Accountant heads building contractors as savvy outsider

One on One

December 30, 1991

One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business leaders. Accountant Robert S. Permison is a partner at Kamanitz, Uhlfelder & Permison P.A. and recently was named president of the 330-member Baltimore Metropolitan Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors. On Jan. 1, he will become the group's first president who did not come from the construction industry.

Q. How is it that someone who is an accountant has ended up as the head of an organization representing local builders and contractors?

A. Lucky. My client base is mostly contractors, and about 10 years ago several of my clients recommended that I get involved in this group to help me in getting some additional clients and getting a better knowledge and being educated in the industry.

Q. Do you think the fact that you are "a number cruncher" and not a person who goes out there and actually is involved in building handicaps you in any way?

A. Well, a lot of the members of ABC thought that would handicap me, but I felt that I had an added advantage in that I saw how construction companies run, not from the inside, but from the outside.

Q. Current banking troubles are often laid at the feet of overbuilding in commercial real estate. Why couldn't the developers see this coming and not build some of these projects that are now 60 or 50 percent full or less?

A. That's a tough question. I think some developers did see it. And some developers did pull back. But the money was so plentiful and the banking, the lending policies, were so free and projects pyramid on top of other projects. I think it was almost like a house-of-cards type of scenario.

Q. I understand now that the complaint is that the banking industry is not generous enough, that there is a credit crunch.

A. There is a terrible credit crunch and what's happened is that you know people tend to overreact and so the banking industry is worried about getting their ducks in a row and making their balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements look better for their stockholders and investors. . . . Now I think once they've established that they're on solid ground, they'll start making more loans.

Q. Well, how has this real estate depression affected your members?

A. Most of ABC's members are commercial contractors. We've had a very difficult year. We had a 78 percent retention rate, which translates to about 100 members that we lost. . . . They just didn't renew their memberships for whatever reasons, whether it's tightening of their budgets or bankruptcy.

Q. What sort of initiatives do you plan as the new president?

A. Well, you know, not coming from construction and not realizing how sensitive certain issues are with contractors, I've tried to, for the past year, feel out what's important, and it's interesting, but there are three key areas that need to be concentrated on. The first is education, that the perception of our construction worker is comparable to the perception of a migrant farm worker. We need to build up the reputation and the stature of a contractor, that it's not just, you know, a beer-drinking, tattooed, you know, womanizer. . . . There's the supervisory training that needs to be done. Contractors have four-, five-, and six-year individuals that are job superintendents but they've never been taught how to supervise. They've just worked themselves up through the ranks. So we're pushing supervisory training and creating an efficiency there. And the third, we're stressing that safety and safety programs are critical.

Q. One of the biggest complaints about construction workers is the catcalls that they are constantly making as women walk past. Is that going to change or is your group trying to change that at all?

A. Yes, we want it to change. You know, it just doesn't look good. So we think that our membership wants their companies to succeed, and in order to succeed you have to have good, qualified people who are educated. Good, qualified, educated people are probably not likely to make those kinds of catcalls, so we're trying to upgrade the level of all the employees in the construction industry.

Q. Is there anything that your group is trying to do to promote sounder financial management, particularly since you're an accountant?

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