Milestone’s CJ Potts Shares Mental Health Ideas for the EAP
BY Vince Hafeli
COO interview shows whole-employee wellness for a culture of caring for suicide prevention
During 2023, I’m interviewing asphalt and other construction industry professionals who have experience expanding their safety programs to include wellness for the whole employee. After speaking with CJ Potts, chief operating officer at Milestone Contractors LP, Indiana, his excitement for building a caring culture for his workers—and beyond—moved me to share his story widely. Potts was gracious enough to agree to that.
He’s worked in the industry 38 years, moving 10 times to work in seven states. He’s been with Milestone for the past 10 years. He describes the company first by its employees. “We have approximately 2,500 employees with substantial asphalt, concrete, bridge, and general construction operations, as well as redi-mix,” he said.
“Prior to 2020, we were four separate business units owned by The Heritage Group, a fourth-generation family-owned business. The decision was made to consolidate to gain efficiencies in 2020, right in the middle of the COVID pandemic. Milestone is the construction arm of Heritage Construction & Materials.”
Milestone has 20 asphalt plants and produces about 4.5 million tons a year. The company also has substantial mainline and miscellaneous concrete operations, including sidewalks, curb and gutter, and bridge operations with redi-mix operations in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Crews also perform underground water, storm, sewer, and grading work.
“We are driven by asphalt; however, we have grown tremendously in other sections,” Potts said. “About a year ago, we also made a substantial acquisition in the Fort Wayne market that performs mainline, sidewalks, curb and gutter, and miscellaneous concrete and bridge operations. This acquisition also came with sand and gravel and redi-mix operations.”
Potts’ role as chief operating officer means he has nine direct reports, including two presidents, one in the North and South regions, and a vice president of bridge and concrete operations for the state.
“The most significant part of my life is my wife of 35 years, Julie; two kids, Nicole and Chris; and five grandkids. My son is a general superintendent responsible for asphalt laydown in our Indianapolis market. The most significant part of my work life is my relationships with the employees. I love them to death.”
Caring for the employees around him is the foundation of this Q&A.
Vince Hafeli: If I were to say the words mental health, what goes through your mind?
CJ Potts: I think it takes me back initially to COVID. You know, for years, safety has been our priority. We have something we call a Milestone Way, which is safety, quality and performance. On the leadership side, it is respect, trust, commitment and passion. At the heart of the Milestone Way is to Make Lives Better One Road and Bridge at a Time for our teams, customers and communities.
We focused on them for many years, even before I arrived, with safety being a physical thing. When COVID came around, many people started going through mental anguish and emotional things, not just at work but on the personal side away from work. So, we began to focus on opening up and the fact that safety is probably more mental and psychological than physical. We started to talk about that. We still do. Our priority is to get better at it and get to know our people better than ever before.
This year’s priority is building relationships, team building and clear communication to better understand our people and what they are going through.
We have an EAP program, but we have never talked about it as much as we have been over the past two years to help people know we have outlets for them. We are always looking for ways to support our people mentally.
I talk to our vice president of talent and human resources about mental health quite a bit. She’s amazing as a leadership team member. We have begun conversations on how we can focus more on the mental health and emotional well-being of each other and our teams. As an industry, we are becoming more aware of the suicide rate in this industry with the current economic difficulties people are having and the lingering effects of COVID.
Vince Hafeli: Have you put in new programs since you started talking about mental health more and getting people certified?
CJ Potts: We have done things over the years that were not geared directly toward mental health; however, we have a coaching program where we have certified coaches which may give us an outlet to help employees.
Our focus in 2023 will be on consistent clear communication and building relationships within our teams. We are working on a plan to be more relational about our business.
This industry is task-oriented with a get-it-done mentality. As leaders in planning our long-term success, we lose sight of our employees’ health and must create a culture where they can express their emotions and concerns.
The best way to get them to open up is to build honest and open relationships.
We have been talking a lot more about suicide and the death rate in our industry compared to the physical part of it to try to get people more comfortable. People follow a leader, and if it is not a priority of mine, it will not be a priority for others. I am just trying to keep it at the forefront and make it a priority.
We have not figured out more ways other than the EAP. I am trying my best to work with my team to devise ways and things that might work for the organization and the people in it, especially addressing mental health.
Expanding the conversation on mental health wellness and suicide prevention is something each one of us can do. Signal your intention to be part of opening those positive, productive conversations by signing the Suicide in Construction Awareness Proclamation at www.TheAsphaltPro.com/SuicidePrevention.
Vince Hafeli: Does your employee assistance program provide counseling services?
CJ Potts: Yes, it does. It can be telehealth or in-person, but most people prefer telehealth. We offer financial assistance-type things where they can discuss handling their finances, counseling, and marital or relationship stuff. We have all of that within our EAP program.
Vince Hafeli: Has your organization lost anyone to suicide?
CJ Potts: Not the organization that I am aware of. One person did lose a son. He seemed to be the happiest young man in the world. He played the guitar and graduated with honors. He left home one night; they did not think anything about it. He walked down to the local park and took his life. That impacted lives forever. The healing is ongoing.
Vince Hafeli: Do you have toolbox talks that revolve around mental health?
CJ Potts: We do not. We require safety huddles every morning, on every job with every crew. We will work on that.
Vince Hafeli: What makes CJ Potts a great leader?
CJ Potts: Men my age grew up with a stigma that you should not share emotions, such as crying. That is one emotion my employees get to see because I sometimes get emotional and cry. My mother was a significant influence in that area. My dad was always this tough guy and never showed much emotion.
My team and the people of this company make me a great leader. They allow me to lead. But I think that just being open with them, showing genuine emotions, telling them I love them, being passionate about them and their families, and just showing them that a title is what you do, not who you are, is a way that anyone can be a great leader regardless of title.
The other thing I am committed to is prioritizing going to the field two to three days a week to see my employees. I know other things fall through the cracks while I am out; however, visiting our crews is important and necessary. When I am out, I try to make it a point to talk to all our employees, not just the supervisors. I can’t always get to everyone depending on the location of the work, but sometimes I just hop up on the paver and talk with the operator. I truly want them to know how much I care about them as an individual.
Finally, I know our employees work to live; they do not live to work. I know that we have to do everything we can going forward to provide the best work and home-life balance possible. As a leader, I know I lead the organization, but my job as a compassionate leader is for my employees to have a balanced life. I want them to go home happy, support their families, and not be overly stressed from working in this stressful environment.
We need to recognize that every human is created imperfectly by the God we worship, and we have breaking points; some are lower than others, but at some point, we all have breaking points.
I have had high-stress levels in my life; however, I have never been to the point where I thought about taking my life. You can get to the point where you feel like you are in over your head and you need to get out, and that is not where I want to go.
I care about the people in this industry and my family. I have a shorter runway now that I am almost 58 years old. I want to have a different impact before I leave this industry. I want to positively impact people’s lives as much as possible.
Vince Hafeli: You attended the Asphalt Pavement Association of Indiana Winter Conference and Expo. What was a takeaway for you?
CJ Potts: When I came away from the meeting, my only regret was that Vince Hafeli was not a presenter in the general session on mental health and suicide. Everyone at the conference needed to hear that talk. I wish my whole company could have listened.
Vince Hafeli is the president of Ajax Paving Industries of Florida LLC, Sarasota, Florida, working on his Doctorate in Business Administration. If you wish to share your company’s implementation of mental health wellness in its safety program, please reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you need immediate counseling, please call or text the national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.