Robert A. Garbini, PE.
Robert A. Garbini, PE.

As the economy emerged from the Great Recession, our industry discovered that timber was eating into a market formerly dominated by steel and concrete: low- to mid-rise buildings. For turning that trajectory around, Robert Garbini is one of 2018’s Most Influential People in the Concrete Industry.

Ironically, it was an earlier recession that launched Garbini down this path. He folded his foundations construction business in the early 1990s to join the National Ready-Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) as marketing director. He intended to return to construction when the economy improved, but was asked in 1996 to run the non-profit organization, which was launched in 1930. He’s been there ever since.

“We lost production of 200 million cubic yards between 2005 and 2009, and residential construction wasn’t coming back,” he says. “We had to look elsewhere and local paving was it. We switched gears by moving to direct promotion. The first focus was streets, intersections, and parking lots.”

He hired Dan Huffman as national accounts manager to talk with big customers like Walmart and Costco, an effort that morphed into convincing owners of specific projects to use concrete. Thus began the Design Assistance Program (DAP), which involved hiring engineers. They can’t stamp the plans, but they provide complete drawings for an efficient and durable pavement. Focusing on individual projects at the local level has been so successful that NRMCA recently launched a similar program for buildings.

“The wood and steel industries have design-assistance programs, and when something is successful I think it’s OK to emulate that. We are getting to developers and helping them. Buildings are different than parking lots because a developer is not going to stop after one building; he has many more in the planning stages. If we can get him to use concrete in one, he’ll probably stick with concrete.”

And then the wood industry went on the offensive. “They had nowhere to go when residential construction collapsed, so they pushed into the nonresidential/commercial market with multifamily and low-rise buildings. They did a check-off program and started to push money into promotion and making some headway. We told our members the future is in four- to 12-story buildings and that the battle is with wood and steel.”

In March 2015, members approved a check-off program to fund efforts to reclaim that market. The result, in April 2016, was Build with Strength, a coalition of architects, builders, engineers, emergency services personnel, and policymakers that promotes frame and post-tensioned flat plat construction, voided slab precast, insulating concrete forms (ICF), and tilt-up wall systems by providing free project design and technical assistance. NRMCA experts answer questions about specifications, durability, disaster resilience, fire resistance, sustainability, noise reduction, and cost estimating.

“It’s having an impact. Some members have put it onto their trucks and hardhats. When you think about it, it’s the ready-mix trucks, the “cement mixers” that represent concrete. Most people don’t recognize a ready-mix plant or a precast plant, but they’ve all seen the trucks.”

Some nonprofit associations operate without clear goals, but Garbini’s management approach is strictly business. “We’ve succeeded by having SMART goals: specific, measurable, agreed-upon, realistic, and time-based. It’s all about results: how many DAPs have we done, how many yards of concrete sold. I’m focused on returning to where we were in 2005 and 2006, when we produced 458 million cubic yards. Such efforts garner member support, but we aren’t ignoring their other business needs. We have lots of educational programs and just launched a workforce committee to help members obtain, retain, and train qualified people.”

Of the many industry associations in North America, NRMCA stands out as the leader in fighting to protect and build our markets and to strengthen concrete’s image with designers, builders, and owners.