Take Five: Looking Forward
As one of the industry’s great PR gurus retires, he talks about what works and highlights the industry’s next big challenge.
By John English
Q.) How has the industry changed over your career?
A.) From my perspective, it has changed tremendously. It might be hard for somebody on the outside to see it because the process hasn’t really changed in decades. The biggest change I’ve seen throughout Vulcan, and really the industry, is the recognition that we can’t be successful in this industry without being engaged with a wide group of stakeholders. First, and foremost, that would be your plant neighbors, but it is also the community you operate in, the elected officials in that community, the state government, and the federal government as well. There are still a lot of misconceptions about what we do and the value we provide. I think it’s an ongoing challenge for us to communicate that, but I truly believe that just about everybody in our industry has recognized that it’s a fundamental part of how we do business.
Q.) What advice would you give your peers?
A.) With where we are now — hopefully, starting to come out of the worst recession the country has ever seen and certainly the worst downturn that anybody in our industry who’s alive can remember — a challenge always with our business is: how do you do what you need to do, and how do you maximize the value? We’re an industry where, if you can make a nickel in profit or save a nickel in costs per ton, that’s big money. The challenge is to be creative. Find out what is valuable to your stakeholders. A lot of times, we’ve learned that materials donations and employee volunteer hours are more valuable than money. The success we’ve had in our community relations activities have been, primarily, because while we have some things that we think are best practices, we really encourage our folks to get out into the community and find out what they need and how we can possibly help with that. That’s been very successful. Not having a cookie cutter approach to community relations is the way to go.
Q.) What is the biggest challenge going forward?
A.) The biggest challenge is a perennial one facing us. I’m a member of the SME (Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration) Foundation Board, so I spend a lot of time with the senior non-staff people at SME. Everybody is just absolutely panicking about how to get people to work in this industry. Here at Vulcan, we’re starting to see signs that maybe things are improving. We’re starting to wonder how we’re going to attract the number of people we’re going to need, and we’re going to need to do that quickly. Even more important, I learned at the SME annual meeting that the traditional places that have supplied mining engineers, such as the Colorado School of Mines, have professors who are retiring and there aren’t people to replace them. The real concern is that we’re going to be forced into a position where we’re going to have to look elsewhere — probably overseas. As an industry, the mining industry — not just aggregates — needs to ratchet up its efforts to ensure that we’ve got young people interested in mining and some of those people will enter academic careers to help train the next generations.
Q.) What do you wish the public knew about the aggregate industry?
A.) Oh boy, that’s a long list. I wish they knew how really committed to being a responsible industry we are. Like any industry, we tend to be judged by the lowest common denominator. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the value that we provide; how essential these products are to really every aspect of life.
When I talk to people and say, ‘That sidewalk you’re standing on is made out of aggregates,’ they say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’ We’ve had so many decades of wanting to fly below the radar that it’s really time to tell our story and do a better job, if we can. I think there are a lot of really great people who work in this industry; that’s why I think it’s important to get out into the community and get to know folks. I had a boss here one time, who famously said, ‘It’s easy to hate a company. It’s hard to hate a person.’
Q.) What gives you the most pride in either Vulcan or the industry as a whole?
A.) The thing about Vulcan that I’m most proud of, aside from being a place that’s offered me a great career, is that we really have worked hard to be a leader in safety, health, and environmental stewardship and to try and help the industry be that as well. I know that there are many other companies that are in the same boat as we are, but I just think that when you have an emphasis on people and making sure that they are taken care of from a health and safety standpoint, that says a tremendous amount about what the values of that company are. For the industry, it’s so incredible to be part of an industry that — and obviously there are an awful lot of companies that are not U.S.-based that are part of this industry — is a product made in the USA, sold in the USA, and for the benefit of the USA. There just aren’t a lot of industries that are like that anymore. When we talk with our members of Congress, we’ve tried to make sure that they really understand that. These are American jobs.
John English, manager of public affairs for Birmingham, Ala.-based Vulcan Materials Co., retired earlier this year following a distinguished 25-year career with the nation’s largest aggregates producer. On his last day of work, he shared his insights on how the industry has evolved and what challenges remain to be resolved.