Concrete Masonry Checkoff leaders eager to drive investor returns

Design, promotional and technical support for architectural and gray block in U.S. building markets will reach a new peak this year with the launch of 23 inaugural Concrete Masonry Checkoff (CMC) projects, funded with nearly $5 million from initial 2023 assessments. The projects contour the six programs that CMC directors defined in their November 2022 charter meeting—Codes & Standards, Design Assistance, Educating Design Pros, Marketing, Research and Workforce Development—and advance a mission of “Driving demand for locally made concrete masonry products.”

While they might share objectives of past national, regional or state concrete masonry group market development and technical support efforts, Checkoff projects emanate from a historically broad and transparent stakeholder cross section. CMC is not an association, after all, and operates without cement industry funding. It spans a 21-member board, directors primarily executives of concrete block production companies, and five Regional Advisory Councils (RAC), each comprising producer, contractor and allied group members hailing from eight- to 11-state regions.

The Checkoff also has Communications, Programs, Audit and Finance Committees, plus subcommittees. Early on, the latter have been tasked with defining and tracking a) key performance indicators (KPI) for funded projects; and, b) concrete block market share figures based on internal CMC accounting, competing materials’ shipment data, and estimates from building market cement consumption. KPI reports and market share figures are central to CMC Board accountability measures for both investors—the concrete block producers bound by the Checkoff—and U.S. Department of Commerce officials overseeing the group.

The Build With Strength Design Center offers a user experience template that a Concrete Masonry Checkoff design assistance center could potentially emulate.

Recently finalized funding commitments indicate the CMC Board has latitude to invest in major projects on its own or in partnership with the Concrete Masonry & Hardscapes Association (CMHA), Mason Contractors Association of America (MCAA), leading university researchers and other allied organizations. Major projects (> $250,000) this year span all Checkoff program areas:

Marketing. A million-dollar marketing program topping CMC outlays will combine resources on a national level and enable producers to “enjoy purchasing power and economies of scale that preclude individual organizations.” An outline released late last year illustrates the rationale behind the CMC structure, KPI determination, and performance metrics drawn to the current architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) landscape. A Marketing Subcommittee, for example, is developing benchmarks to gauge the performance of a national advertising, public relations and promotion campaign influencing concrete block perceptions and specification. Benchmarks will measure the effectiveness of messages surrounding block aesthetics, life cycle value, resilience, sustainability, plus economy in structural and architectural conditions.

Beyond building CMU market share, CMC objectives for the campaign include elevating net promoter scores, whereby an AEC professional or home builder is more likely to recommend block solutions to colleagues, peers or new clients. Checkoff directors and committee members have also established strategic objectives specific to marketing and promotion—among them understanding the thought process of architects, engineers, residential and commercial building owners, institutional builders and homeowners.

Design Assistance. CMC’s second leading 2024 investment is a design assistance center. Initial funding will seed for concrete masonry interests a platform similar to what AEC professionals and residential building interests experience through the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association’s Build with Strength Design Center or American Institute of Steel Construction’s Steel Solutions Center. The CMC design center will premier as a website or portal with on-demand tools for users to view block building and specification basics. Additional phases will bring greater functionality, along with contracted design or engineering professionals offering center users live support. By providing on-demand technical insight and preliminary block building project plans, CMC center data collection capabilities will enable proactive response to questions and concerns surrounding concrete block and building methods.

Workforce Development. CMC plans to team with a close ally, MCAA, on a three-year campaign, “Block Solid: Recruiting & Developing Tomorrow’s Craftworkers.” This program will rely on regional representatives to implement local education for workforce development.

Research. Another 2024 program, “Impact of CMU on the Resilience of the Built Environment,” stands to yield additional proof of concrete block’s carbon dioxide or sequestration qualities. Work will proceed in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This research is independent of the school’s Concrete Sustainability Hub, now in its 15th year, but will involve scientists and faculty contributing to CSHub.

Codes & Standards. At a nearly 50/50 share, CMC will team with CMHA on a seven-figure National Codes Advocacy Program. The funding is certain to bolster legacy efforts on behalf of concrete block and masonry practitioners in model building codes and adoption. The primary focus in Year 1 will be to implement a national, state, and local codes monitoring system, ensuring concrete masonry is considered when it comes to 1) structural 2) fire and life safety 3) energy and environmental separation 4) material science and 5) environmental technology codes.

Whether the value proposition is fire resistance, CO2 uptake properties, an increase in productivity during installation, or product economy and versatility in architectural or structural conditions, CMC will provide AEC professionals and their clients, as well as builders and homeowners, the information they need on concrete block composition, quality and practice. Chief Executive Officer Kim Spahn, who joined the Checkoff in mid-2023 after more than 15 years with the American Concrete Pipe Association, stresses the importance of knowledge and education in CMC deliverables: “Our competition has gone to great lengths to control the narrative around new construction. The Checkoff provides an opportunity to highlight block benefits that are underutilized or overlooked, and for producers and their allies to tell the side of the construction story that has been missing.”

The CMC Board moved quickly to inform investors of inaugural quarterly results.

Through in-person or virtual Board, RAC and committee or subcommittee meetings, the CMC closed its first full calendar year having tackled organizational matters, along with financial and administrative essentials. Mandatory assessments of 1 cent per concrete masonry unit sold for building applications commenced in the Q2 2023. Collections for it and the third quarter confirmed projected annual Checkoff funding in the $10 million range. At that level, the CMC Board will be positioned to raise project funding commitments for 2025 and forward above this year’s $4.9 million.

CMC financing and project performance measurement go hand in hand with Commerce Department authorization and directives, per the Concrete Masonry Products Research, Education and Promotion Act. That 2018 law laid the groundwork for the CMC and actions leading to the Commerce Secretary’s nomination of initial directors. Department officials were duty bound to administer what amounted to two years of CMC organizational exercises following a December 2021 industry-wide concrete block producer referendum authorizing the CMC Board formation. Those exercises included engagement of producers and allied interests who have both traditionally lead the way of the industry and those who previously had limited involvement in national, state or regional association work advancing concrete masonry, but responded to invitations from peers and Commerce staff to join the CMC Board or RACs.

Kim Spahn

Soon after her arrival, Kim Spahn oversaw the rounding out of RAC membership; launch of a portal for submitting national or regional project candidates, expediting Board and RAC review; plus requests for proposals from bookkeeping and marketing services providers. An RFP review led to the appointment of American Concrete Institute-aligned Advancing Operational Excellence for accounting and tabulation, and Clutch Performance, a Minneapolis agency assisting business-to-business clients in sales and marketing programs. Clutch will function as Communications Partner, alongside the CEO and a second staff position, Program Manager, to be filled the first half of 2024. The Program Manager is tasked with day-to-day RAC project oversight; maintaining project submission database; project status reporting; and setting up a design center customer relationship management platform.

The Concrete Masonry Checkoff enters 2024 with many fast-moving parts at national and regional levels. The most immediate actions concern final Commerce Department review of the CMCB-approved projects for Act compliance, after which project contracting can commence.

“We are functioning like a startup company,” Spahn concludes. “Everything has to be thought through and sorted out. But intentionality cannot come at the expense of progress. CMC has an obligation to its investors—the individual producers paying quarterly assessments—and the Department of Commerce to show material progress in the early going. As a result, all stakeholder groups are involved in assessing program potential to ensure maximum impact of CMC investments.”