Behind the Build: Interview with Rob Huffman, Director of Kawneer Collaborative at Kawneer

There's a famous quote by Bill Gates, that I have written on my whiteboard, that goes, "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction."

Depending on how you see the world, this passage could serve as a reminder that long-term thinking is essential, and we must make decisions not only for tomorrow or next year but also for the decades to come.

Rob Huffman, the Director of Kawneer Collaborative, really embodies this lesson. Rob has adopted a forward-thinking mindset throughout the decades he's spent in the construction industry, and he truly knows how to set a solid foundation that sets teams up for the coming years.

We recently met with Rob to discuss his career path, the key insights he's picked up over the years and where he sees the industry going. 

Check out what he has to say. 

Tell me a little bit about Kawneer and what you specialize in. 

Kawneer Company Inc. has been around, believe it or not, since 1906. We have a little more than a century in this business.

In a way, the company invented the aluminum fenestration industry. We were founded by Francis Plym who located the facility N-E-A-R the K-A-W River.  A flip combined with a letter change, and you have KAWNEER.  That's how the name Kawneer came to be, and it has remained with us for over one-hundred years. We've basically been developing innovative and high-performing building envelope products and solutions for a little more than a century. 

Kawneer is headquartered in  North America and also in Europe. We serve a variety of markets and focus on everything from entrances and operable windows to curtain walls. We also deliver our products in a number of ways from stick to fabricated to unitized, depending on the project needs.

As for my specialty, my particular team focuses on larger, more complicated projects. We branded the team Kawneer Collaborative to reflect our offering and needs for that space. Even though Kawneer has been active in that space for the past three or four decades, we felt the time was right for a proper brand and relaunch. That's what I've been focused on here for the past five years.   

Walk us through your career and what led you to become Director of Kawneer Collaborative. 

I grew up in Indiana and went to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.  I worked at Kawneer right after college. I spent seven years in a sales role, where I sold in the upper Midwest. During that time, I participated in night school to earn my master's degree in business administration from the University of Iowa.

After the completion of that, I wanted to step back from traveling so much.  My wife and I really wanted to start a family. So, I took a position back in Indiana (Indianapolis) with a Kawneer customer. I was the customer for about 12 years, starting in project management and ending as a vice president.  Growing through a variety of roles offered me great insight in the field and really helped my perspective. At our peak, we had over 14 operations in eight different states with roughly 50 offices and 130 field staff.

After that, I got connected with a building envelope manufacturer in Terrell, Texas. They were in the market for a General Manager for their custom curtain wall and skylight division, and I was in the market for change. So, I relocated my family to Dallas, Texas, and spent my time leading that group. 

Then ultimately, I got a phone call from Kawneer that went something like, "Man, why didn't you tell us you were going to do something like this? We would be interested. If you ever think you're going to make another change, give us a call." 

As the saying goes, one thing led to another and I ended up back at Kawneer working in the monumental project space that is now known as Kawneer Collaborative.

What is your proudest accomplishment in your career at Kawneer? Why? 

Historically at Kawneer, the monumental projects-based team stood outside Kawneer’s core business.  What we have done with Kawneer Collaborative is build an integrated business that operates inside of and as a complement to our core business.

This has enabled the team to reach our highest revenue and profitability in the monumental space while creating the most predictable platform since its inception–and that's a hat tip to the team we've put in place and the focus we've been able to create. 

The guidance and tolerance of our leadership have been invaluable in this space. Our projects take anywhere from 9 to 18 months to pursue and then another 9 to 18 months to deliver. It requires monitoring the right KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) combined with leadership commitment and patience to pull this off.

Now, I tell the team that we're entering the fun phase of our journey.  We've done the heavy lifting by converting manual tasks to technological tasks. We've begun evolving our platforms to accommodate the next generation of talent. Upcoming is adding scale and seeing what we can do with it.

As construction evolves, how do you see the role of Director of Kawneer Collaborative changing? 

I touched on this a bit, but over the last several years, we first had to get the business up-and-running. We then started the transformation from manual, risky, time-consuming processes to an integrated, digital, non-redundant platform. We are now focused on harnessing the work product. 

To elaborate a bit: We have completed several projects using a new digital platform.  Each project has resulted in an evolution of the platform because, frankly, this isn't an industry where you can just open the box and have the system. We review the learnings, revise the script and re-release the process.  

The next phase, and my energy, will go into software integration, which is where we will weave software and data together to deliver something special. We have selected Autodesk for their suite of software that handles design data.  We use Revit for the architecture environment, Inventor for the manufacturing environment and Vault for data storage.  We share our content with stakeholders (i.e. architects, contractors, sub-contractors, consultants and engineering firms) via Autodesk BIM360.  We have experienced success with this format, and are working to standardize this offering for future projects.

With the virtual construction piece accomplished, we can now begin to integrate the physical manufacturing process.  This involves legacy software, 3rd party suppliers and our customers.  We will integrate Autodesk data with manufacturing data to build out a robust and differentiated customer experience.  Imagine materials and schedules that are displayed by highlighting the building model and doing away with paperwork and Gantt charts.

So if I sat there and said, "What do the next two or three years look like?" It looks a bit like that, along with some growth.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your role? How does technology help you overcome those challenges? 

We are not a nimble operation that can huddle in a room and say, "Let's go left today." but we sit inside an organization that requires a significant amount of planning, sign-off, and commitment—and those steps take time.

The good news is that the company's been very liberal with me and the vision. They've enabled nimbleness by giving latitude to re-imagine all steps of the front-end operation in the Collaborative Microverse. This is somewhat unique because Kawneer has a more regimented series of steps that drives the larger organization.  You have an estimating team, they receive requests with 2-weeks to bid, they estimate like crazy, billions of dollars…then orders start coming in…orders are processed…handed off to customer service to manage details, and the cycle continues.

Collaborative’s a little different.  This monumental work has a strong design component associated with it that may not be fully realized. This requires a lot of participation to solve. So we bring our entire multi-disciplinary team—including the estimating team, project management, engineering, designers, and even our field representation. We are all participating in the project from the word go, and we all stay engaged on the deliverable until the project is closed out.

Kawneer Leadership has helped me overcome institutional challenges by enabling me to be nimble inside the larger organization. This has given me the ability to pioneer new technology that will eventually cascade throughout the organization and help others.

What made you want to partner with Autodesk on your projects? 

I like to pick companies that I feel have a pulse on what's happening and the direction the industry is going. I also like to utilize software to the greatest extent possible prior to customization. 

Autodesk has demonstrated a strong understanding of the architectural marketplace and that it can be a partner in that process. The team hears what we have to say. They provide input. They may not have the answers, and that's okay. Part of it is hearing and empathy, which goes a long way.

Plus, there's further support through the reseller network, whether it's IMAGINiT, ASTI, or others, that can give us a hand with some insights on how we could solve a situation. 

When you think about the future, what are your plans to advance innovation and productivity at Kawneer? 

We're going to focus on redefining the customer experience. My goal is to give the customer unparalleled insight into their deliverable from inception to completion. 

This is very challenging in our industry, especially with the proliferation of design assist. That's why we need to create an experience that is truly differentiating. That is where my energy will be focused for the next nine to 18 months. 

What advice would you give to the next generation of men and women entering and preparing for the future of the industry? 

I'll answer this by sharing another quote that I've written on my whiteboard and has followed me wherever I go.  

The quote is by Jim Carroll though some may say McDonald's came up with it first.  Anyway, it goes, "Think big, start small, scale fast." 

With modular construction continuing to rise, I see opportunities for the future that have yet to meaningfully materialize. Our resources on this planet are finite. So facades need to be capable of being decommissioned, reclaimed, and repurposed. We can't just repurpose some parts, recycle other parts, landfill some parts and incinerate others.  We need to be more thoughtful on how we construct a building and how we decommission it. Unitization and modularization can offer some really good pathways on that front.  

I also think job sites are going to be where the fun is at. So I close by saying, "Get outside."

Kelsee Campbell

As a Senior Customer Advocacy Program Manager at Autodesk, Kelsee has the privilege of working with Autodesk customers to champion their stories on the Digital Builder Blog. Kelsee strives to create an engaging experience that amplifies customer perspectives, fostering a sense of community and connection.