July 20, 2008

Longtime Construction Group Leader Retires Again ~ Sort Of

By Melissa Campbell, Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage

Jul. 20--Dick Cattanach is going to try retirement again. Well, sorta.

He's no longer tied to the executive director's desk at the Associated General Contractors of Alaska. He handed that over to his replacement, John MacKinnon.

"I've learned you can't work 10 to 12 hour days and then stop," he said. "I tried retirement once. I had no plan. I tried volunteering, and I was terrible at it. I was miserable for the whole year."

Cattanach, 66, will now head up AGC's education foundation, an organization he worked to build.

Theoretically, the foundation work is a part-time gig, but one whose mission Cattanach has spent nearly a decade touting to anyone who would listen. And he's not ready to hand it over just yet.

"It was kind of my brainchild," he said. "I want to get it up and running. I've got a vision -- not necessarily the right vision -- but until I can find someone with a common vision, I'll be involved."

Cattanach has spearheaded efforts to increase awareness, and the number of workers, in one of Alaska's biggest industries for more than 30 years.

Cattanach attended high school in the farm town of Owen, Wis.

He later attended the University of Wisconsin -- Whitewater, and eventually earned a doctorate degree in accounting from Arizona State.

Cattanach taught at the university level for several years, including at Oregon State and the universities of Mississippi and Denver.

"I enjoyed teaching -- I had decided that's want I wanted to do," he said. "Later I realized, while there were a lot of rewards, teaching the same courses became routine. I realized I'd become the kind of teacher I didn't like. I was bored."

Cattanach has always been one to follow opportunity. And in 1974, Alaska was chock full of them. This was the year President Richard Nixon resigned, Patricia Hearst was abducted and pocket-sized calculators became all the rage. Big oil had invaded Alaska -- construction was about to begin on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Cattanach got a job offer to work as the chief financial officer of the Alaska Bank of Commerce, based in Anchorage. In the 1970s, people poured into the state. Businesses needed loans to grow, and financial institutions were happy to oblige.

At the bank, Cattanach served on committees, including on the AGC board. He met a fellow from Rochester, N.Y. About the time the pipeline was completed, in the late 1970s, the New Yorker offered the young banker a job back East, working as the assistant director for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. The job description was to keep federal funding coming into the school.

Here, Cattanach honed his skills testifying before the federal House and Senate appropriation committees.

Then, in the spring 1980, Cattanach got a call from Alaskan Derald Schoon. How about investing in a construction company? Schoon and Cattanach, along with Bill Puckett, joined to form Unit Co., a partnership that held for nearly 20 years.

"You go where the opportunities are," he said. "I probably wouldn't have left NTID, but Alaska was an exciting place when I lived here. It was like coming home."

Cattanach handled the money, while Puckett did the estimating and fieldwork, and Schoon served as the president, networking in the community.

Here for the boom years, Cattanach returned just in time for Alaska's economic bust, the result of spiraling oil prices and those free-flowing bank loans of the pipeline construction days.

Dozens of financial institutions across the state folded, including the Bank of Commerce. Also heavily affected were construction contractors. Unit Co. was no exception. Staff was cut back to just the three owners.

"There was no work at all," Cattanach said. "The prospects didn't look good. We had just bid a job and finished second. I was in Wisconsin and Derald called. We decided to close up. The next day, we got a call that the low bidder backed out."

They got that job, and then another. It was enough to carry the struggling company through the worst of it.

"It was tough times," he said. "You have to let everybody on your staff go, and when someone called, an owner picked up the phone. We had about 18 months of that. If you lived through that, you run a different kind of company than if you didn't. You're more apt to pull back early."

After 18 years with Unit, Cattanach sold his share to his partners. His wife at the time had taken a job in South Carolina. Cattanach decided to retire and move to the South. But the couple soon realized the marriage was over.

About that time Henry Springer, the executive director from AGC of Alaska, called. Springer was set to retire and was looking for a replacement. A failure at retirement, Cattanach raced back.

It was the early 1990s; Alaska was shaking off the dredges of the recession -- thanks largely to the Exxon Valdez oil spill -- while it mourned the death of the Anchorage Times and awed at the awakening of Mount Spurr volcano.

As the 1990s progressed, construction began to pick up again, for the first time in a decade. Yet even while working for Unit Co. -- again serving on the AGC board -- Cattanach spoke about the industry's pending labor shortage.

"We all knew it was going to happen, but nobody was doing anything about it," he said.

As work picked up, AGC members began to demand action. First order of business: Get people to listen.

"Nobody was doing training, nobody was focused on construction. There was a huge need," he said. "We'd go to Juneau and say we need to do something, and they'd say, ?Right, it's a problem. What do you want to do?' We didn't have an answer. Now we've got one."

For nearly a decade, it has been a constant, monotonous drumbeat: The construction industry needs a thousand new entries a year to replace retiring workers and to maintain the current workloads. That doesn't include the countless others who will be needed to build a gas pipeline.

Cattanach got on his soapbox at every opportunity to encourage more funding for training, to push the university to offer more classes, and to chastise the Anchorage School District for not talking to kids about industry jobs.

Eventually, ASD Superintendent Carol Comeau walked up to him and said, "You know, I'm tired of getting kicked around by this. Let's work on it."

They came up with the concept of the Anchorage Construction Career Academy. At the time, the state hailed a $1 billion surplus. It was time to head back to Juneau and House Speaker John Harris.

"I went to Harris and said I need a million dollars. He rolled his eyes and said everyone needs a million dollars," Cattanach said. "But I beat the drums and everybody supported it."

Meanwhile, representatives at the University of Alaska Anchorage wouldn't even return calls. Eventually, the university approved an associate's degree in construction management, with a bachelor's program on the rolls soon after. The first bachelors graduated in May.

"We think we'll need 50 to 75 bachelor students a year," Cattanach said. "Almost every student, if they wanted a summer job, got it."

Support came from the Alaska Works Partnership, homebuilders associations and the state Department of Labor, among other organizations.

The programs Cattanach and a handful of converts have accomplished just in the past few years is impressive: A full-fledged construction academy that is now being expanded to a half-dozen communities across the state; high-school and university degree programs are expanding; and there's a growing base of employers to put graduates to work.

And state and federal governments, and more notably the private sector, is forking over millions of dollars to support it all.

Cattanach's change in job titles came down to timing. Over the past several years, he had spent more time building awareness and raising money to go toward training and education. More than $5 million a year is funneled through the foundation for the academy and a handful of other training programs.

"Other AGC activities were being ignored, and members pay for those other things," he said. "It got to the point where I couldn't serve both and do a good job."

The foundation is talking with officials from the Alaska Housing and Finance Corp. to train Alaskans to weatherize homes. The weatherization program is funded through a five-year, $300 million grant.

"There's a lot of building in that, and a lot if rural Alaska," he said. "Training youth and adults in rural Alaska will bring income into those communities, and help them solve their own problems."

Preliminary discussions are also underway to work with the Denali pipeline group for training.

Melissa Campbell is the managing editor of the Alaska Journal of Commerce. She can be reached at [email protected]


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