How did you start your career in construction?
I didn't start out in construction. I studied journalism in college and in previous life spent time as a writer, mostly writing about music. But I grew up around the trades. My dad was an engineer at TVA and built our house, and my grandparents were trade-oriented. So I starting picking up carpentry in college because the kind of journalism I did required supplemental income. It's the typical story you hear ... I got that fancy degree and racked up debt, and then switched to become a carpenter.
I worked for my dad for a couple of years in home building where I cut my teeth in construction management. When the bottom fell out in ’08 and things got crazy in the industry, his small company folded. I was married and we were expecting a child and so I knew I had to either swing a hammer for someone else or make a run for it on my own. I started New Blue in August 2008 in the worst quarter of the worst year. At the time it was just me and I had a few jobs lined up, and then things just sort of grew from there. It was touch and go for the first years, but now our staff has grown with a focus on self performance so we have carpenters, painters and a full crew in-house today.
What kind of projects do you choose?
We do a mix of residential and commercial work and most of our commercial work centers on renovation. We're definitely remodelers. Our niche is fixing old buildings and we're comfortable in that space. The Stove Works project in Chattanooga is a good example of what we do. We're in Phase 1 renovation of a 30,000-sf old brick building from the 1920s, and Phase 2 we will be restoring a 1908 building.
How do you see the industry evolving in the years ahead?
Skilled labor is on everybody's mind. We're seeing greater competition in recruiting quality people as wages continue to rise. Wage increases is legit and is not going anywhere. Some of that is needed from a cost of living point of view but there's a balance in keeping that sustainable. New Blue has had luck with retention. We emphasize to our foreman and leads to take time to train on the job and have some good success stories on our side in training formerly unskilled guys to become quality workers.
I think the energy code and building codes will continue to constantly chase a higher level of efficiency and adapting to those requirements may be a challenge.
Why did New Blue join AGC?
AGC is positioning itself in a more forward thinking way to support Chattanooga as a building community and I am impressed with how AGC is using it's resources as an organization. AGC's continuing education is strong, and I like AGC's engagement with Chamber and other civic-driven organizations.
AGC of East Tennessee works with the Hamilton County School's Future Ready Institutes in Construction, Building and Design to help get students career-ready by the time they graduate. Guidance and mentoring from professionals in the construction industry are critical to student success. Below are some opportunities for your team to get involved and to help build our workforce pipeline:
Project Based Learning Coaching: Lead and work with a team of 9th and 10th grade students on a hands-on building project that will presented at the end of the year.
Guest Speakers: Share your experiences in the industry and what success can look like with a career in construction at student assembly.
Build It Day Vendor: Set up an interactive booth for Build It Day, a construction career day and expo for high school and college students taking place on October 17 at Chatt State.
Internships / Work-Based Learning / Apprenticeship Program Development: Lend practical industry advice to help develop employer-based learning opportunities for high school students. Members will work with faculty from Hamilton County, TCAT and Chatt State.
As a testament to the many contributions our members have made towards the advancement of workforce development and industry education, the Tennessee Board of Regents presented their 2019 Regents Award for Excellence in Philanthropy to our membership. AGC of East Tennessee was nominated by peers at Chattanooga State Community College to acknowledge many of our members' efforts, including:
AGC Immediate Past Chair Jimmy Lail accepted the award on behalf of the organization and assured Chattanooga State that we would continue working with them on innovative projects to spur workforce growth.
Chas Torrence is Executive Vice President of EMJ Construction, a family of construction services companies that was founded in Chattanooga in 1968 and has delivered more than 280 million square feet of projects across 47 states and the District of Columbia.
Tell us about your background and how that led you to a career in construction?
I grew up in Chattanooga and went to Roanoke College in Virginia where I played soccer and got a history degree. In the second half of my senior year, I was on the track to attend law school when I went to work with a site contractor in North Virginia. Based on my experience working on a couple projects with that contractor, I decided to go back to school and get a degree in Construction Management. I got my post-graduate degree from Clemson University and while I was at Clemson, I interned with a company out of Atlanta called Brasfield & Gory. I found that I loved the work, and that work eventually led to an eight year stint with B&G. Then I moved to Charlotte, NC for a couple years before moving back to Chattanooga in ’09, and I’ve been working for EMJ ever since.
What’s the experience like working for such a massive company like EMJ?
Certainly at times it can feel corporate but we try our best to be proactive and make everything feel as intimate and local as possible. With that goal feel in mind, it’s important to focus and pull in on smaller things, smaller bites of the apple, rather than looking at the company as a whole. Getting too focused on the global range of the company can be overwhelming. We are able to achieve that feel by having regional offices. We have three offices, one in Chattanooga, one in Dallas, and one in Boston and with each office we try to take a real regional approach so that folks in those offices don’t feel overwhelmed by the size of the company and that they feel more like they are part of an intimate group at the regional level.
What are the types of projects EMJ typically chose? What are some of your most notable projects?
We are mainly going to focus on projects in the $5 - $30 million range. Those projects will be a mix of anything from retail, to industrial, office, mix-use, multi-family, senior living, and health care. Out of our Chattanooga office we focus primarily on the southeast market which extends from Virginia all the way down to Miami, and over towards Texas. Once we get to Texas our Dallas office takes over.
Locally, the Ruby Falls project was very much a notable project. Over at Unum we did a $20 million renovation. We’ve also done a good bit of local school work with CCS and McCallie. Currently, we are about to kick off a multi-family project next to Unum. That particular project will be about a $30 million mix-use apartment retail project. That’s kind of the area we are focused in. I consider us to be very diverse across multiple different sectors.
How do you see the industry changing over the next 10 years?
I think the big disruptor is technology. Our industry has to figure out a way to utilize technology to make our processes and procedures more streamlined. Figuring out how to use technology to our advantage will benefit the project over all and make it a better experience for the client.
The labor shortage is a concern and we need to understand how technology can play a role in finding a solution for that issue. From a technology stand point, the questions we are asking are 1) can I help deliver a different type of project, and 2) how can I implement technology to enhance the project and the building experience.
We'll continue to see a move towards prefabrication and modular building. Modular building is where parts of the projects and buildings are being built in a controlled environment then brought to the project site and to be assembled, much like Legos.
I think that’s where the industry is headed ... finding new ways to make construction more deliverable, more efficient and more economical. It will always remain a people-oriented industry, but how those people share information and connect will be different than in the past.
Why did you decide to join AGC?
There’s a lot of benefit for a contractor to become a member of AGC, especially from a networking stand point, which is probably the biggest benefit for us. Secondly, we need to be part of the community in Chattanooga and joining AGC allows us to take advantage of opportunities that we’d miss out on if we were non-members. For us it makes a lot of sense. It’s a good thing for our younger people, and allows us to grow in the right way.
Tucker Build recently joined our chapter as a General Contractor member. Get to know Tucker Build's founder Jeff Cannon!
Tell us how you found a career in construction?
When I was growing up in Chattanooga, my mom worked for a construction company called Humphrey and Associates. Her office was always filled with a cast of characters from the construction industry that were instrumental in building Chattanooga ... all these larger than life guys that I looked up to, like Jim Horton from J&J and others. So from an early age I was surrounded by people in construction and that influenced me into wanting to construct things, and essentially I followed in their footsteps. Later on I was fortunate to work with companies like EMJ that exposed me to the full spectrum of construction.
When did you start Tucker Build?
It’s been a little bit of an evolution for Tucker Build. It was a gradual start about 3 years ago. At the time, I was focused on working with civic-minded companies and nonprofits on community-based projects, with my role to get projects on track. We tried to start Tucker Build as a nonprofit construction company but that was a difficult dance to dance in satisfying IRS qualifications. Then the need for bigger commercial projects grew out from that start, so we began taking on for-profit projects that are great for the downtown and community. We try our best to focus on the community and what’s best for the community.
What are some of Tucker Build's most notable projects?
We are pretty selective with the projects we take on and lean towards projects that are downtown and impactful. Our decisions are predominantly geographically based. We loved working on the Chattanooga Choo Choo transformation. Back in the day the Choo Choo was a cornerstone of the downtown, and now we are seeing it come back to the forefront and center for the community. We love being a part of that process of urban revitalization.
How do you see the industry changing over the next 10 years?
Two aspects stand to change. Technology has been infused into most industries, but much less so in construction. If you were to walk into an architect office now versus 10 years ago, you will see how greatly technology has affected the overall process. From a client interface perspective technology has taken over, but in the actual field itself it really hasn’t. I would hope to see technology move more into the field to improve the overall quality of work.
And the second change, in my opinion, is the notion that “low bid is the way to go.” Time and time again the industry functions under that thought process, but it is flawed because low bid doesn't usually result in the best product. Whether the bid comes from municipalities or government, I’d love to see it become more relationship and quality based than low bid.
Why did you decide to join AGC?
For us, we are much more focused on the advocacy aspect of AGC than the marketing and networking focus. At Tucker Build, if we can be part of an organization that puts important issues with the industry on the legislative forefront, then we want to do everything we can to be a part of that. Advocacy for general contractors and general contracting is the main reason we joined.
After 6 months of coursework, emerging leaders in construction concluded the first Construction Leadership Course hosted by AGC East Tennessee. The intent of the program, which was developed by contractor executives, was to expose emerging leaders in construction to the many facets of a construction business, from personal leadership development to discussing the intricacies of construction businesses. Thank you to all of the instructors and participants on this first go around, and for your input in making next year's program even better.
AGC of East Tennessee Selected to Receive the Tennessee Board of Regents Award for Excellence in Philanthropy!
Thank you to Chattanooga State Community College for nominating our Chapter for this statewide award! Only four Regents Awards are given each year to organizations that demonstrate:
>> Read the Letter from Regent Danni Varlan, Chair of Committee on Public Affairs
Across the board, members have resolutely expressed that building a better pipeline of good people into construction is critical for the industry and your businesses, and so we are preparing for big, bold moves to make that happen with these goals in mind:
Our plan is to relocate our AGC office to a much larger space that will allow us to open an attached regional construction career and training center with experiential training, continuing education classroom instruction, a technology center, safety training, job placement coordination, and remote meeting and event space for our members.
AGC of East Tennessee has been leading an initiative with Hamilton County Schools, TCAT, Chatt State, The Chamber, the City, and other groups across the region to explore and develop this ambitious plan. We are being careful not to duplicate good efforts already working but rather fill gaps and deficiencies to create a more alignment and cohesion among our workforce partners.
Fortunately for us, past AGC leaders have been savvy stewards of chapter resources, and now is the time to put those resources in action to invest in our members. Our current office building is in a high growth area with prime real estate value. By leveraging the sale of our facility and identifying other funding sources, our intent is to build a state-of-the-art, career-focused space like no other in the region. A new location has not been confirmed yet. Ideally we would like to have 30,000 sf of building space plus parking, so if you know of some land or raw space that fits the bill, please let us know!
East Ridge High School Future Ready Institute of Building and Design Celebrates Year-Long Problem Based Project
Our Chapter's partner school hosted an event to celebrate the final phase of their year-long problem-based learning project. Students picked habitat enhancement in and around the Camp Jordan area as their focus. On May 7, students placed duck boxes and bat boxes of their own design and construction in the area surrounding Camp Jordan. In addition to placement of habitat enhancement students participated in the 1st Annual Construction Olympics.
As the construction industry faces a workforce crisis with a projected need of nearly 3 million workers by 2028, quality, skilled construction workers are in high demand. Workforce development is AGC of East Tennessee's top priority and, as such, our chapter is exploring ways to increase the quantity and quality of our workforce by creating more awareness of career paths and opportunities in construction.
With this focus in mind we have been working with Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE) to develop pathways that will help build a better pipeline of skilled employees. The Executive Leadership of AGC supports the new proposed school budget primarily because it aligns with the Future Ready 2023 Strategic Plan with specific funding priorities that support future ready students.
Since Dr. Bryan Johnson took the reins as superintendent of the school system 18 months ago, we have seen seen innovation with intention that has led to exceptional progress, including a vigorous transformation in curriculum towards career-based learning to give students basic "career ready" skills and certifications by the time they graduate from high school. New work-based learning programs are now allowing students opportunities to apply their school work in real job environments.
Through the launch of the Future Ready Institutes, four high schools are now offering classes specifically centered around construction and engineering, offering more exposure and training for future industry workers. Future Ready Institutes are directly connecting private industry and employers with teachers to guide curriculum development, and with students to offer mentoring, training and stories of success.
This push towards career-based learning is critical to the success of our industry, and is providing students with an aptitude for 3-D spatial learning new opportunities to explore and use their gifts towards a rewarding career.
Equally important is HCDE’s shift in narrative that encourages students to follow their strengths instead of an obligatory push towards a 4-year degree, which has misled and isolated students with spatial learning strengths for decades.
The proposed budget increases will allow for:
Click here for more information about the proposed school budget.