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Constructing a better future

At the mention of his 3-year-old triplets, Aaron Hilger’s sunny disposition gets a few thousand watts brighter.
For people who know Hilger, 34, they often get a similar reaction at the mention of Wicks Law, workers’ compensation improvement or almost any other reform-related construction topic.
Backing causes is how Hilger channels his energy as president of Builders Exchange of Rochester Inc., where his blanket cause is making business easier for local builders.
At the same time, he has been busy expanding the organization’s membership. William Mack, executive vice president at LeChase Construction Services LLC, was on the committee that chose Hilger for the president’s post five years ago.
Membership has grown since then from 425 to more than 600.
“The membership has grown to record levels and the execution of new programs continues to go off without a hitch,” Mack said.
To that end, Hilger spearheads Builder Partners, an organization he co-formed to help block or stall various bills and regulatory matters that impede the construction process.
In the last five years, the number of member firms at Builder Partners has jumped from three to more than 8,000 and transformed the construction consortium into a statewide coalition, addressing legislators with a louder and unified voice.
Builder Partners was conceived when Builders Exchange joined forces with the Rochester Home Builders Association and Rochester Business Alliance Inc. as a means of making their perspectives known in Albany.
Organizing people to take on causes-and argue them-are central among his talents, Hilger’s colleagues say. Knowing what those talents are and applying them are reasons for his success, Teresa Galbier says.
As president and CEO at the Alzheimer’s Association, she has worked with Hilger for three years in his role as board member and chairman of the organization’s public policy committee.
“He likes to brainstorm, and he likes to bring organizations together for the good of the whole,” she says. “Just recently he brought us together with Rotary, for us to potentially develop some partnerships to design programs for people affected with dementia, tapping into the asset that the Rotary Sunshine Camp has.
“Anything he can do to help that, he will do. And it doesn’t matter when it is,” Galbier says. “That meeting, for example, ended up happening on a week when he was on vacation, so he tooled in here with two of his triplets.”
Hilger works at a handful of other organizations, such as the Al Sigl Center Foundation, the International Builders Exchange Executives Association, Rochester Careers in Construction and labor management partnership Unicon.
“And at Builder Partners, well, the name of the organization says it all,” Galbier adds. “He likes to build partnerships. That’s really important to Aaron.”

The family’s business

Construction is important too. It was his family’s business for 60 years and the constant backdrop in Hilger’s life.
After growing up at McGonigle & Hilger Roofing Co. Inc., an industrial roofing and contracting business, he oversaw 100 field employees and an office staff of 15. Due to the expanding challenges of running a construction business, he and his family shut the company down.
“I made a decision about five years ago: Being a roofing contractor in Buffalo was not the thing I wanted to do for my entire life,” Hilger says. “The risk was a little too great. The insurance costs were extraordinary. I saw my insurance costs go up about 500 percent over five years. If my sales and profits had grown that much, I probably would have stayed there, but those two things didn’t necessarily grow.”
Closing was a good decision, he says, but obviously difficult.
“It was part of the family identity,” he remembers.
Hilger joined Builders Exchange soon after and began applying the firsthand understanding he developed with his family to the member businesses he was serving.
He set about redirecting resources to maximize the services the association was offering.
“We’ve really grown the services that we provide our membership, whether those are information-related or government-related services, association management services, or product information and news or training programs that serve the industry that in a lot of ways have made us a very attractive place for construction companies to join.”
Most contractors, he says, have an extremely low profit margin and find themselves absorbed with day-to-day operations, Hilger says. Builders Exchange’s objective is to make dealing with a changing industry as easy as possible, by researching information and disseminating the findings.
A recent example, he points out, comes from changes in the design industry that in two years’ time will trickle down to builders.
Building Information Management is a software design program that will change the way document-based drawings and specifications are presented to contractors.
The objective of the software is to consolidate renderings from different engineers and architects to produce 3-D visual representations that in the long run save money by avoiding potential errors, but in the short term represent preparation and investment for contractors.
“Suddenly you know that that piece of ductwork that runs across the ceiling actually runs into a steel beam. With this program, you see that, whereas before you had to figure it out. Now you can just see it on the computer screen,” Hilger says. “It’s a new era in construction.”
Builders Exchange is developing and deploying tools to train contractors on the transition.
“Right now it’s the end of May, and every one of my contractors is focused on how they’re going to get ramped up for all the work they have and get it done while the weather is nice,” Hilger says.
Doing the legwork for member businesses is Hilger’s job. To help him, the company recently hired a new vice president, whose focus, Hilger says, is to increase membership and leverage information technology initiatives, such as BIM preparedness, in better, more accessible means.
To do that, Builders Exchange relies on 10 employees. The company has an annual budget of $3 million.
Hilger spent most of his life working through the ranks of the family business, and observed how a family construction company evolves. Over the years, he says, there often are parallels between generations, but the bodies of knowledge change.
“My father was just like me: I don’t think he had ever any intention of being a commercial contractor, but yet we both ended up doing it, and doing it pretty successfully for a time. My father went to St. Lawrence University. I believe he was a history and government major; I was a political science and psychology major,” Hilger says.
“It’s interesting when you look at builders by generation. If I look at my grandfather, he was a master builder; my father was a pretty darn good builder, probably not a master builder but a good one. And, I can build stuff, but not nearly as well as the other two; I’m good at other things,” Hilger says. “It’s almost a generational shift when these companies grow and develop.”
At Builders Exchange, Hilger says, he tries to make the association useful for every size and type of company member, and that requires looking at construction through every lens imaginable.

Open for debate

Hilger’s wife, Nikki, says he has a knack for that: looking at an issue, taking on a perspective that may not be his and defending it.
“He loves to take the opposite side,” she says. “He’ll debate pretty much anything with anybody, constantly interested in other people and what they have to say.”
Debating each other was something they practiced even before the two fell in love. Hilger and his wife were political science majors at the University of Rochester when they met.
“Absolutely, I love to debate,” she says. “That was one of the ways that we started talking to each other.”
The two met in a constitutional politics class and constantly were at odds with one another, Nikki remembers. But Hilger was never afraid to take an opposing view, she says, not even when it came to her parents.
“It often happens with my family, without getting into specifics-we all hold very different political views-so let’s just say that from the start he was not afraid of getting into it with his in-laws. But that made him, I guess, all the more lovable to my family that he wasn’t afraid of doing that.
“Now after 15 years, I think we have moderated each other to more of a centrist view of the world, not just politically, but all things,” she says.
That centrist view may be what helps him unite organizations now.
“In what I’m focused right now is Rochester coming together in different ways-whether it’s trying to get the funding for construction projects at the University of Rochester, or Midtown or RIT, or any of our colleges and universities, because they’re certainly a driver of our construction market,” Hilger says.
Denise Murphy McGraw, partner at Albany-based Bogdan, Lasky & Kopley LLC, knew Hilger when she worked for UR.
“Aaron was always willing to be helpful with our legislative initiatives-especially as they related to capital projects,” she says. “In fact, I still represent the university and he remains willing to be supportive of our capital project requests.”
Hilger says Builders Exchange is trying to make Rochester better by working with other associations and companies and eliminating the unnecessary overlap between them.
Rochester is a different place than it was 15 or 20 years ago, he says, but it still is a growing place. Hilger’s aim is to open the gates that legislation sometimes intro-duces to construction, approval, funding and other processes.
“There are some very significant possible changes in upstate, and that has a lot of my members concerned. There are a lot of issues we’re paying attention to, whether that’s trying to make (the state Department of Environmental Conservation) more efficient so that we actually get more project sites in Rochester, or working with the Department of Labor to make sure there is reasonable and appropriate enforcement of wage and hour standards,” Hilger says.
“All those items have a dramatic impact on our members and business for them.”
McGraw said Hilger’s goal is a large one-improving the economic climate of the region-and it is consistent with whatever he does.
He is fiercely intelligent without being arrogant, which also makes him good at bringing people together, she adds.
“I can think of no better example of all of these traits than his efforts to secure a much-needed apprenticeship program for the tile workers of the Bricklayers Union,” she says.
“Aaron negotiated with Assembly Labor chairwoman Susan John and the Department of Labor to create a program for Western New York. The program allowed workers to gain the on-the-job training they needed to become tile workers,” she says. “It also created a pool of skilled workers for the construction industry in our region.”
The Builders Exchange works on an ongoing list of initiatives geared toward change, such as lowering the cost of workers’ compensation insurance and liability insurance or lowering the cost to power new plants and other facilities here.
“There are several different power plant proposals out for Rochester, Buffalo and the Southern Tier, but those proposals were all brought down in the state regulatory system, so trying to make that situation better is very difficult,” he says.
No single initiative is necessarily more important than another, he says. The essential is that there are a lot of factors that complicate the cost and process of doing business upstate.
“If you take DEC for example: If it takes a year or two years to get environmental approvals on a project, that’s one to two years that Ohio and Pennsylvania and Texas, North Carolina can compete for that project,” Hilger says. “Clearly, the more gates that are in the way of things, the more problematic it becomes.”

Family life

Hilger’s passion for changing the industry is rivaled only by his enthusiasm for raising his children, his wife says. The family lives in Victor.
“If I were to describe him personally, I would say completely devoted father and husband, absolutely in love with his children,” Nikki says.
“He will carry photo albums of them to meetings and whip them out at the slightest mention of the kids. He’s so proud of his role as father; I couldn’t ask for a better partner,” she says.
Galbier at the Alzheimer’s Association says the first thing she noticed about Hilger when she met him was his boundless energy. What is interesting, she says, is how well he can direct it without limiting it.
Though he was always a good multitasker, Hilger says, having triplets as a new father made him take a serious look at how he spends his day. He set up a system.
“I said, ‘Here are the things I do on any given day. How do I do those things, how can I do them better and are they the right things to be doing?’ It forced those questions,” Hilger says.
“When you have three little children and a wife saying, ‘Uh, would you please come home? Please.’ The best thing is when you come home from work after a really long day, and you have three little kids that treat you like you’re the greatest hero in the world.”
Sophie, Emma and Alexander are three and a half.
“It’s a pretty cool thing. Every parent gets that on some level,” he says. “For me it’s just, ‘Wow, here they come. There are three of ’em. Holy cow!’ You get 100 pounds of kids tackling you when you walk in the door.”
[email protected] / 585-546-8303

Aaron Hilger
Title: President, Builders Exchange of Rochester Inc.
Age: 34
Education: B.A., political science, University of Rochester, 1996; M.A. political management, George Washington University, 1999; MBA, SUNY Buffalo, 2002
Family: Wife, Nikki; daughters, Sophie, Emma; son, Alexander; all 3 years old
Home: Victor
Quote: “I started at Builders Exchange five years ago. I can’t quite believe it’s been five years, which I guess is a sign that you enjoy what you’re doing and that you picked the right position.”

06/20/2008 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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