Taking the Reigns

Chris Linville

April 1, 2002

Like many people, Charles Holley’s career path didn’t follow a pre-destined master plan. As with most of us, he found his future through chance, fate, or whatever you want to call it.

So it was in the summer of 1965 when Holley, then working in retail clothing sales, was recommended by an acquaintance for a job with B&B Engineering & Supply Co., Inc., in Houston as a cost and invoicing clerk. The company just happened to be involved in the insulation business.

"That was my first venture into [the industrial insulation industry]. I went over and applied for a job and got it," he said.

And it wasn’t as if Holley was looking to get into the field. He didn’t have a long-term plan to make insulation his career.

"I just happened into it," he said.

After "just happening into it," he decided to stick around-for more than 37 years and counting. Today Holley, almost four decades later, is vice president with Houston-based Protherm Services Group, L.L.C. He is also the National Insulation Association’s 41st president, having taken the reins for a one-year term at the NIA Annual Convention in Maui, Hawaii in March.

"I think it’s a great honor to even be considered for the position," Holley said of becoming president. "It’s an industry and association I have known for many, many years, and I welcome the opportunity to represent the NIA. I don’t know if it’s going to drastically change my life one way or another. It’s going to allow me to go do some things that I will probably find quite enjoyable, being involved in the various regions and meeting a few more people. I think it will be very interesting."

Holley is well-known throughout the industry, not only for his "day job" but for the numerous volunteer leadership roles in which he’s been involved. Besides NIA, a few of the organizations he’s served with include the Southwest Insulation Contractors Association, Houston Insulation Contractors Association, Associated Builders & Contractors, Abatement Contractors Association of Texas and the C-16 Committee of the American Society for Testing Materials.

"I enjoy being involved in the various industry associations," he said. "I think they help determine the pattern and changes in the construction and maintenance industry, in which we’re more involved than anything else. The benefits [from associations] are that you are on the leading edge of changes within the industry, whether they are new trends, new progressive methods, new programs for training of personnel or new developments in safety. It provides the opportunity to be out there more or less leading and knowing what’s taking place, instead of following in the back of the pack and finding out later on what’s coming down the business pipeline."


In his role as NIA president, Holley, who was born in the black land farm country of north central Texas and has lived in Texas most of his life, recognizes that trying to implement any major plans in a one-year term is probably unrealistic. He said his goals are fairly basic and fundamental, though still important.

"What I would like to see is a greater unity among those involved in our industry," Holley said. "I’d like to see a higher level of professionalism for everyone participating in the industry, and greater participation by our members in their industry association matters and activities-Let’s get more people involved in doing things instead of just a select few who might be sitting on the board. Let’s get all the 800-something members of this association involved in one way or another. I also think we need to respond to the needs of our membership and attempt to provide the products and services of importance. I’m mainly talking here about NIA responding to the needs of the membership-to see what it is that they want as a service and what they feel would benefit them."

Holley also points out that he hopes to see continued progress with previously launched initiatives designed to give the industry a higher profile.

"If I have a long-range goal, it would be to continue what we set out to do about five years ago," he said. "I would like to see the momentum and progress moving in a positive direction for our industry. That’s what we started through the GIIP (Growing the Insulation Industry Program [since changed to The Foundation]) to improve the industry image and professionalism while getting our name out in front of more influential people. I think we’ve accomplished that to a certain extent."

Still, Holley recognizes that plenty of work needs to be done. Even with NIA efforts such as The Foundation, its involvement with the Alliance to Save Energy and other ventures designed to broaden industry recognition, it’s still a constant battle to deliver the message to the masses.

"It can be frustrating because for many years insulation has been thought of as a necessary evil-something to protect people from getting burned or keep lines from icing," he said. "A lot of people don’t recognize the energy savings that can be achieved by utilizing our products. I know that in the design of a lot of commercial buildings, if they’re exceeding budgets one of the first things they do is cut out some of the insulation."

Educating the Audience

To counter those images and perceptions, Holley said the industry has to keep up its efforts in teaching the benefits of insulation to the people with which it does business.

"The primary challenge is going to be educating our clients-the owners, designers, specifiers and developers-about the advantages of our products and services," he said. "We need to be able to respond to those challenges and continue our efforts to inform our industry clients about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and what we can save them [in terms of cost and energy]. I think we should also continue our efforts in working toward energy rebates and/or tax incentives through our federal, state and local government for using our products. That’s just another incentive to get the end users to use our products and services.

Holley does express confidence that progress is being made, slowly but steadily. He believes programs such as the Insulation Energy Appraisal Program, which provides real time and real dollar savings data through tools such as the 3E Plus® computer program, are a step in the right direction.

"I think the tools are in place to start us down that road, especially with the 3E Plus® program," he said. "That gives quantified information to people we sometimes consider to be hard to persuade, such as the engineers or architects, that the products will really do what we say they can do. With the 3E Plus® program, it allows us to put some data in front of those people who might be a bit skeptical and say, ‘These are the facts, now go ahead and look and see.’ Let them convince themselves because the figures don’t lie."

Internal Improvements

From an internal standpoint, Holley echoes the sentiments of many others when he says certain steps need to be taken to maintain insulation as a viable and important part of the overall construction industry. Perhaps the most crucial factor in the equation is maintaining a strong workforce.

"The advent of more training on the merit shop side would be a major factor," he said. "I think we need to really set some patterns and goals within the industry to be able to attract more people and retain them. I’m talking about the blue-collar workers that are so very important to the livelihood of this business. We really need to look at getting the wages up to an acceptable level so they can make ends meet. You can’t afford to beat people down, as far as wages go, forever. It may not be as much as a problem in other regions, but here in the South and Southwest, our craft is probably one of the lowest paid in the construction and maintenance industry."

The solution? Holley returns to the education theme that he said was important in teaching clients about insulation’s value. The same applies to the industry’s workforce.

"It’s really going to center around training, to get them [workers] to the point where they’re a skilled hand and can show that they’re a craftsman through any sort of training program," he said. "If we can demonstrate that we have trained these people and either provide certifications or graduate certificates or skill assessment documents to show that these people are accredited in one form or fashion, then we have something we can put out there. We can say, ‘Look, these people are skilled and qualified,’ and they can ask for-actually they’ll be able to demand-a little bit more money. If you can do that, the trained worker will increase productivity with less rework and better safety. So, there are several benefits."

Broad Perspective

Holley’s long career has touched almost every aspect of the industrial insulation industry. He’s been involved in costing, invoicing, estimating, project management, sales and corporate management. Holley’s tenure spans union and merit shop contracting companies involving insulation, fireproofing, refractory, scaffolding, painting, asbestos and lead paint abatement. In addition, he has served in managerial and/or officer positions with industry related specialty fabrication companies and a material distribution company.

It’s that kind of experience that Holley thinks gives him a good "worldview" of industry issues and helps him keep things in perspective through both thick and thin periods.

"Having gone through all facets of the industry, all the way from accounting into management, I can see what takes place at every level," he said. "Knowing that, I realize how important it is to communicate what’s going on within a company up through the various levels so everybody knows what’s going on. You have keep people informed to keep them moving in the right direction. I appreciate the trials and tribulations of the material distribution company, the problems of the manufacturers, and the problems of the contractors, because I’ve sat on those sides of the desk. I can appreciate what they’re going through and how it effects them with upturns or downturns in the industry and the demand from either the contractor or owner to meet certain time frames or deadlines."

In terms of his personal working style, Holley said he enjoys looking at a project and situation, exploring all the options and coming up with the best way of getting the job done.

"I like to assesses the task at hand to figure out where we need to go from there, depending on how far or how in-depth we need to go in evaluating a bid package or putting together a maintenance proposal or any other number of packages we might have in house," he said.

Ideally, the solution doesn’t have to be all that complicated.

"Instead of re-inventing the wheel each time, you need to ask if you can use some of the same information you’ve used in previous quotations or previous proposals," said Holley. "Maybe it’s out in the field-maybe you have a unique problem. What did we do in the past? How has it worked? You just have evaluate each task at hand and figure out the most proficient way to go about handling it."

As for the future, Holley said he hasn’t given much thought to what he might want to do (other than maintaining his single digit handicap on the golf course). But regardless of what lies ahead, he looks back with fondness on a career in a field that, if not for a tip from that acquaintance back in 1965, may never have happened.

"I’ve enjoyed all of my time in the industry," he said. "I’ve been very fortunate in meeting some really nice people-not only clients, but competitors as well. I find people very interesting and you can learn something from them if you listen. So I’ve enjoyed that time.