Having spent more than 35 years in the construction industry – both as a contractor and a consultant – Mark Fuglevand knows a thing or two about ditchdiggers: They are dedicated, unassuming, not afraid to do the dirty work, and they lead by example. Much like the infrastructure they build, ditchdiggers themselves are often out of sight and out of mind, belying the critical nature of their role.
It is fitting then that when Fuglevand – a lifelong ditchdigger by career and in spirit — was honored with NUCA’s 2019 Ditchdigger of the Year award, he deflected praise, instead highlighting those in attendance for their contributions to the industry. “NUCA is rich with ditchdiggers,” he commented. “NUCA staff are unseen by most but provide value to all the members. The Associates are always the first to give of their money and time with anything asked of them. Members volunteer either on committees or leadership both locally and at national level. Executive Directors are the reason anything happens at our chapters. They are all unsung heroes.”
The Ditchdigger of the Year is NUCA’s highest honor, presented annually to a contractor member who has made a significant contribution to NUCA and the underground utility construction and excavation industry. The award ceremony was held during NUCA’s Convention and Exhibit Feb. 27-29 in Tucson, Arizona.
“Mark is one of the nicest, most polite ambassadors NUCA could have,” said Kara Habrock, past NUCA chair and Ditchdigger of the Year. “He is an includer who is always quick to introduce himself to new members to make them feel comfortable and welcomed. “In addition, he always took his responsibilities on the NUCA board very seriously. He was always well prepared and was able to ask the right questions.”
Fuglevand is a longtime member and active participant in NUCA of Washington and NUCA National, where he served as a member on the executive board, culminating with a term as chairman from 2018-19.
“Receiving the Ditchdigger award is a great honor,” Fuglevand reflected. “A ditchdigger is the person on the crew who is always willing to jump in and get the pipe in the ground. This is not the person you see when driving by because the head is down, and they are keeping the crew moving forward. They are usually one of the first on site setting up for the day, and one of the last to leave after cleaning and putting away their tools.”
Fuglevand currently serves as a principal engineer with KBA Inc., a construction management firm based in Bellevue, Washington. In his role, which he began in 2017, he leverages nearly three decades of contractor experience to help more construction projects toward a successful completion.
“I still introduce myself as a ‘recovering’ contractor!,” Fuglevand said of his transition to the consulting world. “I always said that being a contractor is a disease, but it is one that I’m proud to say that I am a carrier of. My biggest adjustment has been what to do with all the extra time. I no longer work Saturdays, or 10- to 12-hour days. I’m not sure my wife has adjusted to having me home so much and cutting into her alone time.
“I miss bid days, setting up projects, building the schedules and executing the plan. I mostly miss the crews I worked with for so long. I even miss the subs I used to have to threaten to make sure they arrived and performed as scheduled.
“Now, I enjoy educating and helping design engineers on construction and constructability of their design. I spend a lot of time with the owners I used to sit across from at the negotiation table. You know what, they’re decent people when you sit next to them. I also enjoy coaching our CM teams to work with the contractors to move the project forward. They call quite frequently to get my ‘contractor’s’ view of a problem they are working to solve.”
While contracting has been a part of his DNA for most of his professional career, so has his involvement with NUCA. Fuglevand joined NUCA of Washington while working at Marshbank Construction, eventually serving a stint as chapter president. Fuglevand then became involved with NUCA National, where his activities have included government relations and education, in addition to his role on the executive board. Through it all, Fuglevand has fond memories of the organization and its members.
“The most memorable aspect of my involvement is the people I have met through the association,” he said. “All are hardworking, hard playing, and willing to give their time and money to NUCA as well as help their fellow contractors across the county. There are too many to name individually as I would worry that I missed someone.
“Also, the Annual Conventions were always a highlight of the year. It was like a large family reunion and we were able to reconnect with good friends. Fort Worth convention was a great event, and although I can’t put a finger on why, I think it was a fairly large group of new leaders coming to the forefront. The El Conquistador in Puerto Rico was an amazing property. It even had a private island to hang out on, or to build and race a canoe. We unfortunately experienced the Zika outbreak that year and the attendees were so low we had to return two more times!
“The keynote speakers at the convention were worth the admission. I shook the hand of the man that shot Bin Laden, Robert O’Neal. I was able to thank Kris ‘Tonto’ Paronto for his heroic deeds in Benghazi. I was brought to tears hearing the survival story of FDNY Commander Richard Picciotto who survived the collapse of the World Trade Center. I had my picture taken with Laura Bush. There are too many others to name, but I always leave amazed at the great heroes and leaders in this country.”
In the coming years, Fuglevand plans to gradually step away from the industry he has dedicated his career to. “My plan is to retire or at least reduce hours in the next five years. We will move to Arizona and spend most of our time there. However, I need to keep my hand in construction somehow, as it is my passion. Plus, a person can only golf so many hours a day.
“I am planning to attend the NUCA conventions from time to time just to keep in touch with our friends. I’m excited to watch the new members of the Executive Council and board grow and take on more leadership. I’m also excited for our new CEO Doug Carlson to impart his enthusiasm and chapter focus on the association.”
Ditchdiggers of the Year: Where Are They Now?
Current Company and Position: Legacy Water Group, President and Co-Founder, Covington, GA
What is it that keeps you motivated to work in utility construction: As I stated years ago in a “Chairman’s Message,” the honor of working with so many hardworking, self-made individuals that make our industry what it is, is a rewarding experience. Learning new techniques and advancements after being in this industry for over 49 years is what keeps me motivated.
Best part about being a NUCA member: The relationships you develop and the fellowship that is created. I have never been told no, by any member I have reached out to for help! And we all need help at some point … I hope that aspect of NUCA never goes away.
Most notable or proudest moment from your time as a NUCA member: It’s a toss-up. Winning the Ditchdigger of the Year Award was definitely a personal accomplishment. But my year as Chairman was priceless in that I met so many members across the company and learned that we all have the same issues and a national trade organization like NUCA is essential in our success.
Current Company and Position: Retired, Atlas Excavating Inc., West Lafayette, IN
What is it that keeps you motivated to work in utility construction: Being selected by other Ditchdigger recipients, who are elite leaders in our industry, is a great honor and humbling experience. When you get that message from your peers, that you measure up to their standards, it gives you pause, reflection and the satisfaction you may be doing it right. It also forces you to keep a high standard of integrity, grit and determination to not let them down.
Most stands out about your term as NUCA chairman: During my tenure as NUCA Chairman the housing crunch began happening in 2008. Watching first hand at my friends and peers struggling and/or losing their businesses was gut wrenching. The need for NUCA to be involved in politics was so important at this time. I testified three times that year in a fight for the life of our industry and my friends. It was a humbling experience and showed me the difficult process of navigating congress. Without a NUCA, we as individual contractors, owners, entrepreneurs are on our own: No voice! You need to be a member and get involved!
Most notable or proudest moment from your career as a utility contractor: I have been fortunate to start a family business that is now being run by my kids, the second generation: Casey and Nick Dillon. We are a 40-year-old company building infrastructure for a better country to live in. My proudest moment is the successful transition from my wife Tina and I to the second generation.
It is imperative the next utility contractor generation do it right, with integrity, determination and professionalism. Being a Ditchdigger is something to be proud of, not something to run from!
Current Company and Position: I retired as Vice President of the Western Pipeline Division of Layne Heavy Civil (now Reynolds Construction) in mid-2015. I currently split time between Morrison, CO, and Tucson, AZ.
What was it that kept you motivated to work in utility construction: I thoroughly enjoyed being part of a process of constructing important infrastructure projects my whole career. Utility construction always proved to be a complex challenge. It was rewarding to build teams and relationships to meet those challenges. A big part of my motivation was to help mentor our workforce, and to provide a safe and rewarding place to work.
Best part about being a NUCA member: My experience of being a NUCA member afforded me the ability to share and discuss problems and issues with other contractors in a non-threatening environment. The association also enabled each of us as contractors to have a voice in legislative issues on a national level. Lastly, my NUCA membership allowed me to forge many lifelong friendships.
Most notable or proudest moment from your time as a NUCA member: I had so many notable moments as a NUCA member. Probably my proudest was during my term as NUCA President, during which I gave testimony on our behalf for increased infrastructure funding to the 110th Congressional House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. It was indeed a special feeling to convey the plight of our aging infrastructure to congress from a “Ditchdigger’s” perspective!