Before becoming CEO of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) Alabama chapter, Billy Norrell says his career path took several unexpected turns and curves along the way.
The former executive director of the Alabama Road Builders Association (ARBA) took on his new role at the AGC in 2013, succeeding longtime CEO Henry Hagood who retired after more than four decades on the job.
Norrell, 45, grew up in Greenville. His father, H. Grady Norrell, operated a road construction business, G.W. Norrell Contracting Co., in nearby Georgiana. But Norrell says his father always encouraged him to find his own calling.
“I wasn’t necessarily encouraged to go into the industry, ” Norrell says. “He always talked about how tough it was, and how difficult it was to maintain a business, and that the industry was changing. So he allowed me to do my own thing and said that if I wanted to come back and give it a shot, it was there if that was what I wanted to do.”
Norrell graduated from Auburn University with a degree in public relations in 1990. After college, he moved to Washington D.C., where from 1990 to 1994 he worked for former U.S. Rep. Bill Dickinson of Montgomery and U.S. Rep. Sonny Callahan of Mobile. The experience, he says, was a lesson in how government worked and the issues confronting different trade associations.
“That’s where I was introduced to different industries, ” Norrell says, “and it was my first contact with the association world.”
In 1994, Norrell returned to Alabama to work for Auburn University in its governmental affairs office. Then in 1998, a friend encouraged him to apply to become ARBA’s next executive director, he says. It was the same organization where his grandfather, G.W. Norrell, and his father were past presidents.
“I really didn’t think about it, being 28 years old and not having any association experience, ” Norrell says. “I didn’t really think it would be a path they would go down, but lucky for me, they did.”
ARBA is a not-for-profit advocacy group that works for the interest of businesses involved in the state’s transportation construction industry. With almost 200 members, the association generates about $1 billion in economic activity.
One of his biggest challenges, says Norrell, was making sure transportation in Alabama received secure, stable funding.
“We always worked to try to increase the transportation pie, ” he says. “You had to play a lot of defense because there was always an effort to come in and divert some of that money for other governmental activities.”
During Norrell’s tenure, the association pushed for passage of a law to provide additional civil liability protection for the Alabama Department of Transportation, its contractors, engineers and others. Gov. Robert Bentley signed the legislation into law in 2012.
Now in his new role as the CEO of the AGC, Norrell serves a board and a membership of more than 900. The AGC has offices in Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, Montgomery, Florence and Pensacola, Fla., and has more than $100 million in assets, says Bill Caton, AGC’s chief operating officer.
“Billy brings a lot of industry knowledge and comes from a contracting family, ” Caton says. “He has a great awareness of the political aspects in Montgomery and how it works, and he understands a lot about running an association. So he is uniquely qualified for this job.”
AGC is working on several fronts in the next year, Norrell says, including workforce development and potential changes to the construction project bid system.
On the workforce front, Norrell says, the association will work with the Department of Commerce and others to create more scholarships and grants for people interested in studying the building trades.
And on the contract front, AGC may push a bill in the next legislative session to create alternatives to the traditional bid method for government construction projects so that cost is not the only factor in selection. Alternatives might include the construction manager at-risk method where a construction company acts as a consultant to the owner during the design phase and must guarantee the cost of construction or the design-build where construction, engineering and design are all performed collaboratively under a single contract.
Meanwhile, Norrell says he is grateful that the AGC staff and its Board of Directors are giving him an in to what he calls the “vertical world, ” the construction of buildings and high-rises.
“I’m fortunate that I have a lot of good, smart people surrounding me.”
Gail Allyn Short is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
text by Gail Allyn Short