For the past 12 years, as president of the Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VRCA), Keith Sashaw has kept more than 700 member firms working as a team.
That’s no small trick when you consider the natural tensions that exist between the association’s general contractors and trade contractors.
And, that’s on top of the ongoing rivalries between general contractors, who are constantly in competition with one another for work.
Sashaw is leaving the VRCA to take up a new position as president and chief executive officer of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies of British Columbia.
In that role, he will still be involved with the construction industry.
“I’m not leaving the neighbourhood, I’m just moving down the block and across the street,” he said.
Sashaw’s time with the VRCA overlapped what was likely the largest boom in decades for the city’s construction industry.
During his tenure, the equivalent of entirely new cities, such as False Creek North and Coal Harbour, were built.
The association kept pace with the changes.
It has gone from a relatively low-profile group of companies to an industry voice that is heard at all levels of government.
It also spread its wings to operate a full-time satellite office in Abbotsford, which serves the Fraser Valley.
“I’ve had a fabulous run,” he said.
“It’s been a lot of fun and I look back with pride on a number of things we’ve been able to accomplish.”
For that, Sashaw gave credit to his staff.
“When somebody phones the office, it’s never a case of ‘that’s not my department’.” he said.
“It’s always a matter of ‘what can I do to help?’”
Top among the VRCA accomplishments during Sashaw’s time was the evolution of its education programs.
The association effectively had zero education programs when he took the helm.
The VRCA now offers somewhere between 60 and 80 courses to more than 1,000 people a year in its Vancouver and Abbotsford offices.
“Education is now seen as a base benefit of the association,” he said.
Fundamental to the association was the operation of the plan rooms.
The exchange of plans and soliciting of tenders on jobs being planned was the original foundation of the association.
The group was founded in the late 1800s as the Vancouver Builders’ Exchange.
The association, we see today, was started in 1929.
Over the years, the exchange of plans has changed dramatically and the VRCA was in the forefront of the evolution.
Today, the large room it used to operate, and which was full of paper plans, has been almost totally replaced by an electronic plan room.
Raising the profile of the association was another key goal.
“The profile was low when I came in. Not too many people outside the industry had heard of it. It was one of the best kept secrets in the construction industry,” he said.
“We were really able to move the dial on that. Now it has a media presence and its views are sought out. If there is anything going on in the construction industry, its views are asked for.”
As part of raising the profile, Sashaw took the association’s Awards of Excellence program from a mostly in-house event to a large annual gala occasion.
More than 600 industry leaders now gather each year at the Vancouver Convention Centre to have dinner and honour outstanding construction projects.
In the same vein, the association started a group aimed specifically at young industry professionals.
The U40 Group is for women and men under 40 years old.
“It has taken off,” said Sashaw
“These are the future leaders of the association. We are now seeing the leaders of the U40 Network stepping up and getting involved with committees of the association. We’re hoping they’ll develop personal networks that are so important in the industry.”
So how has he managed to keep all these very different groups – young, old and sometimes competitors – working together?
“That’s been one of the fun elements,” he said.
“They’re often competitors. They’re not necessarily in conflict, but they may have different views. The goal is to bring them together. The key element is what’s good for the industry. What’s good for the association.”
That is often more easily said than done.
“The role of the president, I would suggest, is to be a good listener and pick out what are the real issues,” he explained
“You sit down and try to figure out what is beneath all this. And – at all times – treat people with respect and consideration.”
It has been a winning formula.
With about 700 member companies, the VRCA is the largest component of the B.C. Construction Association (BCCA), which includes similar groups in the Northern Interior, Southern Interior and on Vancouver Island.
Sashaw’s position within the provincial group was significant.
“Keith’s keen appreciation of the role of the VRCA and its engagement of the industry throughout the Lower Mainland will be missed,” said Manley McLachlan, president of the BCCA.
It is a reminder of the essential role that the staff of associations play in meeting the needs of industry and advancing the plans of employer based organizations.
“As Keith’s season of leadership at the VRCA comes to its conclusion, we wish him all the best in his new position and look forward to working with him in his new role within another critical component of the construction industry,” Manley said.