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Go Fish: Tommy Fish proves a good catch for AGC.

The first thing that strikes you about Tommy Fish, the new executive director of the Arkansas chapter of Associated General Contractors of America Inc., is that he looks like Gov. Bill Clinton.

Except for his nose, which is less bulbous than Clinton's, Fish's facial features are the same -- right down to the droopy eyes.

He's got the same haircut.

But most striking is the energy the 44-year-old executive director shows.

You would think he was the one running for president.

"It's no lie, he's a pusher," says Lewis May, president of May Construction Co. of Little Rock and of AGC's Arkansas chapter. May was on the executive committee that hired Fish in August.

In an annual members' critique of the executive director, which Fish established, the negative comments have to do more often than not with his drive.

"Too hyper," says one.

The respondent suggested that Fish give staff members more time to perform their jobs.

He can't help it.

This is a man who routinely puts in 12- and 14-hour days. And he needs a staff that can keep up.

"He's moving much more quickly than we anticipated," May says.

Jim Martin was with the AGC in Arkansas for 22 years and served as chapter manager for more than a decade. The Louisiana native had come to Arkansas in 1969 as assistant executive director to then state Sen. Knox Nelson of Pine Bluff. Nelson gave up the title in 1981.

Martin, a skilled union negotiator, worked with the builders' division of AGC, which freed Nelson to devote his time to politically powerful highway contractors. Nelson continued in that role even after relinquishing the executive director's title.

But Martin was never given the title. He was simply called chapter manager. When Nelson lost his Senate re-election bid in 1990, the highway contractors -- who never felt comfortable with Martin due to his union ties -- demanded a new boss at the Little Rock headquarters.

The stated reason for Martin's 1991 ouster was a bookkeeping error that occurred under his command and resulted in almost $200,000 in dues assessments not being billed.

Asked what he knows about the AGC's sometimes controversial past in Arkansas, Fish answers, "Very little, and that's probably good for me."

In looking for a new executive director, the committee focused on finding someone with strong AGC ties nationally and extensive knowledge of legislative, health and safety matters.

The committee interviewed 17 Arkansans, including chamber of commerce presidents and county judges. Most were capable of running associations, but none had AGC experience.

"We didn't have that learning curve to go through with Tommy," May says. "He knows how to get from point A to point B."

Fish was the assistant executive director of AGC's Alabama operations. He was in that job for five years, overseeing the merger of three Alabama chapters and lobbying at the state Capitol in Montgomery.

"I |did~ everything for them," Fish says.

Everything, that is, except serve as executive director.

Making The Connection

Fish is anxious to show visitors around the AGC office on Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock.

There isn't much to see except office furniture and a few staff members at work, but Fish is excited nevertheless.

It was a tense time for the five AGC staff members when Fish first came on board. He had the authority to fire the existing to fire the existing staff and bring in his own.

He kept everyone but the office manager, promoting from within to fill that position.

Fish also had to hire a new bookkeeper.

Fish's first few months were spent reorganizing association procedures. He

restructured the dues process, which previously was based on contracts awarded AGC members. Now, it is based on billings and receivables. Fish says no one has complained about the change.

The AGC also is in the middle of its membership renewal process. There were 355 members in 1991, including 250 associate members. The regular membership consists of general contractors. Associate members are subcontractors and others involved in the construction industry such as suppliers, insurance dealers and labor relations attorneys.

Fish wants 500 members by the end of the year, and he has a plan to get them.

"I don't see how we can represent the contractors of the state unless we put ourselves in front of these people," Fish says.

Most chapter meetings have been held in Little Rock, but Fish has expanded the meeting itinerary to include Fort Smith, Springdale and Jonesboro. He also has plans to be in El Dorado and Hot Springs.

The meetings, which focus on current issues in construction and often feature expert speakers, usually are held quarterly. Fish wants the meetings held bimonthly.

"If we do our job well enough, they'll come to us," he says of potential new members. "I had rather show them than tell them. It doesn't sound like a very dynamic, dramatic approach, but it is. It works."

And he should know.

Fish watched the plan work in Alabama.

When he came to Arkansas, Fish realized the need "to take the show on the road."

He is on the road himself.

"I want to get out there and have people ask me questions," Fish says.

He's anxious to meet with contractors statewide on their turf, learning of their concerns and complaints.

"If you go to their offices, they're going to tell you what's on their minds," he says.

Fish also is anxious to create stronger ties with Associated Builders and Contractors of Arkansas Inc., which is made up strictly of non-union building contractors and sub-contractors (AGC accepts both union and non-union contractors).

Fish and ABC Executive Director Steve Schaeffer want to maximize the joint potential of the organizations.

"I see a lot of win-win situations," says Fish, who holds an informal meeting with Schaeffer the first Monday of each month.

Fish hopes to wield even more power in the Legislature through grass-roots lobbying efforts. If the organization grows stronger in other parts of the state, it obviously will have ties to more legislators.

He hopes to someday have an employee whose only job is increasing membership.

He wants to upgrade the chapter's computer system.

He wants to further the chapter's education efforts.

And he's interested in enhancing the image of the construction industry.

"It's our job to let the general public know we're good guys," Fish says.

And he doesn't just mean guys.

Fish is working to get more women involved in construction, too.

Even Fish's 12- and 14-hour days seem too short to accomplish everything.

But May and other contractors seem satisfied.

Without Fish's experience, May says the chapter "would have been several years behind."
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Title Annotation:Raising Steel: Focus on Construction, Part 1; Associated General Contractors of America Inc.
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Mar 16, 1992
Previous Article:Building for the future: having dodged the recession, Arkansas contractors optimistic about 1992.
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