By JIM PARKER
The Post and Courier
Maybe the best way to sum up Andy Barber’s attachment to the residential construction trade is describing how he recently marked his 50th birthday.
No wild trip to Vegas. No party with black balloons and an appearance by Father Time.
Barber, the Charleston Home Builders Association president for 2013, spent his half-century anniversary hosting the association’s chili cookoff. The event took place at — surprise — Barber’s place of business: Builders FirstSource on Arco Lane in North Charleston.
“Your job turns into your personal life,” he says.
To be clear, Barber does have a hobby, cruising around on his motorboat. “Most of my free time is spent on the water,” he says.
Moreover, the component sales manager at Builders FirstSource likes his job and the volunteer post. He’s worked in the home building trade for three decades and has been involved with the local homebuilders group for the past dozen years either on the board or in related positions.
Still, Barber acknowledges that his presidential term comes at a tough time.
“Associations in general are struggling,” he says. Years ago, networking was a key way to pick up business, so trade groups did well. Today, jobs can be handled through a smart phone or other device.
“In the 1980s, it was a roll of quarters and a pager,” Barber says, adding that he would rack up 100,000 miles a year on his car in the pre-online days. Now, customers don’t even have to call to get building material price quotes, for instance. They can see it instantly on their phone in the field.
It’s not a coincidence that the association’s membership has dwindled from a peak of 670 to about 300 today, Barber says. The housing downturn took its toll. But even with the market turning around now, businesses aren’t as quick to refill their association memberships or are trimming the number of people involved, he says.
Barber points out that he is following the lead set by 2012 president Steve Kendrick for an “outreach to the younger generation, people in their mid 20s to mid 30s.”
The association has promoted social events such as flag football games, bowling nights and happy hours at different restaurants.
Separately, the group sponsors informational events such as economic updates. The next one is June 18 in North Charleston. “Economic updates are one of the larger events we have,” he says.
On the state level, homebuilders played a role in helping to craft a new building code. The state legislature is expected to act on a bill this summer. Among the changes supported by builders is eliminating a proposed requirement to install sprinkler systems in all new homes.
The association president says cost is one reason why homebuilders oppose the sprinkler mandate but there’s a host of other issues such as the limited number of sprinkler supply companies and the worry that water systems would lose capacity if they are tied into hundreds of sprinkler locations.
Barber grew up in the Greenville area, and his family all were involved in the textile business. So why did he choose home building? He remembers watching a subdivision going up nearby and being fascinated with the work.
He graduated from Greenville Technical College with an architectural degree. In the early 1980s, he got a job with a building materials supply company and has stayed in the business since then. Barber moved to the Charleston area in 1990. He wound up with Builders FirstSource, as the company bought up existing lumberyards along the East and Gulf coasts to Texas.
Barber foresees the housing market gradually making a comeback. “We’ve seen the regional and national builders pick up the pace on sales (although there’s) not a lot of product on the ground, not a bunch” of speculative homes.
One drag on construction has been rising lumber costs. Prices are up 30 percent from their low point. One factor is increased labor rates, as the sizable Hispanic workforce is heading to jobs in South America in preparation of the 2016 Summer Olympics. The decreased supply here is driving up demand and with it workers’ wages.
Barber, who started as president in January, is not far from halfway through his tenure. He gives credit to the association’s staff including executive vice president Phillip Ford and director of events Rachel McElheny.
“Phillip and Rachel do so much,” he says, while joking, “Rachel tells me what to do, and I tell Phillip.”
Barber says the association remains a vital group. “It’s become important to act as a mouthpiece. People are extremely busy.”
The days are gone, he says, when one person alone can make a big difference. It’s more of a collaborative effort.
“If I have any legacy,” Barber says, “it’s that I participated,”
For more, visit the Charleston Home Builders Association online at www.hbacharleston.com.
Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or firstname.lastname@example.org