I want to be clear that construction associations in Ontario are very independent. It would be desirable and advantageous for all the associations to pick the same software solution. That may or not be the case, depending on the value each association puts on the various features each system has. There may be a feature, something like mobile access, that may be very important in London but not be important to the Thunder Bay association.
What about other initiatives besides the software?
In the more general nature about providing services to members, having a golf tournament, hockey league and some affinity programs and things like that are not necessarily going to be enough in the future to satisfy the next generation of construction company owners.
I think we really have to look at what we need to do to continue to be relevant, and come up with new ideas. For example, one of the programs that the LDCA is working on is to provide a benefits package (including) both general insurance and health coverage for members. This is the type of program that will make our members sticky to the association, and would provide a real reason for them to be stay.
You’ve pulled out of the Council of Ontario Construction Associations (COCA). Do you think that will be a permanent change?
The departure is sticking for now. We’ve been outside of COCA for seven months. We don’t see any compelling reasons to go back in. The College of Trades is the reason we left, but they’re is nothing overwhelming that COCA can do for us at this time.
Just as I’m making the comment that the LDCA has to be constantly reinventing itself to provide relevance to members, COCA has to think about the same kind of thing, being relevant to the members, and that at this point in time, from my association’s perspective, COCA isn’t relevant to what we are trying to do.
Can you describe the most satisfying part of your work?
I didn’t know much about construction contracting (at the start), but have learned a lot over the last year. Part of this job is to resolve disputes – contracting and payment disputes and that sort of thing. About seven of these have come across my desk since I’ve come here. I think of all the many different tasks I deal with, resolution of these conflicts are the most satisfying to me. They are interesting to start with, and by working through the association, members also save money on legal fees – we are able to sit down and talk about things without getting a bunch of lawyers in the picture.
What do you see as your priorities for the next year?
I want to resolve the procurement and plans room situation, and see that it is resolved in conjunction with other LDCA partners, and we establish a new path forward.
I would also like to see the association is providing good solid value to our members. I think we can improve.
Also, I am hoping that through the electronic plans room initiative, that the local associations can work to be a little less independent and a little more co-operative. We are making progress in that regard, with agreements with the Windsor and Grand Valley Associations to benefit all members of all the associations here in Southwestern Ontario.
How about local initiatives and your membership?
We have 700 members, which is a bit of an improvement over last year. I would like it to be quite a bit more. I think one answer is to look beyond London to the district, in the six surrounding counties including Perth, Huron, Elgin, Middlesex, Norfolk and Oxford. There are large numbers of contractors in these areas who are not members of the association, and many of them don’t even realize that the LDCA covers their areas.
I think that these areas could provide about 40 per cent of our membership, and if that happened, our overall membership would be more than 1,000.
Do you have some final words?
I learned in the technology industry there is no such thing as a long term, which would be five years. I tend to plan for the shorter to medium term, no more than three years out. Certainly it was a jarring experience when I experienced the feast and then famine at JDS. I was there at a fairly senior level. It was a great place to be. I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to be part of that, but not everything goes on for ever.
I think it is a good thing, that I think everyone needs to learn that, in associations, not everything goes on for ever. If you don’t’ reinvent yourself and you don’t remain relevant to your membership, you might not be there in the future. I’m working to ensure that this reinvention takes place with the LDCA.