Masonry Wall Of Fame: Fred Campbell

Words:

Words: MASONRY Magazine
Photos: Fred Campbell

Editor's note: In the first Wall of Fame interview of the year we sat down with industry professional Fred Campbell. Fred was the 2020 Spec Mix Bricklayer 500 World Champion and has been working in the masonry industry since he was 13 year old. Learn more about his journey within the industry and more about the legacy he's created along the way.

MASONRY Magazine: Fred, tell me about your background. How did you get started, and what drew you to the masonry industry?

Fred Campbell: My dad was a mason and did residential work by himself. I started going to work with him during the summer when I was ten years old. The first day I ever went out with him, I loved it, and I knew within two weeks that I wanted to be a mason. When I was 13 years old, I got off the school bus and bricked a guy's house in our neighborhood. I would meet my dad in the evenings and then work with him on Saturdays, tackling pretty much any job he needed me to do. 

When I say just tackling any type of job, I always like to do something hard. I didn't just lay a brick on the wall. That wasn't me. I always wanted to do something decorative — arches and stuff like that, something challenging. But I've always just enjoyed doing it. When I turned eighteen, I got married, and my dad decided to retire. I took over his small residential company and just started growing it from there. I do a lot of charity work on the weekends, I've worked a lot of hours in my life just doing masonry, and I love doing it.

M.M.: How do you manage all of that?

F.C.: Well, with the help of my wife, who has always worked in the office for me. We still do some small residential jobs, but we have moved into commercial jobs and now have around 75 employees. 

Many of the guys who work for me as a laborer, I've trained to run other jobs for me and are now foremen. 

M.M.: What are some of your earliest memories you have of working with your dad?

F.C.: Some of my earliest memories are just working with dad, and how strict he was about the quality work I did. He taught me right, and I worked right beside him up until he retired. He will still come out on the job a little bit, but he hasn't laid brick since. He’s 82 years old now, and he still gophers for me delivering all my checks to the jobs on Fridays. He is still involved; it’s kind of good to have him around, not only as my dad but, my good friend.

M.M.: How has the masonry industry changed your life?

F.C.: It's been good to us. I have a big family; we’ve done well and have been very blessed. But it's just my love of masonry. Even though we make $10 million a year, I'll still go and build a little outdoor fireplace for someone I know on the weekends. Just to do something small by myself because I like doing it. I enjoy teaching it too. About six months ago, I started classes at my shop on Thursday nights. We get some mud and build projects for two hours with twelve guys and twelve kids on Thursday nights. Teaching is one of my passions.

M.M.: Is this your first time teaching masonry?

F.C.: Yes, I've trained guys on the job. Like I’ve said, most of the guys that worked for me started with me as a laborer and worked their way up. My top guy started with me 21 years ago as a helper, and now he's my top foreman. But this year, I'm taking even younger guys into a classroom setting and giving them a hands-on experience. They'll learn more in two hours than I could teach them in a month, on the jobsite. So it is all hands-on stuff, and I have them building mailboxes, fireplaces, and stuff that we keep, and I sell them.

M.M.: How many years have you been a masonry professional? How did you progress through your masonry career?

F.C.: I've had the business for thirty-one years, and progressing for me is staying on top of new equipment and products and just trying to introduce younger guys into the industry. My top guy started as a helper; I like hiring people and allowing them to advance in the company. I have an estimator in my office that is seventy-two years old, and he is teaching a twenty-four-year-old. So it's all about handing it down and getting more people involved. We started with my dad bricking houses and old mailboxes to now, we are finishing up a $65 million high school, and there is nothing too big for us right now.

M.M.: What is the hardest part of working in the masonry industry?

F.C.:  Our biggest problem is finding good help, and it has been a problem for us for a long time. It is hard to find young guys that are interested in the industry. If you bring them out on the jobsite, it is hard work, it's dirty, and you are outside in all weather types. It is hard to get younger guys interested and motivated to stick around to learn. We go through a lot of help, just because it's not for everybody. Right now, I have maybe eight guys, one that is eighteen years old, and the rest of them are in their twenties that are going to be good masons. The rest of my staff are seasoned workers. That is why I started the masonry classes. On the first night of my classes, I tell people, “If you don't want to like it, then don't come back.” The guys ask me all the time — "How are you so good at it, winning the SPEC MIX Bricklayer 500?" I tell them it's because I've always loved doing it. I don't mind getting up and doing it every day. 

M.M.: What do you like about the masonry industry as a whole?

F.C.: It is nice that there are so many various products out there, not just brick and block. These products are used to help you create something that will be around for hundreds of years. Masonry is one of the oldest professions around, so being in the industry is something that I do that I take pride in. When we finish a project, I want my crew to stand back and take pride in their accomplishments as much as I do. We look at this as a lost art, not just a paycheck.

M.M.: What would you consider to be your legacy?

F.C.: Working hard, being honest, taking pride in what I do, and handing down the trade to the younger generations. From day one, I've always been honest. 

When my dad was a licensed contractor, one of the contractors he worked with had a son in the business, we were both about 16 years old when we met. We became excellent friends. He still builds houses, and I still do all of his masonry work. He was my tender in the SPEC MIX Bricklayer 500 in Las Vegas back in the day. Fast forward thirty-one years, and we still work together. So, just being honest, doing a good job, and doing what you say means a lot.

M.M.: What does masonry means to you and your family?

F.C.: Not only having a good lifestyle, because my wife and I both grew up poor. My dad raised eight kids, and he struggled just to feed us. My wife and I started with nothing, but masonry has just allowed us to have an excellent lifestyle. We have six kids that we've been able to give a really good life.  My wife has gone out with me on a Saturday and helped me make mortar and carry brick to build a mailbox. All of my girls have helped me at one time. 

I have pictures of when we bought our first house. I think I was 25 or 26, and we had one daughter at the time, and she was two-and-a-half or three years old. She was on the scaffold handing me bricks. The first house we built, we still have, and the sidewalks are brick; we put in a swimming pool with all brick pavers around it, too. There’s a big brick and stone fireplace outside. The girls have seen enough masonry being doing that they could just about do it themselves by just watching me, and all of them have been involved in our business. When we go to Las Vegas, the family goes with us; they love it. They watch the competitions with us and go to all the regionals. One of my girls was in one of the local SPEC MIX Junior Bricklaying competitions this year. She placed second in the competition. 

I dropped out of high school when I was seventeen, and here I am now, running a company that made $10 million last year. I always say it doesn't matter how smart you are, where you have gone to school, or what you do. It's all about work ethic, and being honest, and taking pride in what you do.

M.M.: Do you have any advice for people who are just starting and going into the masonry field? 

F.C.: There's a lot of advice to give, but the first thing I would tell them is always being honest, taking pride in what you do, and doing the best work you can do. If you do a job for somebody, you do the job as if it was for yourself, that's what my dad always told me. Take that little extra time to make it look good, and with word of mouth, you will always have work. I've never had to lay one person off in the last thirty years due to lack of work. Now, I've laid some off because of it not working out, but not because of lack of work. I tell them you have to be honest, you have to take pride in it, and to be good; you have to wake up thinking about it in the morning. Many times that I work all day and then come home and dream about it. Many people will look at a job as a paycheck and not care about the job. Well, for me, masonry is more than just a salary. 

When you take a trowel, a hammer, a level, and you go out and build an outside fireplace, and the homeowner comes out and is about to cry because they just love it, it's not about the money. Whether you made any money on it or not, it's about the appreciation from somebody, and I get that a lot. That’s my gratification, doing something for somebody that appreciates it because of the craftsmanship. Craftmanship is a dying art. That's what I tell them in the class when I start them out on a little wall. I tell them not to pick up another brick until that brick is perfect, because you have to learn how to lay them right. With experience comes speed, and you'll get faster.

When the kids come to class the first time I will tell them,  if you don't love it, please do not come back. You have to like it, or you'll never be good at it. I have three guys right now, they are sixteen, eighteen, and nineteen, and when I watch them lay a project it reminds me of myself when I was young, and that's what gratifies me. I was that way when I was their age. I wanted to get off the school bus, and dad always had extra brick and mortar around the house left over from jobs. After I got my chores done, I’d mix up the mortar and build a flower box for my mom. It would be dark, and I'd be out there still working on it, but it was something I didn’t want to let go of. That's the way these three guys are in my class, and I like seeing that because I know they’re going to excel at it. 

M.M.: Practice makes perfect.

F.C.: Yep, that’s exactly right. I've have little sayings on the walls around the classroom, and one of them is: "practice, practice, practice makes perfect." I've have little things all over the room to remind them. Some of them I got from your social media postings, and they're dead-on, that’s why I tell the guys read them. Hard work does pay off and I promise if you work hard; you’ll do good in life. There is a  boy that has worked for me been since he was twenty-one years old. He pulled up on the job one day in a $200 car, with the clothes on his back, and didn't know anything about masonry. Fast forward twenty-one years, he lives in a half-million-dollar home that's paid for and drives a new vehicle. 

MM: What does the recognition for your achievements in the masonry industry mean to you?

F.C.: Well for me, being recognized, I never liked the spotlight. When I won the SPEC MIX Bricklayer 500, I had a lot of people back home say, “Well, you didn't even say much on stage.”  I liked winning but was happy to not make it about me. If I’m being recognized, I want it to be because I’ve done excellent work. I’ve tried to advance masonry by teaching young guys. 

When you ask a lot of the senior masons what they think about masonry they will tell you, you have to have the mindset, the pride and craftsmanship, stuff like it. What I do want people to know, that I did and do give back. After the last time I won the Bricklayer 500, I sat down and talked with Brian Carney, the Vice President of SPEC MIX. I told him I would come back one more year, and if I win or lose, I’d be done. I’m not going to compete anymore, but SPEC MIX does so much for the trade, I want to help and give back for the remainder of the time. That's kind of the way my masonry career is; I started with nothing and excelled at it well and made it to the top. So now it’s my time to turn around and throw a rope to the younger boys to help them to do the same thing I did.

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