Most children revel in Saturday mornings as a time of unparalleled sloth, characterized by sleeping in late and watching cartoons in bathrobes and slippers. Patrick Dean, however, knew that he could count on quite the opposite. From the time he was fourteen, he knew his father would be pulling the sheets off his bed come Saturday morning, waking him to come work at the family factory. Seeing his own father work hard and enjoy the benefits, Pat soon saw how hard work enabled him to transform the visions in his head into reality, like finally being able to purchase the green Schwinn bike he had been eyeing for a long time. Now the President and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Pat will never forget the days when he learned the value of a dollar and, perhaps more importantly, the value of a vision.
After developing a solid work ethic modeled after his father and completing only one year of community college, Pat left for California when he turned eighteen to pursue his love of golf. He enrolled at Fullerton College and worked as a busboy at a nice restaurant, waiting tables and golfing in his free time. After actually working on a golf course for a while, one of his customers suggested he go work for a produce market. With little to lose, he decided to take the man’s advice and was promoted to night shift manager at the largest produce warehouse in Los Angeles within three months. As a twenty-two year old kid, Pat was making an impressive living until the warehouse was forced to close due to union pressures.
The young man was then promptly picked up by National Sanitary Supply, a company dealing with building maintenance materials and chemicals. “I did quite well there, but I wanted to do better,” Pat reports. It is for this reason that he accepted an invitation to enter the development business in real estate, where he worked for two years before suffering a bad business deal that cemented his disenchantment with California. “Everyone was mortgaged on the hill,” he remembers. “Everyone was divorced and broke but driving BMWs.” He packed up, moved home, and then did concrete work for a month in Chicago until a friend finally convinced him to pursue an opportunity with ABC.
ABC is a nationwide construction trade association that has focused on commercial industrial contractors since its inception in 1974. Pat began working with ABC in 1985 selling memberships to the association’s Chicago chapter. Among his wisest investments was a cell phone installed in his car—a very new and innovative technology at the time. “I would come into the office in the morning, find out where I was slated to go that day, and then take off through the Chicago suburbs, operating business through my car phone,” he reflects fondly. Salesmanship came naturally to him, having grown up with a father who used to serve as District Regional Manager for Encyclopedia Britannica and who would take him along for sales calls at the age of seven.
Two years later, Pat relocated with ABC to Portland to learn more about the business aspects of the association and then became President there. He served in this capacity for two years before he was recruited by the national organization to assist with chapter and employee development throughout the country.
The excitement and constant coming and going inherent in the position was a good fit for Pat for three years, but once he married, he decided that the extensive travel associated with the position wasn’t conducive to starting a family. “In my eyes, the risk and reward wasn’t great,” he laughs now. It was around this time, when he had just begun considering other options, that the opportunity to become President and CEO fortuitously came his way. Thus, he accepted the position in 1992, marking a tremendous turning point for the association and for himself. He now heads the Virginia chapter, which is comprised of three offices throughout the commonwealth.
“To be honest, the association was pretty decimated when I took over, so I really couldn’t do anything but look good by comparison,” Pat jokes now. The chapter had been built on local politics, and with the devastating economic climate, membership had faced a drastic decline. Patrick Dean, however, had a vision. “My greatest gift was sales, and I explained to them how we could sell ourselves out of the mess we were in,” he describes. “Maybe they were weary from trying to keep the association afloat, or maybe they really did believe in my excitement and confidence.” Indeed, if the association leadership had been looking for a savior, they came to the right guy.
“To win over existing leadership and transform membership recruitment when you’re starting off with nothing, you have to be able to paint a pretty compelling picture of what the membership’s values will be,” Pat explains. “You must have a vision and a way to communicate it such that people can see where you’re taking the group and what the long-term benefits will be.” His ability to impart such charisma and incur such trust was lent tremendous conviction from his prior experience as a salesman, which breeds not only an exceptionally thick skin, but also a strong-willed nature that remains impervious to external negativity. “As a salesman, you’ve heard no so many times in your life, so what’s one more?” he points out.
By transforming the association’s entire structure and placing a prime focus on education, training, political advocacy, informational services, and community service, Pat was able to take an organization that was 170 members weak and $100 thousand in debt and completely transform its attitude and feel. As a result, ABC went from $400 thousand in revenues in 1992 to $3.5 million in 2009. Their membership base has followed a similar trajectory, now hovering at around 650 with aims to escalate to 1,000 in the next five years.
“Our substantial success and growth can be attributed in large part to good membership, strong leadership, a committed team, and an exceptional staff,” Pat explains. Such tremendous progress would also not be possible without his decision to shift the association’s focus to education. “At my first planning meeting as President and CEO, I said we would make ourselves the leader in construction trade education in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Pat remembers. “We accomplished this, and we remain so today.”
Being an education leader in the industry means a full range of different programs that include training in craft and apprenticeship, general management, leadership and development, and safety. Theoretically, the association treats the concept of membership as a product whose worth is thus strengthened through the addition of education, providing training at considerably reduced costs such that a member’s return on investment is highly attractive.
This is not to say that things have always run smoothly for Pat and his tenure at ABC thus far. The early years did not fail to test his capacity as a leader when he was faced with the sprouting of other construction trade groups that threatened to further fragment an already splintered industry. More recently, as well, he has been challenged by the struggling economy to keep membership up and operational costs low. As the failure of similar associations suggests, overcoming these obstacles could not have been accomplished without his nuanced experience supplemented by his empowering leadership philosophy and capacity to both attract and retain quality team members. Through retaining several key individuals while also hiring a host of new employees with the capacity to support his vision while contributing vital expertise in fields like communications and politics, ABC now boasts 13 full time staff members and 50 part-time instructors.
The leadership style Pat employs to manage his employees is not modeled after a single person or one ideology, but is rather a patchwork quilt of observation and character traits picked up throughout his life experience. “You watch people and see different skills throughout your career, and maybe you don’t see the whole package in one person, but instead you find different pieces in different people,” he reflects. The philosophy he’s assembled over the years is thus one of inspiration rather than fear. As long as customer service remains the top consideration of ABC staff, Pat veers away from micromanagement and encourages his staff to take risks and make mistakes within reason as they pursue the goals he lays before them.
The most compelling aspect of his leadership style, however, remains the ability to impart a clear, honest, compelling vision of the future, thereby lending those around him a new nearness to the objectives at hand. “Being able to use the art of storytelling paint a picture of what the possibilities are is key,” he explains. “Beyond this, I would urge one to keep in mind that patience is certainly a vital component to leading a successful life, but impatience can sometimes create positive outcomes as well,” says Pat, as he advises young entrepreneurs entering the workforce today. To this effect, impatience can be a powerful motivating factor that pushes one to reject the status quo in favor of progressive change if the status quo falls short of one’s true vision.
Furthermore, Pat implores young people to work hard at getting a solid education and meeting as many people as possible in one’s areas of interest in order to create the most accurate conceptualization of reality possible. This consideration is particularly important when it comes to painting the kind of vision Pat so excels at, lending this picture a credibility and soundness that only empowers and expands it impact.