2023 Hall of Fame Inductee: Bill McConnell

Words: Isa Stein

MASONRY Magazine: Tell me about how you got started in the industry.

Bill McConnell: Well, I'm going to tell you this. I'm going to give a bit of my speech for tomorrow away, but I will tell you this. I was 16 years of age, living in Philadelphia. My parents lived in Philly. I've lived there. And at that time, I was sort of a little renegade, I guess one can say. And my stepfather got me a job with a company called Anastasi Brothers in Philadelphia. And I had no idea about masonry contracting. No idea; none at all. So, I said fine. So, I remember getting my nice khaki pants on and my wonderful golf shirt, and I went to the office to the garage because I was going to work in the garage in the office. I was supposed to be there at 7:00 am in the morning. I got there at 6:50 to impress people that I was going to be early. So, when I get there, I see it. I see a big tractor trailer in the garage. This is how big the garage was. There are all the people are standing around the tractor trailer. Obviously, I didn't know what was happening. So, I went up, introduced myself, and I said, "Mr. Anastasi, I'm Bill McConnell," and he said, "Fine." At that time, I didn't realize that there was a Portland cement strike on the East Coast. You couldn't buy a bag of Portland cement. It was like powdered gold. In the trailer, they had the trailer, and then they opened up the back of the trailer doors. And lo and behold, that trailer was loaded from floor to ceiling with Portland cement bags, 96 pounds each. They looked at it, and they said that there were no pallets and it all to be unloaded by hand. The problem was they needed somebody to go between the top of the trailer and the top back, which is about 12 inches. So, they're all looking around. And lo and behold, who was it? I was the smallest guy there. I had to go in. I'll never forget it. At that time, it was 80 degrees; humidity was about 115. We had no mask on – we didn't look at that stuff. They actually stuffed me in that there so I could push the bags down. That was my introduction to the masonry industry.

M.M.: How did you get to where you are now?

B.M.:  Well, I was a sophomore in high school at that time, and I worked for them, Anastasi, for that summer. Then they asked me to stay on every Saturday. So, I had to go every Saturday to work, which I did. And again, I was the youngest one there. I started to learn the masonry products, the brick, the block, the tile, speed-back tile, and a lot of things that they don't use anymore, I was doing at the time. I learned how to pick up a 16-foot plank, 10 inches wide and 2 inches thick. And I just about could pick it up, but I did do it. And then, I learned about scaffolding, how to do scaffolding and various other products. Speed-back title, they won't even know what that is, but it's there. When you would pick it up, it was a tile, and it was so tight. You didn't know that being an amateur that it would cut your hands because it was so sharp. And then the brick in the block and we used at that time, this is in '58. At that time, we unloaded a brick by hand with the tongs. I used to have to go 10 bricks on this hand, 10 bricks on that hand. And that's how we did it.

So, I accepted their offer to go to work after I graduated from high school. And I went into the accounting department. Very interesting. I learned about all the different sales vendors and all the way we categorized everything; we put numbers to everything. Every bag, every block, every brick, we knew exactly what it was. And I did that for two years. But the premier job of all jobs was to become an estimator. Estimators always had nice suits on, nice shoes, great cars, always went out to lunch, and went out with their friends. So, I wanted to become a junior estimator. But to become a junior estimator, I had to be an apprentice estimator, and I didn't realize how long it takes to be an apprentice. Anastasi Stacy brothers, at that time, had five full-time estimators. And I was to be the apprentice estimator, and what was my job? My job was to do all the calculations on their estimates, so I had to do all the multiplications, the additions, and so on and so forth. One of the rules at Anastasi Brothers was that for any one of the five estimates, the president of the company would be able to pick it up, go to page three of the estimate, go to line seven, I'm just using an example, and know exactly what that person's taking off. I had to read it every day for two years. And finally, they let me graduate. They finally let me become a house estimator, which means residential homes. So, I started there. And we started taking off that and did row homes. In Philadelphia, we had the row homes, so we did a lot of row homes. We were big in the housing business. Then, after that, I graduated.

When I was about 26 years of age, I became a commercial estimator. Being a commercial estimator, now I can do anything. I can do schools, hospitals, you name it. And again, I had the whole philosophy that they were teaching and kept on teaching me. The positive thing I got was I got five different ways of looking at an estimating job.

28 years of age, I was a Chief Estimator. Then Mr. Anastasi and came to me said, "I would like you to move to Boston." Now, my wife and I were married, Joanne. She worked there, and she left to go to another place. We had one daughter, Heather, and we had my son. Joanne was carrying my son. It was a big change in my life to go from Philadelphia, a big family, to Marshfield, Massachusetts, 35 miles south of Boston. So, I accepted the opportunity. We jumped in our car, which was an Austin Healey – myself, my wife, my daughter, and my soon-to-be son. Not fully packed, naturally, because there was no room in the damn thing. We drove from Philadelphia up to Marshfield, Massachusetts. We actually rented a cottage up there, and we stayed there. As my wife was becoming more pregnant, my son was born in April, and she wanted to buy a house. So, we finally bought a house up there. In the interim, I was working at Anastasi Brothers as the Chief Estimator… I worked there until September of 83, but the reason I left it is I was in the trenches for so long. It was really hard jobs. In the interim, I did what they called the plywood ranch. It was a 60-story building. I don't want to mention the name, but it was a 60-story building in Boston. I did all the interior work from the basement, structural glazed style, the block course, all the stair towers, elevator shafts, gypsum block in the middle. We literally completed the job in '82. Literally, I was there for the last ceremonial of the adding the last block on the 16th floor. Two days later, we get a phone call from the structural engineers who designed the building, and they had to reinforce the structural steel. So, we had to literally knock down a lot of the work we did and redo the building again. So, I literally did a 60-story building twice, right? That was one of my jobs. The other one was a Sheraton Hotel. I was always of the opinion we have to be diversified. What do I mean by diversification? You have to be able to do precast, blockwork, tilework, stonework, both vertically and horizontally. Most of my work was vertically, so I always wanted to do that. So, I ended up getting a job called the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Boston. What I didn't realize at the time was that I was going to get a Manitowoc crane, which was 150 tons. And I didn't realize, again, that underneath me was the central artery for the turnpike in there, so you can't put a 150-ton crane on that. And next to it, there was a subway, so I couldn't do that. What I did is I came up with an idea of putting a tower crane on top of the building. So, we did do that. And it was on the 27th floor. When we completed the thing, we were setting five-ton precast stones, doing the brick and block, and finishing it up. And we actually had a challenge for one of the steel contractors in the thing. They said, "We'll invite you to our topping-off party." Guess what? We had them with our topping-off party. So that was it.

And then, in July of '83, I dodged a bullet. There was an ad looking for a Masonry Marketing Sales Manager. I said, masonry salesman? All I thought of: country clubs, going to the dinner, going out to lunches. Then I take all the pressure off getting the jobs and all that running the job because at Anastasi, we literally every single day had to know how many bricks and blocks we laid. And we would have to tally up the sheets to find out if we were making money that day. One of the best trainings I ever had in my life. So, I interviewed, and I did get the job. It was for a company called Manganaro. I thought I was going to be a sales manager. Well, that was lasted for about six months until they started pulling me back in again – back into the mystery field. Also, at the same time, Manganaro happened to be the largest drywall contractor in that New England area. So, I started learning estimating drywall. So now I had a combination of both masonry and drywall and actually steel frame; I ended up getting steel frame. I was still the Marketing Manager, but they kept dragging me back in the estimating back in the project management. I stayed there September '83 through July of '86. Then, I formed Architectural Paving and Stone with Jim Mcettrick. Basically, our basic major item was to go vertical work and do a lot of vertical work. And we did we did a lot of vertical work. Some of the things I did is the Boston Police Headquarters in Roxbury, Massachusetts; it's approximately three football fields long, 100 yards wide, five stories on it. It was exterior cladding on that building, exterior cladding, three-centimeter stone; there were seven different colors on that building, and on the seven, there were eight different shapes. So, it looked like a kaleidoscope, and when you turn to kaleidoscope, you see all the different colors? That's exactly what it was.

They designed it with the Unistrut system. The Unistrut system is stainless steel, so we had to weld Nelson studs into the frame – every floor, and we designed special wall ties. They go horizontally and vertically, up and down, and we did that. It was over 30,000 square feet. It was amazing. It won a national award. Then, we ended up doing the interior masonry work. So again, diversification all vertical stone and interior stone. That was one of the projects. Then the other one, I guess we could call the Coup de gras, maybe, for me, was – again, I was concentrating on vertical work, I did a lot of vertical work – but we started to get into the horizontal work, the brick paving, and the stonework. I very much got into stonework, and so on and so forth. We ended up doing a job called the capping of the central artery, which I did a lot of vertical buildings on. And that was in downtown Boston. It was three miles long, about 400 yards wide in certain cases, down to 100 yards wide. 1.5 million paving brick, 250,000 concrete pavers, miles of granite paving that we did. So that was probably the major achievement that we did. We did many others, so I don't want to bore everybody with it. But that was some of my accomplishments. I retired in 2010, but still active in the business though.

M.M.: Tell us about some of the other challenges you’ve faced as you made your way through the industry?

B.M.: Well, I put a 15-ton crane on top of a roof in downtown Boston. We had access to one truck lane. It was a grinder job. It was 10-stories. I actually had a crane put a crane on top of it. We used Coldspring granite; it was three inches thick, and it was with steel casing and steel angle irons on it. And that's when we introduced the Nelson Sud gun. What we would do is we'd put the stone up vertically, have this shelf down, then weld the stud right to it, do it that way, and then put it on. So, we were always trying to be innovative and trying to do something different where nobody else did. That's one of the things we always said, even with the Big Dig. We always were innovating. Load bearing jobs – I did so many load bearing jobs; I'd bore you if I even got into it. I did an 18-story building, load bearing; the first four floors were 12-inch-thick concrete block. And the engineer came to me and said to me, "Bill, how do I know that you're going to put a 4000-psi block on this floor and not give me a 2000-psi?" which was according to ASTM. I said, "I'll tell you what, I'll show you how to do it." I went to the block manufacturer. We put colored dye in the block so we had blue, orange and green. It was the color, and it was unbelievable, so the engineer could walk anywhere in that building and know exactly what the psi of that block was. What we would do is design it. The goal of any load bearing job is to have done the floor, the vertical walls done and rebar and grout it in four days. Now we had about on each floor, about 30 different apartments. Now you can picture 15 on this side, 15 on that side. We had these demising walls approximately 20 feet on center, 8 feet high, 12 block high. And we use what they call the Ivany system at the time; it was just tongue and groove lock. The head joints were tongue and groove. The bed joints – we always had to put the bed joints because we had the vertical rebars coming up. We went 16 inches on center, 8 inches on center, and 24 inches on. It's all according to how high you went. When we were downstairs and at 12, it was basically 8 inches on center. Then, you would grout it with a grout we call the 810 grout. It was actually 810 pounds of Portland cement in one yard of concrete. And literally, you would pump it, and the engineers will say, "How do we know that they're going to get the grout there?" I said just look at the wall. The wall was wet. It was so wet. And with the grout, you could only let it dry on the floor for a day because it's like liquid iron. And on this particular job, the one I'm thinking of, we did prison test from the first floor to the 18th floor. Never passed it; never passed the prison test. So, I'll never forget. We had a job meeting after we finished the 18th floor. We had the owners, the general contractors, the engineers, the architects, everybody and anybody. They were all sitting around waiting in the room, and before we did it, I became very efficient. Not bragging, but it's a fact. I did a lot of technical work and a lot of research. So, the day we're going to have the meeting, I call up the testing lab. They were wonderful people. Wonderful. I call them up and said, "I went you and I to go over how we do person tests." And he says, "Okay, Bill." He was at one office; I was at another office, and we're friends. So, I said let's walk page one, page two, page three, page four. When we got to page four, I said, "Did you divide it by two?" I didn't get a response. He said, "Say that again, Bill? What page are you on?" I told him the page, the paragraph, and so on and so forth. Again, he's a friend, so I didn't throw him under the bus. He says, "I have to call you right back." Here, they were doing the prison test incorrectly. If they divided by two, we would blow all the requirements of the psi. So, we went to the meeting. The testing lab, which was a very fine testing lab, slid up said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we don't have a problem here. Everything is fine. Goodbye." The meeting was over in five minutes because they knew. That was one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced doing an 18-story building without having one prison test pass. But that's what I believe in load bearing masonry. We would do a floor a week. That was a goal every four days. We would do a floor. On the fifth day, the plank man would come in and do the precast plank. When we got to the third floor, after we completed the third-floor block work, we started at the brickwork on the exterior of the wall. In 21 weeks, that building was done, and there were only three trades on it: bricklayers, laborers and engineers. did it many, many times. So, I think we in the industry do not use that. They're saying there's a major housing shortage. If they want to build hard, we would do dormitories built out of load bearing masonry. And the reason why the colleges wanted it is because when the kids would hit their hand against the wall, it wouldn't go through the wall. It would hurt, and it hurt because the concrete block was there. They were indestructible. You couldn't destroy these things, these buildings.

M.M.: What are some other things you are proud of?

B.M.: I'm proud of the industry. I'm proud of being nominated by the Executive Board of the Mason Contractors Association. I was shocked to be nominated, shocked to be accepted. I'll be very frank with you. Because obviously, in the Northeast, we were active, but we were not that active in the Mason Contractors Association that much. And there was a schism, and there was a schism at one time who was union/non-union; then they merged both union and non-union. It was a big schism that a lot of the union contractors were either from the Chicago, Illinois area or the Northeast, where we were from. But I was still an amazing contractor. The mason contractor industry is for the good of the industry; it's for the mason contractor. So that's why we stayed on. Then, when I was elected to be part of the Executive Board, I was taken aback. I thought it was the greatest experience I ever had, and then I became president.

M.M.: What are your favorite projects that you’ve worked on?

B.M.: Boston Police Headquarters, Sheraton Hotel, the Big Dig, a lot of event buildings, Deer Island, the water treatment plants. I had three schools at one time; built three schools at one time all in the Boston area. I did work all over New England. Basically, I believed in traveling so out of these six states of New England, we did four of them. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire. So that that was the difference learning. I did a lot of work in Maine too at one time, and the differences. In fact, I'll tell you a story when I did a job in Maine. It was in the fall. And it was a Jordan Marsh, a department store in Portland, Maine. So being an estimator and project manager, I would have to go inspect it every now and then. So, one day, on a Monday, I left to go to Portland, Maine. It was about an hour and a half drive from my office. So, I pull up on the job site in Portland, Maine. Looking around, there's nobody there. I saw the security guard there. I said, “Where is everybody?” Not a bricklayer, not a laborer, no steel workers, nobody. He says, “Where are you from?” I said, “I'm from Massachusetts.” He says, “Oh, you really don't know Mainers, do you?” I said, “No. What are you talking about?” He says, “What time of the year is it?” I said, “It's October.” He says, “What do you do in October? We shoot deer, don't you understand that? They're all deer hunting,” and they’ve left the job for a whole week. They wanted to fill up their freezers for the winter. And that was a true story.

M.M.: What advice would you give to your younger self?

B.M.: Be more attentive in school. Be more directly into financial work and understand the financial world. The problem in our industry today as a young person is when they join to get into the industry. The problem is we have a 90% rule. So that means we could do a $100,000 job, but we're only going to get $90,000 of it. The other $10,000 is called retainage. And when do we get the retainage? You'll only get the retainage when the job has been completed. So that could be six months to a year, and every contractor that's in this room is going to know that. They know exactly what I'm talking about. So, I would be a little bit more aware of the financial world and also read the general conditions of the job site and the contracts. I would recommend everybody think they're a lawyer. Really, because there are so many ways they can get killed in this job – in this world. We're in a high-risk business. Being a hybrid business means this: Apple computers, Apple makes 39 to 40% on everything they sell. We make, as a mason contractor, subcontractor, maybe 15% towards overhead profit. You have to take the cost of administration out of that. So, our profit margin is not even close to the retail market and all these other buckets. So, we have to be very, very careful. You have to be extremely careful with what equipment you buy, the terms that you buy it on, all these to know your product inside and out all the time. Constantly learn, learn, learn.

M.M.: What is your legacy?

B.M.: I've been in the business for over 60 years. I built a lot of jobs. I'm probably proud of every day that I ever worked in the business, to be truthful. I'm proud of all the people that I've worked with. I'm proud of my family. They were very supportive of me. I mean, I was on the kitchen table taking jobs off when I started. When I started in business in 86, my daughter was going to college, she went to Penn State, my son was still going to high school, we were putting an addition on to the house, and I was taking jobs off on the kitchen table. I mean, a lot of people had a lot of faith in me, and I was very fortunate to have that. My legacy is I will never not take the challenge. When I say take the challenge, I analyze the challenge. I want to know the risks and rewards of everything they do. And then once I find what the risks are, what the rewards are, and I will take that, and that would be my legacy. I love the industry, and I truthfully do. But you have to be a business person; you have to look at it. It's a business. It's a business to make money. That's why you're in business. You're not in business to build buildings. You're in business to make money. That's my legacy.

M.M.: What does it mean to be inducted into the Masonry Hall of Fame?

B.M.: Well, it means a lot. The challenge is that we are in this industry, survival. It's not a high survival rate. There might be, in fact, I can tell you this is a fact. There was a survey taken about 15 years ago by the union, and they wanted to know how big mason contractors were on average. And when they got the results, they were astonished. The results were: a typical mason contractor is no more than five people. So, our industry is basically a small industry. Now, there are exceptions. There's a lot of a lot of larger companies. I've had 100 people work for me one time, and so on and so forth. A lot of my friends had a lot, a lot of people worked for them. But we have to remember our industry is not the largest industry in the world. The problem is today… Again, diversification is everything to me… We have to be diversified as an industry because everybody's coming after our industry – the carpenters, the laborers, everybody, and we're fighting to survive. The architectural field thinks we're yesterday's news. We're not yesterday's news. We have the oldest buildings in the world. Greece is 4000 years BC. And if you ever went to Greece to see the workmanship that they did, you go, what the hell's going on here? It's unbelievable. Capitol building, 1865 it was built – masonry, limestone, granite. During the Civil War, Independence Hall, the oldest structures in the United States are made out of masonry. Go to South America, masonry. So, it's our industry, and we have to be diversified. We have to be ready for the challenges. Right now, the lumber industry is building buildings five stories high; that never happened before. Now they're doing it, and so we have to be able to have more product knowledge and defeat them and get back to where we were.

M.M.: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?

B.M.: I'm going to talk to the young estimators. I'm going to talk to the journeyman bricklayers. I'm going to talk about the apprenticeship bricklayers. I'm talking to the mason contractor, the laborers who supply the industry. Especially the young ones. We have an industry that, once you become a journeyman – and I'm going to use Boston as an example because I know that better than anything else – our average work hours on a year is 1350 hours. Usually, most people work 1920 hours, that's taking the holidays off and two weeks of vacation. The average salary of a Boston bricklayer at 1350 hours is close to $125,000. That includes their pension, their health and welfare. And to be competitive, they open shop where friends of mine have to offer the same thing. They give these people the same thing. In Massachusetts, it's required that you have to do it or take a paycheck actually. So, it's an industry where there's pride. I can walk to this day, and I do it right now. I could go to Philadelphia right now. I can point out at least six or seven different buildings I did. And there's pride that I had in working in this industry. Going back to the young estimators: understand your product, number one; understand finances, number two; understand the general contract and the general conditions, number three; number four, get an idea and feel of what a common bricklayer can lay and do. Don't bring it up in your mind. Find out. Investigate it. Don't be bashful; ask tons of questions. I'm going to give you an example. If you look in a high-rise office building, the highest production area is from the window head to the windowsill. Why is that? Well, let's use that example of standard size brick, 6.75 brick per square foot, and you got control joints vertical control joints every 20 feet on center. It might be little bit more, but 6.75 is about right. Now, you go from the window sill to the window head. And what do you have? Do you have windows between the brick, so the number of brick per square foot you have to lay is probably up in the sevens? So, you have to understand that. Think about that because you know you're going to go from the window head to window sill, you've got so much productivity. Windows sill the window? Hey, you got less productivity. Going back to the load bearing, we used to figure 235 block a day per man grouted and rebarred. 235! And I could show you today what it's up to. So, the industry has to become young again. We have to become multi-talented. Do not not take the chance of learning stone, precast, tile, interior and exterior. So, you can go have a future. They'll surpass it all when it comes to it if they do it right. I mean, look at the most beautiful buildings in the world. Beautiful stone, brick, and all that stuff. It's amazing.

M.M.: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?

B.M.: I think the industry itself should be a little bit more uniform and more closely monitored between the contractors, the suppliers, the block people that now have the block thing. I think that we should definitely be part of that. And I believe that the industry itself has to get together and rally around the flag and start doing what we do best because we have the best product. But we're not doing it, showing it. There are certain groups that do some promotion and all that stuff. I really think that we have to be adjoined. We have to take our egos out of it, put it together, and work as one and a team. To give you an example, we're in the state of Pennsylvania Hershey Hotel sitting here. I don't know if you realize this, but in Pennsylvania, if I was a politician, I'd be very insistent in using state products like 'made in the state of Pennsylvania.' In our industry, we make brick here, we make block here, we make cement, we make lime. We could outsource the structural steel, but we still make the steel here. Don't know if they're still making rebars here. We are basically homegrown. Why don't we use our own product to support people in Pennsylvania? It drives me crazy. You see today, especially the wood framing thing. It's all made in Canada. I got a lot of good friends in Canada, but it's Canada, and they outsource everything. Here, we have our own industry. Why don't we use our own industry? Put our people to work and get good jobs. I was invited one day a career day. Lowell, Massachusetts, is one of the largest technical high schools in the country. Never forget it. I had to ring the doorbell to get in, and the dean of the school comes out, greets me, and very nicely talking, and I said, "Would you be a favor? I need to be between the front door until the class I'm going to talk to. I need an idea of how many students are here and what careers they are going to." Well, she started with, I think they had at that time they had 1500 students there, of the 1500, 1000 were going to work go to work Mickey D's. I said, I, literally in the lobby, I was shocked. I don't know what response to say to her. I said, "Wait a minute. How?" I said, "Okay, I won't do that." I said, "Let me understand this. You have 1500 students, and you got 1000 who are gonna work at Mickey D's?" I said, "That's no problem. I understand; that's fine." I said, "…but there are trades out there, and this is a trade school. If you teach them the trade, they'll make 10 times more than they do there." So now, I have to go stand in front of these men, and these kids are all young kids. They got earrings here; they got stuff over there. I was like a sore thumb. And I said, I'll never be able to relate to these kids, and they will never relate to me. So, I started taking all my clothes off. Not all, but most of it. I was just trying to get them ready for me and for my presentation. That they would understand that I was trying to talk to them at their level and not my level. And I did. I talked to him with broader ideas about why it would be great for them to go into the masonry industry and start that. I said, "Try it." I said, "I guarantee you…" There were about 25 students there. "I guarantee you 10 or more aren't going to make it, but 15 will. And I'll tell you what, that 15 will make more money." And I am a great believer in college education. I will not throw it under the bus. I am a tremendous believer in college education. But these young people, men and women, would go so far, and they'd have a job for the rest of their life that they could do in the masonry industry. Some of them did go in.

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