Finding Solutions and Improving the Industry For All
by: Sunjay Mathuria
The story of the Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VRCA) is more of history lesson. The unofficial organization can trace its origins as far back as the 1800s, as a “builder’s exchange”, an informal gathering of builders and trades people. “It was more of a social club for members of the construction industry,” explains Jan Robinson, Interim President of VRCA. In 1927, contractors got together and decided they wanted their own association. And so the Building and Construction Industries Exchange of B.C. (informally known as the Builders’ Exchange) was born. By January 1928, they had 75 members and two years later, it was incorporated as a society. Surviving two world wars, members of the association helped build some of Vancouver’s greatest landmarks such as the Lions Gate Bridge and the Hotel Vancouver.
Robinson says she can just picture what the meetings looked like — suited men casually smoking cigars and discussing the current state of affairs of the construction industry. “The first Builders’ Exchange was based on the idea for owners and contractors to get together to share information about construction opportunities,” says Robinson. New members were added in 1966 and the association adopted the name: the Amalgamated Construction Association of B.C. (ACA), which combined the Victoria Building Industries Exchange, the Vancouver General Contractors Association, The Heavy Construction Association of B.C. and the Vancouver Construction Association. The newly improved association now served trade contractors and suppliers. Thirty-four years and 650 companies later, the ACA came to be very influential in the region and in 1999, the name changed once again — this time to its current name: the Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VRCA). With a territory stretching from Whistler to Hope and a suboffice in Abbotsford, the VRCA has certainly made its mark in the region and continues to serve its members in the construction industry.
Over the years, the VRCA has grown but its purposes and priorities always remain relatively the same. Early in its history, the new Exchange established a plan room. Members, particularly trade contractors, would no longer need to obtain their own set of plans or rely on the good graces of general contractors by using their plans to take off the quantities on sections of the jobs they wished to tender. Plan rooms have continued to be popular and provide a source of income to successor associations. Education has also always been a top priority. The VRCA offers everything from safety programs to youth mentorships.
“The best attended seminars and breakfast meetings are those where we invite guests in to talk about upcoming project opportunities,” says Robinson.
Networking is also a crucial part of the business. “We have different divisions in our organization. Of course, members want to work with each other — the trade contractors want to network with the general contractors and manufacturers and suppliers want to work with the trade contractors,” explains Robinson. That said, the VRCA have really well-attended events. The golf tournament alone sells out in 20 minutes and is attended by approximately 350 people.
One program the VRCA is particularly proud of is the Awards of Excellence, which celebrates its members’ work in the construction industry. In its 25th year this October, the Awards of Excellence honours the hard work, accomplishments and dedication of the VRCA’s members. “It gives the members who win the awards some really strong bragging rights,” says Robinson.
VRCA doesn’t stop at project information, education and networking though. “Another commitment is to advocacy and sharing information with our members,” says Robinson. Although the VRCA generally performs advocacy at the municipal level, they also have input in the advocacy that is done at the provincial and federal levels.
Similar to other industries, the construction industry was hit hard by the economic downturn of 2008. “This is when the value of associations such as VRCA becomes more evident,” says Robinson. “Members rely on us more for project information, networking and upgrading of skills for their under occupied employees.”
With panel discussions titled “Adapt or Die”, the VRCA won’t have to worry about losing momentum. “Adapt or Die” prepped those in the industry by discussing the future of the construction business in British Columbia over the next ten years.
“It was interesting because we had four panelists who held different positions in the construction industry and provided solutions from different perspectives,” says Robinson.
To keep informed and up-to-speed on the industry, Robinson says the VRCA tries to be proactive and aware of the issues so that they can utilize their resources to explore ways of addressing the concerns of their members. Robinson reiterates the importance of education: “Education seems to be the answer to many things.” This is evident in the multitude of courses the VRCA offers. One of the member concerns is the challenges caused by changing procurement methods. The current shift to PPP (public-private partnership) is primarily a concern for general contractors because many of them are unable to compete simply because they do not have the funding to be involved with not only doing the work but putting up the money and managing the project for 30 or 40 years after that.
“So it’s cutting a lot of our general contractors out of that game and they’re trying to figure out where they fit in and how they can compete,” says Robinson.
There are also a number of foreign companies coming in that do have the firepower to take on the aforementioned projects. While it’s a concern, a lot of foreign companies are pairing up with local companies, providing a role for VRCA members that can provide local knowledge and resources.
“Another issue has to do with the use of non-standard contracts. With foreign players coming into the BC market, many of them are bringing their own contracts which do not necessarily conform to the standards and practices contained in the forms generally used in BC,” says Robinson. “This is a good example of an opportunity for education that VRCA can provide to help our members understand the impact of non-standard clauses and how to deal with them.
So [members] really do need to adapt. They can’t bury their head in the sand and pretend the issues are going to go away. It may mean looking at strategic alliances and joint ventures. It may mean, if they can’t compete, looking at what they do best and finding a niche for themselves.”
Aside from its rich history, the VRCA stands out in a number of ways, such as the diversity of its members and the efforts that are made to bridge the gaps between different sectors. Each division has its own council which discusses their own specific issues. “Issues are different between the generals and trades. So we’re really about finding solutions and improving the industry for all,” says Robinson. “We provide a platform for our members to express their concerns and find solutions.”
Robinson emphasizes the importance of solutions rather than lingering on challenges and problems: “Be creative, learn as much as you can about the issues, find out ways that you can promote your organizations to be successful and compete in the industry.”