Sometimes when you find your calling, things just fall into place. For Fred Chesney, that calling was construction.
Before the Miami, Florida, native enrolled at the University of Florida’s M.E. Rinker School of Building Construction, Chesney said he was “aimlessly rolling through life.” Prompted by his brother, who was already in the construction field, Chesney applied to the school, was accepted, and soon discovered what would become a lifelong career.
“I wasn’t the greatest student growing up, but when I got into the Building Construction school, I got serious and cracked the books hard,” Chesney said. “I found that I could relate to the subject; it was interesting and challenging.”
After graduation, Chesney found himself working for construction firms back in South Florida before founding his own company, Centerline Utilities, in 1980. Now 40 years later, Chesney and Centerline Utilities are still going strong, and he is giving back to another longtime passion: NUCA. Since joining NUCA of South Florida in the 1980s, Chesney has been heavily involved at the state and national levels, culminating with his induction as NUCA National’s Chairman of the Board at the Annual Convention and Exhibit, Feb. 29 in Tucson, Arizona.
Described by outgoing chairman Dan Buckley as “an integrity-driven, analytical and thought-provoking leader,” Chesney will serve a one-year term, during which he hopes to expand membership and propel the organization’s upward trajectory.
“Over the next year, I want to modernize how we approach membership and how we recruit our members. We are evaluating our benefits program and adding more services to help your businesses. Our training and education opportunities will increase. We may not be the biggest association out there, but we’ve got the vision, motivation and people in place,” Chesney said upon accepting the chairmanship.
Also elected to the leadership team at the Feb. 29 meeting was Lauren Atwell, Chairman-Elect; Ryan Kinning, Vice Chairman; Tom Butler, Treasurer; and Tony Privitera, Secretary. Dan Buckley, the association’s previous Chairman, became Immediate Past Chairman.
A Career in Construction
After graduating from the University of Florida Building Construction school, Chesney and his wife, Marguerite, headed back to South Florida where he landed a job with a site development contractor that also did pipe work, and he was immediately drawn to pipe construction aspect of the business. After gaining valuable experience, he set out to work for another pipe contractor before striking out on his own. “The company at the time was going through a difficult period and it seemed like I was busy solving other people’s problems. So, I decided to start my own company. I figured that if I was going to be solving problems, they might as well be my own,” Chesney said.
As a result, Centerline Utilities was launched in October 1980 focused on pipe installation work, and over the past 40 years has continued to evolve in response to market conditions. Chesney’s son, Fred Jr., who also attended the M.E. Rinker School of Building Construction, came on board in 2003 and the pair made a good team. “I have always been more interested in the field aspect of the work, while Fred Jr. handles the office part of the estimating and the business aspect – so it’s been a good match,” he said.
Chesney’s daughter, Katie Marie, who went to the University of North Florida School of Business Construction, joined Centerline as a Senior Project Manager in 2013.
More changes came in the wake of the 2007-2009 recession, including expanding services offered by the company. With a number of the area’s site work and paving contractors folding up shop, Centerline decided to take on the work themselves instead of relying on subcontractors.
“I had hired a gentleman who had been the president of a paving contractor to oversee the dirt and road work that we were subbing out,” Chesney said. “We were having so many problems and headaches that I said ‘Why don’t we just do the work ourselves?’ We had the experience and the equipment, so we decided to start a paving division in 2015.”
The new arrangement proved to be a hit. “Our clients – the developers – like the fact that they can hire a single firm, rather than have multiple contractors on the job. That’s been a big selling point,” he said.
Of course, getting the job done right is paramount. “We have worked hard and developed a great reputation, and that goes a long way,” Chesney said. “Clients know going in that they’re going to get a quality project built. That’s not to say we haven’t ever had any problems. But the difference between a good contractor and a bad contractor is that a good contractor fixes its mistakes.”
Being part of the solution is also a great way to advance a project, as well as build rapport among the project team. “I have always instructed my people that if there is a problem on the job, don’t go in and say there is a problem, go in with a solution. In most cases, they’ll accept the solution and you’re back off to work right away and you don’t miss a beat.”
In recent years, Centerline has nearly quadrupled its revenue, and now maintains nearly 20 full-time crews and more than 150 employees. The company holds licenses in the State of Florida as an Underground Utility Contractor (CUC) and General Contractor (CGC), and is certified for Class V Fireline construction.
Throughout its history, Centerline Utilities has undertaken and successfully completed several challenging projects for a variety of clients across the commercial, private development and transportation sectors. In fact, the company has been recognized several times by NUCA. Centerline Utilities was named NUCA of South Florida’s Member Company of the Year in 2009 and 2010; Contractor of the Year in 2010, 2012 and 2014; and NUCA of Florida Contractor of the Year in 2016.
After 40 years of running his own company, Chesney still relishes the work: “I enjoy going out in the field and watching a pipe crew of a road crew do their work. You can physically see progress as it is happening and you get a sense of pride. I particularly enjoy the challenges with bigger job where there are multiple crews and you need to find the most efficient way to complete the job on time or ahead of time.”
When he’s not working – which isn’t often – Chesney enjoys fishing, bird hunting, sporting clays and flying. A licensed pilot, Chesney inherited the love of flying from his father, soloing for the first time when he was 17.
In addition to NUCA and the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), Centerline Utilities is involved with Construction Angels, a non-profit organization that provides support for families left behind when a construction worker suffers a fatality on the job.
Chesney’s experience with NUCA dates back to the 1980s, with Centerline Utilities joining NUCA of South Florida in 1988. Chesney became active in the local chapter, joining the board of directors – which he still sits on – and eventually serving a three-year term as chapter president. “A lot of my competitors at the time were NUCA members and they were excelling, and it really seemed like they were getting some mileage out of being a member, so we gave it a shot and we have never turned back,” Chesney recalled. “One of the biggest advantages we found was the ability to interact with the local municipalities. Oftentimes, if they have issues or questions, like when they’re writing specifications, they’ll contact us. We can help give them an efficient approach, and it gives the ability to gain exposure and build a rapport with clients.”
Through his involvement at the local level, Chesney became interested in the national level, particularly the Washington Summit. “We had quite a few people locally active in state government activities, so I began to concentrate on the national level by attending the Summits. That eventually led me to attend other meetings and the Annual Convention, and then I was asked to join the Board of Directors,” Chesney said.
Chesney served terms as secretary, treasurer, vice chairman and chairman-elect before embarking on his chairmanship on Feb. 29.
“When I first joined UCA of South Florida in the 1980s, it never occurred to me that 30 years later I would be standing here as the newly minted Chairman of the national association,” Chesney said during his acceptance speech. “But once you get involved with your local chapter and know what you can achieve as a volunteer, you realize how much you can give back to the industry that has given you so much.”
As mentioned, membership is the key issue during Chesney’s chairmanship. “Membership growth is what will make this association and our industry stronger, today and in the years to come. We know that the larger the chapter, the louder our voice, the greater our ability to affect change locally and nationally, and the more we can give back to our communities,” he said. His membership recruitment campaign has been dubbed “NUCA+1.”
But membership isn’t the only issue. Chesney, who is active on the Safety and Government Relations committees, says those initiatives have been central to NUCA’s mission. “NUCA’s lobbying efforts have been strong and we need to continue making progress,” he said. “We have been able to get legislation passed that provides appropriations for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds that promote job growth within our industry. And safety continues to improve across all aspects of the industry. It has done a complete 180-degree turn from just 20 years ago. Now safety is an extremely large part of our culture and you do whatever possible to do the job safety.”
Of note, the South Florida chapter was instrumental in helping to establish a one-call locating system that has expanded nationwide. “That has been a major benefit to all our members, and is now nationwide,” Chesney said. “We lobbied state government to pass legislation to set up a one-stop shop for utility locations because in those days a contractor had to contact each utility operating in that area separately – it was a nightmare. We wanted a way that was organized and with one point of contact. It took persistence – a matter of a few years – to get it passed, but we were able to get an improved and safer system for everyone.”
It’s effort like these that demonstrate the power of a strong association. Said Chesney: “That is why it so important that we focus on NUCA+1.”
NUCA Past Chairs
1967- Tom Marinelli
1968- Tom Marinelli
1969- Joe D’Annunzio
1970- Harold Schneider Jr.
1971- Harry Peyton
1972- Anthony Shuttle
1973- Fred Compagni
1974- John Leach
1975- Peter Inzero
1976- Bill Lee
1977- Ed Cruz
1978- Ken Goodwin
1979- Dave Shevock
1980- Paul Carson Jr.
1981- Gorman Pinkston
1982- Dan Carapellucci
1983- Bill Burgett
1984- Leon Asadoorian
1985- Loretta Simmons
1986- Gerry Kenny
1987- Vic D’Geronimo
1988- Rick Egge
1989- Jay Matricciani
1990- Mike Ellis
1991- Ron Pacella
1992- Delaine Nelson
1993- Gerry Dorfman
1995- “Spunky” Thaxton
1996- Johnny Hall
1997- Walter Gainer
1998- Lino DeAlmeida
1999- Andy Mayts
2000- Angelo Di Paolo
2001- Jeff Weitzel
2002- Thomas Henkels
2003- Mark Accetturo
2004- William Bowman
2005- Cheryl Yoder
2006- Jim Stutler
2007- James King
2008- Terry Dillon
2009- Lyle Schellenberg
2010- Dan East
2011- Ryan Schmitt
2012- Ryan Schmitt
2013- Florentino Gregorio
2014- Ron Nunes
2015- Bruce Wendorf
2016- Jeff Rumer
2017- Kara Habrock