Ditchdigger of the Year – Kara Habrock, L.G. Roloff Construction

Kara Habrock accepts the 2019 Ditchdigger of the Year award
Kara Habrock accepts the 2019 Ditchdigger of the Year award from Ryan Kinning.

For Kara Habrock, president of Omaha, Nebraska-based L.G. Roloff Construction, the past decade has been a whirlwind of activity. Among the highlights: founding member of the NUCA of Nebraska chapter and its first President in 2009 and 2010, NUCA National Convention Chair in 2012, and election to the NUCA National Board of Directors in 2013, culminating with her assuming the role of Chair in 2017.

In the meantime, Habrock was taking on increasing responsibility of the successful contracting business at home, including her recent assumption of the role of president upon the retirement of company founder, and her father, Larry Roloff.

Through her involvement at the local and national levels, her dedication and passion for the industry have led to progress in areas including workforce development, damage prevention, political advocacy, and more. In honor of her achievement, Habrock was recognized as the Ditchdigger of the Year – NUCA’s most prestigious award – at the 2019 convention in Naples, Florida.

“By definition of the award, I can’t think of anyone who has contributed more than Kara recently,” said Ryan Kinning of Penro Construction, a fellow Nebraskan and 2017 Ditchdigger of the Year who presented the award to Habrock. “She has given leadership, time and financial support to NUCA programs. She has been involved at every level, both local and national. Kara has an uncommon attention to detail and a focus on accountability that is hard to find in a volunteer leader. She relies on the bylaws to guide her in her decisions, making sure that NUCA is being run as our forefathers intended.”

For Habrock, she felt honored upon hearing about the award and praised the team at L.G. Roloff Construction for their support. “There are so many people in NUCA doing amazing things at the national level to advance our industry and association and it was a bit overwhelming to think that I was being singled out for my work,” she said. “I am standing on the shoulders of my father, my husband, my business partners and the entire Roloff crew who made my devotion to NUCA possible. The Ditchdigger of the Year award does go to an individual, but it is also in recognition of the team behind the recipient!”

Winding Path to Construction

Habrock didn’t take the usual direct path into the construction industry. She grew up around her father’s construction company – even attending her first NUCA Convention at age 14 – but was not smitten with the industry initially. She studied broadcast journalism at the University of Nebraska and took a communications job at an IT company upon her graduation.

Kara and her father, Larry
Kara and her father, Larry, on the jobsite circa 1973.

Eventually, she would return to L.G. Roloff in 1999, using her IT background to help the company navigate computer challenges associated with the Y2K bug. The move would prove to be permanent. Habrock began to take on increasing responsibility with the company, and in 2004, she, her husband Monty, and business partners, Bob Norris and Ron Siwa purchased L.G. Roloff from her father.

All the while, she was getting involved with NUCA at the national level, and, after the Nebraska chapter formation in 2009, at the state level – an experience that has been invaluable. “Being involved with NUCA over last 20 years has given me perspective, knowledge, support, camaraderie … and the list goes on!,” Habrock said. “It is very easy to get mired down by problems in the industry or your own business. Knowing that others share your struggles and concerns and being able to network and share ideas and solutions both at the state and national level is incredibly valuable, not to mention therapeutic.

“Being in NUCA has also provided me and our company with access to several valuable resources that we’ve used to develop our business and our team, and improve our operations. Safety training, political advocacy, leadership development, underground damage consulting, workforce development efforts and general networking and idea sharing at both the national and chapter level have helped me optimize and grow our business over the last 20 years.”

L.G. Roloff Construction leadership team,
The L.G. Roloff Construction leadership team, including Ron Siwa, Bob Norris, Larry Roloff, Kara Habrock and Monty Habrock.

Tour of Duty

During Habrock’s term as NUCA Chair, she attended the NUCA Convention, Washington Summit, Fall Leadership Conference, the Safety Director’s Forum and visited with nine NUCA Chapters. She lobbied on Capitol Hill for the expansion of Career & Technical Education (CTE) funding, facilitated an “811 Fly-in” to deal with one-call issues, and helped re-establish the Damage Prevention Committee as a stand-alone committee.

Upon receiving the gavel, Habrock identified political advocacy and workforce development as top priorities. “Political Advocacy and Workforce Development went hand-in-hand during my year as Chair and that has continued,” she said. “Constrained labor is perhaps the biggest challenge we face, but we are starting to gain momentum on workforce development. First off, some of the NUCA chapters are doing some amazing workforce development work by promoting careers in our industry from pre-K to college. They are assisting with vocational education programs and helping develop curriculum and training.

“NUCA contractors, just by the way they are running their companies and providing for their employees, are telling a great story – that a career in underground utility contracting is something to be proud of. You can provide for yourself and your family, you can have good benefits, and you can build a retirement fund. Our industry offers many opportunities – and many of those opportunities don’t require you to go to college and take on any debt.”

Political advocacy has helped advance the cause. During the 2017 NUCA Washington Summit, Habrock and NUCA members made it a priority to promote workforce development and training. NUCA members spoke to representatives about investing more in CTE and specifically requested the reauthorization of the Perkins Act. In 2018, Congress reauthorized the Perkins Act, which increases authorized funding levels for federal assistance to CTE and includes other provisions that are beneficial for the utility construction for our industry.

“We are getting some traction but we need to keep beating the drum and remind our members that legislative progress takes time,” Habrock said.

Kara interviews former First Lady Laura Bush
One of the perks of leadership: Kara interviews former First Lady Laura Bush at the NUCA 2012 Convention.

Looking Ahead

Since completing her term as Immediate Past Chair at the NUCA Convention in Naples, Habrock looks forward to focusing energies on the company. “Since I became president of the company, we have added some key staff positions that enabled me to work on and guide some strategic projects that I’m very excited about,” she explained. “One of the initiatives deals with our recruiting, interviewing, hiring and onboarding processes. The other pertains to our efforts to further improve our company culture by defining expected behaviors that support our core values and then hiring, educating, developing, evaluating and promoting our team members accordingly. It’s all been challenging, but very interesting and fun!”

As far as the future of the utility construction market, both nationally and in the Omaha area where L.G. Roloff operates, the outlook is promising. New housing and commercial developments are driving new infrastructure construction, while sewer, water and gas upgrade programs provide repair and replacement work. Additionally, flooding in the area has impacted roads, bridges and utilities that are in need of repair.

“Locally, the underground utility construction market is very strong,” Habrock commented. “However, the materials and labor required to make all these flood repairs could negatively impact already constrained labor and materials markets.”

Additionally, Habrock is anxious to re-engage at with the NUCA of Nebraska chapter. “Now that my NUCA National leadership commitments have tapered off, I am really looking forward to getting more involved in our chapter again. Our chapter has been in existence for 10 years now, and because of NUCA of Nebraska, I feel the underground utility construction industry in Nebraska is getting the visibility and recognition it deserves.

“What stands out to me is the Nebraska chapter’s significant progress in the areas of workforce development (www.buildournebraska.com) and underground damage prevention – specifically Nebraska’s one-call law and related governance. NUCA of Nebraska has positively impacted me and our company by providing great communication and paths to action on many things that affect our business. We greatly enjoy the teamwork with other contractors and associate members when it comes to ‘fighting’ against regulations that are not good for construction or business in general.”

“Lastly, but most importantly to me, the friendship, support and camaraderie of my fellow NUCA of Nebraska friends is the best thing. I am so grateful for their friendship and the personal and professional support I receive from them. At Roloff, we always say, ‘we are only competitors on bid day.’ The rest of the time we are friends who help each other out!”

RELATED: NUCA Swears In Kara Habrock As 2017-2018 Chairwoman

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