As a teenager, Birmingham native Henry Hagood had his life all planned out, or so he thought. After college, he says, he was going to be an accountant. After all, he had always been ambitious and had a head for numbers. Math was one of his “better subjects.”
“When I started college, ” says Hagood, “that’s what I wanted to do.”
But a series of events propelled Hagood away from accounting into a successful, 44-year career with the Alabama chapter of The Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America, a trade association for the construction industry. As CEO of the Alabama chapter, Hagood serves more than 900 members who are construction contractors and industry-related businesses across Alabama and parts of Florida.
Hagood’s journey began after he enrolled at Samford University. To pay for school, he worked at a grocery store and later for a demolition contractor. One summer, to earn extra money, he says, he and three college friends got a subcontract with the company to tear down abandoned buildings on Birmingham’s west side. Later on, he got a full-time job as an apprentice sheet metal worker at Hays Aircraft, where his father was employed. He worked nights and attended classes during the day. When managers, however, learned that Hagood was an accounting major, they transferred him to the payroll department.
Although he was working in an area related to his field, as graduation approached, Hagood says he began questioning whether he had chosen the right major.
“I got disillusioned with wanting to stay in accounting the rest of my life, ” says Hagood. “I’ve always been a hunter and a fisherman and traveled a lot, and I wanted a different type of job. I think that when I got to do some of that construction work and then working as a sheet metal worker, construction was something that was of high interest to me at that time.
“So I talked with one of my college professors before I left, and he suggested that I get into the insurance business, because it would be an outstanding opportunity for me to be in sales and work with people.”
Hagood took that advice and, after graduating from Samford in 1968, he went to work for an insurance company, where he sold policies to businesses. Then a year later, one of his clients, who happened to own a personnel agency, offered him a deal. If Hagood would interview with AGC, he might purchase more insurance from him. At the time, AGC was seeking a full-time employee, and Hagood’s client had not found the right candidate.
Hagood’s ambition paid off for himself and his client. After several interviews, AGC hired the 24-year-old Hagood.
In his new job as executive secretary he was tasked with implementing policies set by the Alabama AGC’s Board of Directors. But less than a year later, the young accountant found himself in the midst of tense labor negotiations, as union contracts came up for renewal.
“I got a crash course in labor relations, ” says Hagood, “and it was an unbelievable opportunity. It wasn’t fun. It was very difficult and hard work. We met late at night, early in the morning and at any time we had to meet on the weekends to try to get the contracts settled.”
But by the early 1980s, he says, many contractors began to turn nonunion. Hagood then assisted contractors through the legal process to become open shop contractors.
Hagood also was instrumental in establishing the CompTrust AGC, a self-insured workers’ compensation program for its members, and in merging far flung chapters into one powerful group representing all of Alabama and the Florida panhandle. And that, in turn, punched up the association’s political clout in Montgomery.
Now the AGC hopes to use its clout to reformat the state’s new immigration law.
“I believe that the legislation that was passed was very harmful to the construction industry and other industries also, ” he says. “We lost some outstanding workers. Maybe they were legal, but someone in their family was not legal and so they’ve moved to another state, where they would not feel threatened like they were in Alabama.
“It was a very dependable workforce, and it’s very difficult to replace that, ” he says. “There are a lot of people who are unemployed, and there is the perception that they are taking jobs of other people. But that’s not necessarily the case in the construction industry, because a lot of people that are unemployed would not want to come off of unemployment to take a job that may last three weeks.”
Construction employment in Alabama is down 35 percent from its peak in 2007, says Hagood. Recent statistics from the national AGC shows that in Alabama, construction employment fell by 4 percent, from 74, 700 in December of 2011 to 71, 600 in December 2012.
But things may be looking up.
“In Alabama, I think we’ve definitely bottomed out, ” Hagood says. “It’s not going to get any lower and it’s beginning to bounce up.”
The Alabama chapter of the AGC has merited industry recognition in both lean years and boom times. The Alabama AGC won 2004 and 2010 Chapter of the Year awards from AGC of America. In 2009, the Alabama AGC recognized Hagood by inducting him into the Alabama AGC Hall of Fame.
Hagood, who says he will retire this July, says “the best thing about the job is that we have some of the most interesting contractors, ” he says. “I cannot imagine an opportunity in any job, for anybody, to meet more people and have the relationships that we’ve had with so many outstanding people.”
Gail Allyn Short is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
Gail Allyn Short