ON THE LEVEL: Fabishak looks back on career building relationships in trades

Mike Fabishak (Photo courtesy of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee)

Mike Fabishak (Photo courtesy of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee)

As the CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee, Mike Fabishak often finds himself trying to elicit cooperation from a group of contractors who are otherwise doing everything in their power to out-compete each other.

That he has been able to do just that for 22 years is evidence enough of his tact. Now, though, he has decided it’s someone else’s turn.

Fabishak announced on Monday that he plans to step down sometime next year. No formal date has been set for his retirement. The AGC of Greater Milwaukee has only started looking for a successor, hiring a consulting firm to help with the search.

Fabishak said leaving wasn’t a step he was necessarily planning even a year ago, but he said he often thinks of his life as a series of episodes.

“I realized I needed to examine another episode of my life, but I wasn’t necessarily associating that with retirement. I just wanted a different experience,” he said. “I’m in fairly decent health, have fairly good vitality and energy, and I’m in a position to make that decision now.”

The first of the “episodes” in Fabishak’s life came to an end after he finished growing up in West Allis and Greenfield and started attending classes at UW-Milwaukee. There, he studied both political science and history, interests that eventually helped him secure a position working for former-U.S. Rep. Jim Moody, a Democrat from Milwaukee.

He stayed with Moody until 1987 and then took a position as executive vice president of the Metropolitan Builders Association of Greater Milwaukee, where he helped start events like the annual Parade of Homes. That proved an excellent introduction to the construction industry and put him in line for the top job at the AGC of Greater Milwaukee, a trade organization representing more than 350 general contractors, subcontractors and suppliers, mainly in the southeast corner of the state.

Over the years, Fabishak has found himself working on everything from labor-management contract negotiations and industry safety to legislation proposed in both Madison and Washington, D.C. His interest in workforce development has led to positions on the board of both WRTP/Big Step and Employ Milwaukee.

Fabishak said his experience with actual construction work was fairly minimal when he started at the AGC and remains so now. He has never had to do the day-to-day work of a tradesman.

But he never really felt lacking in any way.

“In terms of what you do for associations, construction is the least of skills you need,” he said. “Leading an association is more a product of knowing how to work with people, building coalitions, understanding what people want, motivating your staff and motivating your board. Quite frankly, if you can do it for contractors, you can also do for it doctors or lawyers — you name it.”

Fabishak recently chatted with The Daily Reporter about what he has learned in his long career and what thinks is likely for the industry’s future. (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

The Daily Reporter: What about the AGC of Greater Milwaukee initially appealed to you?

Fabishak: I think it was this notion that my life is episodic, and I had spent 10 years at the homebuilders. And I thought I had done everything I was able to do there, and I needed a new chapter. And I looked at this as a very challenging industry. You have tons of unions, tons of associations and community organizations and so many other things overlapping. And somebody has to have the capacity to say, ‘I want all these elements to start working together better.’

And I think I did some of that. I’m not afraid to fail. I derive pleasure from trying to accomplish things and acknowledging that not everything is going to work. You are going to have some failures.

TDR: What are some of the biggest impediments to progress in the industry?

Fabishak: Among labor unions and associations and contractors, we need to have more of what I would characterize as partnerships. I’m not trying place blame here on the unions or the associations or anyone in particular. But we need to really seek out those common denominators. Instead, we can be very territorial. There are some very good people on both the union and management side, but there is also a lot of territorialism, which is unfortunate.

TDR: Do you think Milwaukee’s current building boom will last for years to come or do you think an end is in sight?

Fabishak: Well, we sure deserved it after coming out of the mess during the Great Recession and having licked our wounds. But we are not still near where we were in 2007 in terms of hours worked. I think we’ll be fine next year and even in 2021. After that, it gets a little foggier. But the companies that migrated through that recent mess are now much stronger and they are smarter. A lot of people were harmed. But for the companies that survived, they’re more understanding of the implications of what that sort of thing can do to your company if you haven’t thought about it in advance.

TDR: Is there any sort of legislation that lawmakers — either at the state or federal level — could pass to benefit the industry?

Fabishak: I think, nationally, an infrastructure bill. Now, a lot of that would be for roads, but that would also provide more economic development, which implies more vertical building.

At the state level, we have seen a lot of aggressiveness, quite frankly from both parties, to do things in our industry that don’t necessarily help it. I have all the respect in the world for policymakers. But sometimes these individuals are pretty uniformed about what needs to be done, and that has the capacity to compromise us. If there were less of that in our industry, we would be happy.

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