Q&A: Lionel van der Walt, RCI
I got the chance recently to sit down with RCI’s Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer, Lionel van der Walt, and discuss what trends and challenges he sees currently in our industry, and where he thinks the industry is going.
Q: What were your biggest challenges coming into your role at RCI and the building/construction industry?
A: I don’t come from the industry at all. My whole career has been in the aviation industry. My background is working in large, international associations. I spent over 10 years with the International Air Transport Association. So stepping into the role here at RCI—managing the association is the easy part for me. I understand the structure and the value add, and the strategy to grow associations and the value of that for the members. The biggest challenge for me was getting to know the industry and building a network within an industry that I haven’t previously worked with. But I can tell you that within six months I think that was achieved to a major degree. I don’t have to be a subject matter expert in all the areas. But I’ve met with great people through my networking. I spent a lot of time with people like Reid Ribble at NRCA. I spent time at ASTM with the heads there. All these different associations really helped expedite my learning in the industry. One of the things that made it a lot easier for me was the people. The people within the industry are very professional and extremely dedicated, but at the same time down to Earth. Very approachable and open to discussing what’s happening in the business, what challenges they’re facing. Which in my experience isn’t always the case with other industries.
Q: Speaking of challenges, what are the challenges you see in the industry?
A: I think some of the biggest challenges I see are that we are in an aging industry. You can just look at the ages of the members of associations like RCI or NRCA, etc. It’s definitely an older white male group. All the associations I’ve spoken to are working really hard to bring in new talent. And when I say new talent I mean youth. Getting students, universities to really know that there are opportunities in our industry. Getting them excited about it and then recruiting out of university into our industry. Over and above that, diversity is another challenge that I see. Once again, we’re a very male dominated industry. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to see how we make it more appealing for other genders and people from different backgrounds to really look at this industry and see opportunities.
RCI has a couple of new initiatives that we hope will further our goal to foster and support diversity in our industry. One is a fundraising project to rehabilitate the Choctaw Academy in Georgetown, Kentucky. It is the last remaining structure of what was the first federally funded, racially integrated, non-missionary and non-military school for Native American boys in the U.S. Our association is spearheading a fundraising drive to restore this landmark and to illustrate the value of skilled building envelope professionals [read more at https://rci-online.org/rci-to-preserve-a-piece-of-american-history/].
The second initiative, which we are very excited about, is a cooperative agreement between RCI and the National Women in Roofing [NWIR] to further the promotion, outreach, shared purposes, and over-arching goals of the two associations. Through the agreement, RCI will become NWIR’s first Affiliated organization. We hope to increase the involvement of women in the industry with RCI and positively impact NWIR in the process.
Q: Do you currently see any industry trends?
A: If I look at the trends in the market place, whenever I’m out there speaking to people it looks like we really got a robust market place now. Everyone’s doing well, the biggest challenge they are facing is getting enough people to work on-site. That’s a big challenge also in the industry—getting people willing to do the hands on labor. Everybody I speak to has more than enough work coming in, but they don’t have the staff to complete all the work. At the previous Roofing Day that was held in Washington D.C. coordinated by NRCA that was one of the main topics we addressed there. How do we change this? And we’re very pro-legal immigration, creating a new avenue potentially for the workforce to come in, get the work done and leave again. Sort of like a migrant labor visa. So that’s something that’s important that I see as a trend that’s going to continue. And I also think that the economy is going to peak at some point in time. It’s been doing well, robust for a while. So my gut is telling me and a lot of economist are saying the same thing. Sometime in the next 18 months or year, that the economy could take a turn for the worst. So that’s something that I think we need to prepare for and that’s a role that our association plays in strengthening the opportunities for our members so when that happens we’re ready for it.
Q: Is there anything about the industry that excites and surprises you?
A: What excites me is all the opportunity that’s out there. This is an industry that the spotlight hasn’t been placed on for many years. It’s sort of the black sheep of the family if you look at various industries out there. But as I’ve gotten to learn about it, it’s really an exciting industry and there’s so much opportunity out there. So in a time where you see all these young people going to universities, getting degrees with a huge amount of debt and then they can’t find jobs—I think this is a huge opportunity for them. Our biggest challenge is making them aware that this opportunity is available to them. Generally speaking, when you go and you study engineering or architecture, the building envelope side of it is really not highlighted. It might just be one very small component, if touched on at all. So that’s something we’re looking to change and I’m really excited about that. I think there’s a bright future for this industry.
Q: When you say making the youth more aware, do you have any ideas on how you can go about doing that?
A: We’re working on a really structured campaign to do that. Identifying all the universities with programs that touch on engineering that impacts us for architecture, looking at members that are alums, what contacts they have. Starting to develop that network and working through that network to bring the awareness. I think we’ll be there in another 12 months’ time where we’ll really be well positioned to create the visibility. One of the things we also do is through the RCI Foundation, which supports bringing university students to our convention each year. This then gives the students the chance to come, see and learn about the industry firsthand. We’ve got education programs running, they get to see the exhibition area, they get someone dedicated to them who’s a mentor through the process that talks them through introductions. At our convention in March 2018, we had one or two students who directly after were given job opportunities which is very exciting. It’s definitely paying off. The foundation also provides scholarships, and through that we’re enticing students to study in this direction.
The next RCI convention is March 14-19, 2019 in Orlando, Fla. More information can be found here https://rci-online.org/register-exhibit-2019-rci-inc-international-convention-trade-show/.