Face to Face: Jerry Walker
Jerry Walker: Gypsum Association's primary mission is to enhance the use of gypsum board and products in North America. It was chartered in 1930 in Chicago, with about 20 companies as initial members. About a year later, 17 or so more became members. Within a year of official formation, membership was in the upper 30s. The bylaws stipulate that firms or individuals that join must calcine gypsum and manufacture gypsum board. Any firm (or individual) in the United States can join if this criteria is met. Firms in Canada or Mexico can join as associate members. Although Canada is represented, there are no official Mexican members yet.
W&C: What was your background when you became involved with GA and what was the status of the association?
J.W.: Immediately prior to joining GA, I was staff vice president for the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association, and I worked with independent lumber dealers around the country. When Vic Abnee, my predecessor at GA retired, the selection committee looked for a replacement and settled on me. I'm only the fourth executive director or CEO of this association in 73 years. That's a good history of longevity. Before that, I was a classroom teacher and school administrator. I also worked for the American Council on Education as an administrator of the high school GED program and ran that program for number of years.
W&C: What did you plan to accomplish when you joined GA?
J.W.: The GA has always had the reputation of being an excellent technical resource for its clientele, consisting of architects, drywall contractors, designer specifiers, building officials and its member companies. Its goal is always to provide a clearinghouse for good technical information on gypsum board and its application. My goal when I came on was to review all of the technical publications that the association produced and, having been an English major, I wanted to bring them into the modern world grammar-wise-quite a chore for technical publications!
Also, I wanted to make sure all our publications were up to date and current, and had our committees review all the publications, and in conjunction with our staff, we reviewed and revised accordingly.
It is important in the operation of the organization that we continued to maintain and increase the technical expertise on the association staff, which we did. I was fortunate to have very talented people work with us on the staff. I never want to throw stones but I was disappointed when I came in regarding the amount of time it took to produce a publication or get anything accomplished in committees. I wanted to speed up this process, and make more efficient committee deliberation and output. The member companies made great contributions to the industry by allowing their technical experts to serve on these committees, so we took full advantage of their expertise.
I also wanted to make the association more efficient. Operationally, GA is a non-profit association and one does not run an association like a manufacturing organization. A manufacturer makes a product, an association does not-it offers services. Therefore, one does not run it quite the same. However, one must still run an association using good business sense by keeping a watchful eye on the budget and how resources are expended. Over the years, with the support of the board of directors, we've been getting good bang for our buck.
W&C: As someone educated in the educational field, how did you acquire construction expertise?
J.W.: For 30 years, I had a keen interest in construction. I designed and built two houses I lived in; that is, I submitted the plans and built them with my own hands, a result of an innate interest in how buildings are put together.
Also, as a trained educator, I can make the leap in logic, take a complicated concept and translate it so many people on different levels can understand it. That was one of my skills from the education background: I can look at a technical issue or concept, break it down and rewrite it so that the layperson can understand it.
The third part of my experience is having the ability to work with technical experts in the industry. When I came on, I traveled to many gypsum plants to see how their operations are carried out, sat on ASTM and various other committees. I went through a learning process about the gypsum industry. Some of the most fascinating evenings I've had are talking to old gypsum guys, whose heydays were the 1950s and 1960s, and their getting the industry off the ground.
W&C: What are some of the things contractors really need to focus on and what are some of the main factors in their success?
J.W.: Some drywall contractors are fantastic business people who run great companies and produce great work on the job. As with any building material, you can get shoddy workmanship but I don't spend time thinking about that. I prefer to think that gypsum board is the most economical building product for what it is and what it gives you. Ninety percent of interior surfaces of walls are gypsum board and no other product offers close to the value of gypsum board.
Drywall contractors want to buy their product at a reasonable price (GA does not get involved in price) and manufacturers set a good price. A few years ago as many recall, there was a shortage of board. What happened was Economics 101: The industry's capacity to produce wallboard was not enough to keep up with demand. Since that time, the industry has built 10 new plants. Prices go up to accommodate the investments of the manufacturers in being able to produce the amount of board in demand. Contractors may ask why they should pay more for the same board but the question becomes: Would you rather pay a bit more for a good product that is there when you want it or pay less and possibly experience another shortage? With no board, the housing market comes to a screeching halt.
The housing market has been leading the country out of its economic doldrums. The manufacturers of products and developers cannot take as much credit as low mortgage interest rates. No matter how you slice it, mortgage interest rates have an impact on the success of the construction industry, residential in particular. Having said this, as long as interest rates are low (less than 6 percent) then the residential market will continue to grow. This is a critical factor in continuing success of the residential market. Currently, the industry is on a track to set a new record in production.
W&C: Do drywall contractors need to be strict in application of the product regarding codes?
J.W.: We have a technical answering capability here and get calls from contractors, building officials, architects, etc.; we get many questions about gypsum board. Contractors who install fire-rated gypsum board systems have to follow very specific guidelines or specifications to apply this and there is no room for error. In non-rated systems, there is not as much of need to be absolutely sure a system is built in accordance with particular design, allowing some flexibility among contractors to do some different designs.
I have been very impressed with the work that contractors do. From time to time, there may be an occasion to say you came across workmanship that wasn't up to par but we don't hear about much of that here.
W&C: How do you see ways drywall contractors can expand their businesses?
J.W.: In our promotion efforts, we promote the use of 5/8-inch board in homes instead of 1/2 inch, because it offers better sound isolation and sound attenuation, along with some safety benefits. To a contractor, this board would be considered an upgrade, meaning there is more money in it. We also try to promote some innovative designs in creative ways of using gypsum board, illustrated in the contest we sponsor each year. If someone comes up with an innovative way of using gypsum board, he can charge more. Probably in my experience, the best way to increase profits is the more board they hang, the more money they make. If they can hang more board faster than that is probably the best thing for their bottom line.
W&C: With the increasing Hispanic workforce in construction, does GA cater to this workforce in any way?
J.W.: One of our training films is in Spanish. Hispanics are extremely hard and dedicated workers, and any problem experienced on the job site is likely due to a language barrier. As far as GA is concerned, we have some videos in Spanish. GA's training materials are used to train the segment of the workforce consisting of supervisors and foremen, who at this time generally don't have the need for training in Spanish. See, it's hard to determine what training should be focused on in Spanish. "Levels of Finish" technical information is not necessarily for the guy doing the level of finish installation but his supervisor. The technical information isn't really designed to go "lower" than the supervisor so the demand for Spanish information isn't necessarily influenced by the number of Hispanic workers.
When I was in the GED program, we developed a Spanish version of the test. When you develop a test, you have to "norm" it somehow, so it is fair for everyone taking it. We went to a Puerto Rican high school and normed it there, same with Quebec for a French version of the test. When talking about training and education materials in other languages than English, it's not that cut and dried.
W&C: What's your general opinion of the manufacturers?
J.W.: I'm privy to all our committees and I can tell you that the members who work on issues within the industry are extremely dedicated professionals. The top management of companies are dedicated to making a quality product. One major reason for this (remember, there are only eight United States gypsum manufacturers) is that if any company were putting out an inferior product, it'd be blown out of the water by competition. Look at it logically: No one can afford to put out a product that doesn't meet the highest standards.
W&C: What's next for GA?
J.W.: From my perspective, I think that essentially the association is on a good track. I believe that Michael Gardner (Walker's successor) will keep the same track and tweak things that need to be tweaked. One of the promises I made to the board, if they identified my successor is that I would do everything to make the transition as seamless as possible.
W&C: Are there any major accomplishments of which you are most proud?
J.W.: In Dec. 1990, there was a special meeting of the executive committee that agreed to reduce membership dues by one third. I was able to continue the association's operation with one-third less dues without missing a beat. We didn't lose anyone and of this I was proud. Not that we had a lot of fat in the first place! We just tightened our belts.
Another thing, one of our industry's major competitors started an advertising campaign almost a year ago that we felt was very unfair and misleading regarding gypsum. I like to think that I led the charge to make suggestions to fight it but that we would take the high road: We never want to be in a position where we want to slam another product but stay focused on promotion of our product. GA went to the national advertising division of the Better Business Bureau, which acts as a third-party referee in disputes in advertising. We indicated to them that we felt that this advertising was unfair. We presented the technical basis of our objections and they agreed with everything we said. I was very happy that our industry felt that this was the proper way to go.
W&C: Any final thoughts on where the industry is headed or what you'd like to see?
J.W.: I'd like to say that some of the ASTM standards that define gypsum board may need to be reviewed and possibly changed over the next few years. As far as product itself, I think there will be more use of what we term synthetic gypsum and less natural ore. Most of the new plants built have been built near an electric generating plant. We've seen this go from zero synthetic board to 20 percent of the board now made is made with synthetic gypsum. If this trend continues, it may be up to 50 percent in the next 10 or 12 years.
Finally, it's been an incredible professional and personally satisfying run with the industry. I've been fortunate to work with the giants of this industry in the last 15 years and it's an experience I won't ever forget. For all the support over the years from the board of directors and allied organizations, and publications like W&C, I'm very grateful. W&C
Jerry Walker must now look forward to spending retirement on a 100-plus acre farm in Alabama raising cows and horses. On behalf of Walls & Ceilings, best wishes in retirement.