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January 27, 2014

Simmons’ focus: transportation and workforce

  • Incoming AGC president Joe Simmons says the economy is finally turning around for the construction industry.
    Journal Construction Editor


    Joseph Simmons takes over as AGC president this year and says he will try to make sure the improving economy means more work for contractors.

    “Instead of seeing eight generals at a walk-thru, I just see five now,” said Simmons, who heads Joseph S. Simmons Construction in Seattle. Before the recession, he said, it was common to see about three contractors at a walk-thru.

    One of the hot buttons at the AGC is getting the Legislature to increase the gas tax for roads, bridges and infrastructure improvements.

    Simmons said the 37.5-cent tax hasn’t gone up since 2005. In that year, his vehicle got 12 miles per gallon; his mileage today is about 34. Most cars now get at least twice the mileage that cars got in 2005, he said.

    Gas tax revenue has plummeted thanks to more efficient cars.

    Simmons said they haven’t figured out how much the gas tax should be increased, but a one-cent hike amounts to $32 million a year.

    The Legislature’s regular session ends on March 13. Simmons said lawmakers were fatigued by special sessions last year and need to get something done about transportation infrastructure this time around.

    Another concern of the AGC is the future labor force.

    “For the people looking for $15 an hour, they should check out the construction business,” Simmons said.

    According to Simmons, wages for laborers start at $20 an hour, carpenters make $35 an hour and superintendents can earn $96,000 a year, with full benefits.

    Simmons held onto his employees during the recession and that’s now paying off since many good workers left the industry after being laid off.

    “I kept most of my people, which cost us a lot of money,” he said. “We’ve come from a place where we didn’t know if we were going to be in business the next year.”

    Simmons said his phone stopped ringing on Sept. 17, 2008, and was silent for about three years. But now, for the first time in five years, he sees a positive construction market ahead. He said his outlook turned in the last four months because small businesses are ready to move after sitting on the sidelines.

    The AGC lost only one general contractor member during the recession, and that speaks to the quality of its members, according to Simmons.

    But he said there is a problem with membership: Everyone should be prospecting for new members but no one is accountable.

    To fix that, the AGC is putting Southern District manager Tim Attebery in charge of the area up to the Seattle city limits and Northern District manager Liz Evans in charge of the territory down to the Seattle city limits. The Seattle District will focus on Seattle and the Eastside.

    Simmons said the membership push will target general contractors of all sizes.

    “Why wouldn’t you be a member?” he asked. “My dues are covered by the money I receive from Group Retro. So, for me it’s a freebie.”

    AGC’s Group Retro program gives contractors refunds on industrial insurance premiums.

    “If you’re a small company like me, that’s just an unbelievable resource,” Simmons said. “I would bet we are the safest (retro) group in the state.”

    Learning from Harold

    Simmons’ father and two brothers were firefighters, but his dad also worked as a carpenter when not battling blazes. That was Simmons’ first exposure to construction.

    In his freshman year at the University of Washington, Simmons was leaning toward engineering when he had an “aha” moment. He took Engineering 113, which was a survey of all engineering disciplines offered at the school. The class also covered construction management, which blends business, engineering and construction. “I love all of that,” he said.

    Simmons said he was the first in his family to graduate from college. He got a full ride scholarship by playing on the UW football team as a running back and cornerback.

    After graduating in 1976 with a construction management degree, Simmons got a job at A.F. Forbes Construction. It was just Art Forbes and Simmons in the office. “I learned a lot,” he said.

    Simmons then worked for 1.5 years at Sellen Construction, and later got a job working for contractor and developer Harold Hill, one of the founders of what is now Hill Raaum Pietromonaco, a Mercer Island development firm.

    “Harold was really the guy who helped me so much,” he said.

    Simmons worked for seven years as an estimator and project manager for Hill, who owned industrial property in the Kent Valley. Simmons told Hill that he wanted to work for him his entire career, but Hill told Simmons to start his own business because that’s the only way to create wealth.

    Simmons did and never looked back.

    In addition to the construction company he founded in 1985, Simmons also develops and owns commercial and industrial properties through C/I Properties. He and a few partners bought their first building in 1986. Three years later, he and his wife, Susan, bought the Meeker Building in Kent. It was their first without partners.

    The couple still owns the Meeker Building, along with two others in Kent, four in Auburn, two in Burien and one in north Seattle.

    Simmons said their philosophy is buy old buildings, fix them up, re-tenant them and hold for the long term.

    Simmons’ construction company is finishing its biggest project ever: the $3.7 million Normandy Park Market. Simmons said this is one of his favorite projects, but he’s most proud of serving his customers. He said it’s rewarding when they call again with another project.

    After nearly 30 years in construction, Simmons is still the head honcho at his firm. Last year his son, Chris, joined as a project manager and estimator.

    The elder Simmons said it wasn’t his plan when he started the construction firm to be an on-going or for-sale concern.

    “If (Chris) and the others in the office want to take it longer, God bless them,” he said.

    When not in the office, you might find Simmons at church or doing volunteer work. He and Susan in 1984 helped start the local guild for cystic fibrosis, and he says they have raised millions of dollars over the years.

    Simmons said the mortality rate for those with CF was 23 years when the guild started and now it reaches into the 50s.

    “In my lifetime we may see a cure for cystic fibrosis,” he said.

    Simmons has been an AGC member since 1985. In addition to being an officer, he serves on the board and is a member of the property committee.


    Benjamin Minnick can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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