Meet the State Exec: FPO’s Cliff Ursich
Flexible Pavements of Ohio (FPO), Dublin, was first formed in 1962. Now, the association boasts 45 producer and contractor members that represent roughly 92 percent of the asphalt tonnage let to contract in Ohio, based on a 2012 economic impact survey.
“I’m all in with asphalt,” said FPO’s Executive Director Cliff Ursich. “Getting passionate about asphalt only comes experientially. The person that ‘knows’ about asphalt will be passionate about it. And what’s great about this is working with association members who are also passionate about asphalt.”
Ursich has been in the asphalt industry for 27 years and the executive director of FPO for the past 10.
AsphaltPro spent time getting to know Ursich and learn how FPO promotes the asphalt industry in the state of Ohio.
How did you get into the asphalt industry?
My college degree was in structures and I thought that upon graduation I would take a job in the consulting industry designing vertical stuff like buildings and bridges. That was never to occur, save a culvert rebuild during my role as a DOT assistant maintenance engineer.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from Ohio State in 1983—a time when the economy was experiencing “stagflation” I believe it was called—and the Reagan tax cuts were yet to have turned the economy upward. Jobs in civil engineering as a consultant or in manufacturing were very few. Some returned to school for Master’s degrees, and others found employment in the public sector working at highway departments and the like. I ended up at the Ohio Department of Transportation as an EIT (Engineer-In-Training).
Little did I realize this would serve as a training ground for my work serving the members of the asphalt industry as FPO’s pavements & materials engineer (the “technical guy”), executive vice president, and currently president and executive director.
What are the top ways you have increased membership in the association?
FPO does not have a formal membership drive effort. Companies join the membership for a number of reasons: 1) they want to be in the flow of information, 2) they are encouraged to join by other members, 3) networking, 4) they join for the education opportunities provided through the association, 5) they want to grow their businesses.
Over the last 30 years, Ohio has experienced consolidation of asphalt mix producers. With the improving economy, a few emerging producers have joined the association. Those who join usually have an eye toward the DOT market and they know being part of FPO will equip them with the knowledge to be successful.
Members talking to non-member producers about the benefits of being involved with FPO are an important factor. FPO has a membership and finance committee responsible for those efforts. The committee chairman always has an eye for new members and is an effective advocate. We tout the benefits of membership and encapsulate those in a professionally developed brochure.
In what month do you hold your annual meeting?
Our event, the Ohio Asphalt Expo, occurs in March and includes a trade show, heavy equipment exposition and concurrent educational sessions. The event is planned by our expo planning committee and the details are carried out by our staff.
The format of the annual meeting was changed in 2012 to broaden the educational opportunities for members and non-members alike. The association took the long view and sought to reach out to the entire industry to provide a venue where the business of being in the asphalt business could be taught, as well as techniques and technologies that raise the expertise and professionalism of all asphalt contractors.
What other activities does the state association hold throughout the year?
Rarely do we do fundraising. We do, however, have companies and individuals express a desire to participate in our asphalt scholarship program. That program began in 1996 under the leadership of board member William “Bill” Burgett and FPO Executive Director Fred Frecker, is now carried on through our education committee, chaired by Howard Wenger. To date the program has awarded 448 scholarships for a total value of $598,000. In advocating for the scholarship program, Fred Frecker expressed his vision that someday a director of the Ohio DOT would be a person who, as a student, received an asphalt scholarship. The scholarship program is a story of its own.
Does your office hold educational seminars or webinars for members separate from the annual meeting throughout the year?
Education is a big effort of FPO. Every piece we publish and seminar we put on is for the purpose of education. We believe an educated person—whether an engineer or laborer—will experience greater confidence in asphalt if they understand how it works and the benefits from it working correctly.
We like to say our mission is to help people be successful with asphalt. For if they are successful, they will be satisfied. And if satisfied, they will use it in the future—and perhaps even a greater quantity. That’s good for our members who make a living selling it.
To that end, we do regional technical seminars each year and we have a program dubbed Technical Briefings where we provide an hour-long (or so) presentation to engineering or architectural firms on their site. We have a course offering booklet for that.
Other annual educational efforts include asphalt mixture QC technician training, asphalt mix design school, field quality control supervisor training, paving operations, plant operations.
FPO is a co-sponsor of the Ohio Asphalt Paving Conference and participates in the program selection for the Ohio Transportation Engineering Conference.
We also make an effort to bring demos of new technologies to Ohio so our members have a first-hand opportunity to learn the state of the paving practice. Examples include a national demonstration of fractured slab (Break & Seat, Crack & Seat, Rubblization) technology, national open houses for perpetual pavement and warm-mix asphalt, and local open houses on SMA, smoothseal, large stone asphalt base and Superpave.
About how many member asphalt projects do you visit per year/paving season?
It’s rare to visit a job while under construction due to safety restrictions, but our paving awards program offers us an opportunity to review the completed construction. In 2016, we reviewed approximately 70 projects and in 2017, we topped 80.
About how many member asphalt plant tours do you assist/are you a part of per year?
Although we didn’t visit any in 2017, we participated in two or three in past years for the purpose of enlightening public officials on the asphalt business, its positive economic impacts and to share our concerns, mostly involving transportation funding shortfalls.
About how many member asphalt open house events do you attend per year?
These rarely occur.
And how many state agency or DOT meetings do you attend per year?
On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being none at all; 5 being very much), how much of a threat to your members’ marketshare is the concrete industry in your state?
Around a 3. I know they’re out there, and 2006 taught me we’re only one crude oil price spike away from being non-competitive. Call it paranoia!
Could you share an example of a time when the concrete industry encroached on the asphalt marketplace in your state?
Yes, it was dubbed “Tar Wars” in a Columbus CEO magazine cover story. That began in 2000 and carried through 2005. The National Concrete Industry had contracted with Price Waterhouse to develop a strategy to capture market share. Ohio was identified as the state upon which they would initiate the effort. The concrete industry marched into the state legislature and testified accusing ODOT of a “bias.”
The irony of it all was the concrete industry’s efforts resulted in improving the asphalt industry competitiveness. As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.” As research would find it, FPO’s position was confirmed: asphalt pavements are less costly both initially and over their life cycle. That was something that occurred while Fred Frecker was executive director, and I was executive VP.
On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being none at all; 5 being very much), how much difficulty are your members having in finding qualified workers for their asphalt paving or production crews?
3. I don’t have a good bead on this. However, the topic often comes up when planning training events. I hear our members speak of not having the farm boys anymore that know how to fix anything and run it, too. It’s not your daddy’s work ethic.
Workforce composition adds complexity with the integration of more females on crews. To begin weighing in on this issue, FPO is partnering up with I Build America, an AGC effort to raise awareness of employment opportunities in the construction industry. I expect we will become more involved.
Could you give an example of a way your state APA assists members with workforce development?
I point to our various educational opportunities.
On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being none at all; 5 being very much), how involved are your state elected officials in transportation issues?
4. Over the last seven years, there has been quite a bit of discussion in the state legislature pertaining to increasing revenue for transportation construction. That being said, much of the discussion relates to maintenance of local government roads. Ohio being a “home rule” state places the burden for maintenance on the local governments. The state DOT has no obligation to fund local road improvements, according to the Ohio revised code. However, ODOT continues a program of providing some funding for local roads having state significance.
On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being none at all; 5 being very much), how involved are your asphalt members in transportation issues?
4. The members’ expectations are that FPO needs to be involved in these discussions and putting together opportunities to make an impact legislatively. Since the inception of the Transportation Construction Coalition Fly-In concept, FPO has been involved in meeting with federal legislators to discuss a multitude of issues over those years. Notable items are the elimination of the crumb rubber mandate, elimination of diversions from the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), fire-walling the HTF, ridding of the ethanol exemption, etc. The association has a state PAC and uses those monies to support legislators that are like-minded and understand the importance of transportation. We also offer plant tours for legislators.
Get to Know Cliff Ursich
Why did you join the asphalt industry?
The opportunity arose for me to work with Bill Baker, an executive director who was respected in Ohio and across the nation by people in the asphalt industry. I thought of him as an honorable man who was effective in his work, exhibited wisdom and could tell a good story. Working at the DOT as a district engineer of tests, I had opportunity to observe and learn of his Christian character. My work at the DOT as a testing engineer equipped me with much knowledge of asphalt by virtue of the DOT ramping up its asphalt paving program. Joining the association was, to me, a substantial move in my career as a professional engineer.
What do you see as the most important part of your job as an executive director of a SAPA?
The most important job—as I see it—is “more tons.” My board has always emphasized that the association should focus on “industry” issues. That is not in any way meant to diminish individual service to members. As I learned in my earliest days on the job, we come to everyone’s rescue helping them with specific issues. The reality is that tons sold is the heart and soul of our members’ livelihood.
Our association isn’t involved in group discounting programs and the types of things chambers of commerce do. Our focus is doing the things that encourage customers to use asphalt, again and again. To make that happen, we focus heavily on educating pavement owners so they spec a job right. On the industry side, we train QC technicians, paving personnel on fundamentals, principles of mix design, develop new materials for emerging markets (e.g. thinlay for preservation markets), etc.
If our members’ customers are successful with their use of asphalt—that is, they are satisfied with performance—then our members will be successful. Another element of getting more tons is ensuring there are dollars for buying asphalt. To that end, we have face to face meetings with legislators, be it in DC as part of the TCC Fly-In or at an asphalt plant tour hosted by an FPO member.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Loss of institutional knowledge is a growing concern of mine. Loss of knowledge renders an agency staff ignorant and ill-equipped to administer projects. Personnel in the field need to understand what comprises quality construction. Agencies are dangerously close to not having sufficient knowledge of what questions to ask. Informed and engaged personnel are critical to the success of a construction project.
What do you find most enjoyable about your job as an executive director of a SAPA?
First and foremost, I believe this stuff. I’m all in with asphalt. I believe it truly to be the best material for road building. My wife will testify to it, as well as my children. A former DOT director noted of the FPO staff that we are unlike our competition in that we actually believe this stuff (i.e. asphalt is the superior road building material). So, we’re pretty passionate about asphalt around here.
Passion is an important element in seeing progress. Passion is what drives you to action. Passion is what gets the ideas flowing and moves initiatives to preserve and build market share. Passion is what drove the smoothseal program to its phenomenal usage in 2017 and what’s moving thinlay forward to fend against competitors. Getting passionate about asphalt only comes experientially. The person that “knows” about asphalt will be passionate about it. And what’s great about this is working with association members who are also passionate about asphalt.
What has been the most rewarding experience for you during your time as the executive director?
Though I work in the private sector, I find great satisfaction in the fact that we as an association do a public service. It’s gratifying working with FPO members to advance the quality of asphalt construction and rise to the challenge of furnishing to the motoring public an outstanding ride that gets them home safe at night. We’ve taken on many initiatives to continuously meet the challenges to improve asphalt. The camaraderie built around so noble a goal is something very rewarding.