Bruce Alkire is executive vice president of N.E. Finch Co., Peoria Metro Construction, and Peoria Barge Terminal, businesses known collectively as The Finch Companies. He also serves on the board of directors of each of these companies.
Alkire is past management chairman of the Tri County Labor Management Council (TRICON), past management chairman of the Peoria Area Labor Management Council (PALM), and past president of the Greater Peoria Contractors and Suppliers Association. He is a past member of the following boards: Salvation Army ARC, Junior Achievement, and Camp of Champions Advisory. He has also served as a judge for Miss Heart of Illinois Scholarship Pageant, and the Better Business Bureau’s Torch Award. Additionally, he has served on several City of Peoria Review and Interview Commissions and continues to serve on labor grievance committees. He also chairs several negotiating committees, and he has been a principal negotiator for the last four Multi-Craft Labor Agreements representing the Contractors Association.
Alkire is currently chairman of the board of directors of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the board of Easter Seals-UCP, management chairman of the Governor’s State Labor Management Cooperation Committee, and management chairman of the Foundation for Fair Contracting. He also serves as an advisory board member for Commerce Bank and P.E.R.F.E.CT.
Alkire also serves on the Economic Development Council Board, the Heartland Partnership Board, the Central Illinois Workforce Development Board, the Medina Plan Commission, and the Young Life of Central Illinois Board.
Alkire is a member of Grace Presbyterian Church, the Business Boosters Club of Peoria, and the Rice Pond Hunting Club. He was honored in 1991 as TRICON Construction Person of the Year.
Tell about your background: schools attended, family, etc.
My parents, originally from southern California, moved from Oregon to Washington, along with my two older brothers, when I was 2 years old. They first settled in North Seattle, where my father began working for Boeing Aircraft Company in tooling engineering. By the time I started school, we moved to West Seattle on a bluff above beautiful Puget Sound. Following my 6th grade graduation, and with three more siblings (all girls), we moved to a new home in Kent, Wash., located south of Seattle near the Seattle-Tacoma Airport with a panoramic view of Mr. Rainier (on sunny days). I graduated from Kent Meridian Senior High School in 1967.
I’ve often been asked how I ended up in a California college and ultimately in Peoria. Simply, I respond, “baseball and love.” Even as a skinny little kid in grade school I was blessed with some athletic ability and a strong right arm.
The ability to throw a baseball fairly fast and with reasonable accuracy landed me a baseball scholarship at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif. Unfortunately, I separated my left shoulder and spent two months with my left arm taped to my chest. During this time of serious injury and rehabilitation, I met and began dating a wonderful freshman from Peoria.
Following graduation, I moved to Peoria and Pat and I married September 4, 1971. In May 1971, I began working for N.E. Finch Co. The ink was barely dry on my diploma showing a degree in business administration when my father-in-law, Lyle Finch, sent me to the south side of Peoria to see “Mac” at the Operating Engineers’ Union hall. When I finally found the building, and Mac, I signed a few papers, received a permit button, and listened to instructions on how to get to CILCO Edwards Station – then was informed I was supposed to operate a “Cherrypicker” that day.
Now, understand that I was a few days out of college, completely unaware of anything on a construction site, and definitely unfamiliar with the Peoria area. I found the CILCO Edwards Station, learned that a Cherrypicker was a 15-ton self-propelled Pettibone crane, and concentrated on the first two instructions: “This is how you start it” and “Don’t tip over.”
How, in your opinion, did your background prepare you for your roles at The Finch Companies, and with the Chamber of Commerce?
Because I was from a fairly large family, I learned at an early age that getting along with others created a more desirable environment than constant bickering and fighting.
I believe my involvement in sports helped develop a good sense of teamwork and a desire to excel. My role at The Finch Companies and the Chamber of Commerce has been to initiate and facilitate a culture of teambuilding and cooperation.
Christian values and principles were instilled in me by my parents and others, I really believe these teachings greatly influenced the way I developed as a person and, ultimately, the way I would manage my role as an administrator or executive or chairman or board member.
When you graduated in 1971, what were your career goals?
At that time, my career goal was to appreciate the job provided by my father-in-law, do whatever he asked to the best of my ability, and to learn as much as I could about the construction industry and, more specifically, N.E. Finch Co.
Tell about your career path that led you to become executive vice president of The Finch Companies. Explain the various companies (divisions) of The Finch Companies.
In 1973, Lyle sent me to Canton as we began a large job for CILCO. Two weeks later, I was put in the office trailer as a timekeeper. While still on the Duck Creek project I was promoted, along with my brother-in-law Tom Finch, to vice president of N.E. Finch Co., Peoria Marine Construction, Peoria Barge Terminal, Dick’s Trucking Services, and Kingston River Terminal.
At that time, those were the companies which were owned primarily by The Finch brothers, Nyle and Lyle.
In 1976, I returned to the East Peoria office of N.E. Finch Co. and began working closely with Tom Finch. Our interests and abilities were just different enough that we were able to complement each other rather than compete. Upon the retirement of the “founders” of our business, Tom became president, and I executive vice president. We still operate in these capacities.
Kingston River Terminal was sold to Central Farmers in the late 1970s, and Peoria Marine Construction was shelved in the early 80s when the Peoria economy was shaken so drastically.
Peoria Marine was mainly a pile-driving company which did a lot of foundation work for CILCO and Caterpillar. Dick’s Trucking, a small company in Canton, was purchased in the early 1970s to support the work at Duck Creek. After 1982, all companies except N.E. Finch Co. and Peoria Barge Terminal were either inactive or sold. All construction work was performed by N.E. Finch Co. and, of course, barge unloading and warehousing were by Peoria Barge Terminal.
N.E. Finch Co., more than 50 years old, was started as a partnership between two brothers who owned a few trucks. By the time I arrived in Peoria in 1971, N.E. Finch Co. had more than 25 semi-dump trailers hauling coal from local mines to CILCO’s plants two shifts per day. The crane fleet had grown to about 15, and they had an assortment of other construction equipment.
Peoria Barge Terminal was acquired in the 1960s to provide additional hauling opportunities for N.E. Finch Co. trucks. With the purchase of National Distillers in the late 1970s, Peoria Barge was able to expand into warehouse leasing as well as pick up additional outside storage area. The 67 acres is contiguous to the original 33 acres purchased from Laidlaw.
Peoria Metro Construction originated in 1988. With a nucleus including Everett Conway, Rich Unes and Mike Couri, we started Peoria Metro Construction – commercial, institutional, and industrial builders. We are general contractors, design-build contractors, and project managers.
N.E. Finch Co. continues to operate as a heavy highway contractor specializing in crane rental, pile-driving, site work, excavation, material sales, demolition, and hauling.
What has changed in your industry since you began your career at N.E. Finch? In the last decade? How has The Finch Companies changed over the years?
The construction industry has changed considerably since I began my career. For example, the relationship between labor and management has improved greatly. Because of cooperation, unions and contractors are able to focus on the common issues facing them rather than the issues which divide. Also, the large manufacturing and industrial construction projects are few and far between in contrast to a time when CILCO, Caterpillar, Keystone and others were very active with construction.
Profits are much thinner than those of the 1970s, and competition much keener. It seems like we had our niche with crane rental, excavation and demolition, and soon every contractor in town had a mobile crane, backhoe, or endloader.
At one time there were a dozen coal mines active in this immediate area; now we have none. N.E. Finch Co. used to operate 60 trucks; now we own 18. Non-union competition forced us to reduce our fleet and supplement our hauling needs with union owner-operators. Government regulations, OSHA requirements, liability issues – all have changed the look of our industry over the years. I’m not suggesting regulations and controls aren’t needed, but they have changed the way our business functions.
For some time, it seemed that the classic Midwestern work ethic was diluted through entitlement philosophies, but thankfully that has rebounded in most cases.
The involvement of women in construction has also increased over the past 20 years, and more unions have apprentice programs necessary for the succession of our workforce.
Unfortunately, I do not believe our industry has been as successful as it should be with minority participation in the past, and we should continue to seek ways to rectify this problem.
As for The Finch Companies, we are located at one central site for the first time in two generations of business. N.E. Finch Co., Peoria Metro Construction, and Peoria Barge Terminal now share operational facilities and administrative offices at 1925 Darst Street in Peoria. The move has already proven to increase efficiency and improve communication within the companies.
How important is the Illinois River to industry, transportation, and recreation? What are your concerns about the Illinois River? How are government entities trying to protect the river? How aware is the general public of river concern?
The Illinois River is one of Peoria’s most valuable natural resources. The rivers serves us both at work and at play by keeping transportation costs for coal, petroleum products, aggregates, and agricultural products as low as possible while providing a natural habitat for boating, hunting, and fishing.
As the operators of the Peoria Barge Terminal (one of the largest barge terminals on the Illinois River), we have a unique perspective of the river’s importance in terms of industry and transportation.
Outside of the channel, the river is dangerously shallow. Deltas continue to develop after significant rain as land is eroded and builds up along the shorelines. The problem is not just agricultural, but also urban. Riverfront development is wasted if the river silts in.
Various governmental entities are working to protect the Illinois River. Along with the efforts of the Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gov. Corrine Wood’s task force is exploring the many options available to reduce sedimentation of the river.
I think the general public is aware of concerns about the river, but is probably unaware of how our everyday actions jeopardize the future of this resource.
Tell us about some of the major projects that The Finch Companies have been involved with.
Before I arrived in Peoria, N.E. Finch Co. was involved in two notable projects. In the years I was born, 1949, an N.E. Finch Co. mobile crane operated by Wayne Finch was used to erect Robertson Memorial Fieldhouse. In the 1960s, N.E. Finch Co. was the demolition contractor responsible for razing the Peoria County Courthouse. We have a marble table at home which was cut from salvaged marble slabs from that project.
Recently, N.E. Finch Co. has been the demolition contractor for Warner Homes and the Bergners Building – two very high profile projects. N.E. Finch Co. has also constructed several bridges in this area.
As for recent major projects, Peoria Metro Construction general contracted multiple stores for two large chains (Krogers and Walgreens) and G&D Transportation in Morton.
How well does labor and management work in central Illinois? Has this always been the case? Why do you think that is?
Labor-management cooperation works as well or better in central Illinois than most areas of the nation. Every two years, I attend the National Labor Management Conference, which has been a great opportunity to learn of the progress of labor-management cooperation throughout the nation, and to compare the effectiveness of various initiatives and programs.
As management chairman of the Governor’s State Labor Management Cooperation Committee, I am allowed a broad view of the labor management activities and relationships throughout the state. Rock Island, southern Illinois, and Chicagoland have some of the most active and successful labor0management committees; but other areas, unfortunately, are void of structured participation by unions and management.
Peoria is certainly blessed to have several labor-management cooperation councils and organizations. Peoria Area Labor Management Council (PALM) was formed as an initiative of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce in 1984. Our local economy was mired in a tough recession, so local union leaders and management representatives believed cooperation was essential if the Peoria area was to recover.
PALM represents a broad spectrum of manufacturing, municipalities, health care providers, and general industries with their respective unions. TriCon, also a member of PALM, represents solely the unionized construction industry.
Other labor management organizations in the greater Peoria area include Quality Connection (electrical contractors and electricians), Foundation for Fair Contracting and LECET (laborers). Cooperation which makes a differences is also evidenced by the proactive relationship between the Greater Peoria Contractors and Suppliers Association and the West Central Illinois Building Trades, especially their collaborative efforts in safety and OSHA 10-hour training, apprentice training, and the award-winning Construction Career Expo initiated just two years ago.
When I first came to Peoria, I quickly learned of the “labor town” image Peoria had. In general, relationships between management and unions were characterized as adversarial, especially as contracts expired and negotiations were imminent every three years.
At that time, there were no labor-management committees to work on mutual trust or benefit or building relationships before the negotiating process began. Even though those times have been characterized as adversarial, I did witness – many times – independent cooperation between management and labor.
Fair-minded people would usually find ways to peacefully and equitably settle differences. Conflict was avoided or resolved by mutual trust and open communication. Lyle, Duane Cullinan, and Pete Vonachen were some of the contractors who created a culture of labor-management cooperation rather than confrontation. Overall, however, relationships between unions and management before PALM or TriCon were guarded and often suspect.
What perceptions, if any, does the general public have regarding unions, labor, and management, etc.? What image does the nation have concerning Peoria and these issues? How do we change that?
Peoria developed the image of a union town over many years because so much of Peoria was, and still is, union. Heavy equipment manufacturing (Caterpillar, Wabco, International Harvester, Komatsu); steel production (Keystone); utility companies (CILCO, Illinois American Water); public sector (fire, police); and, of course, the construction industry have had and continue to have active unions. No longer a factor in this area are the breweries, distilleries and coal mines that employed thousands of union workers. However, not many areas in the United States are as unionized as central Illinois.
I believe the general public, especially outside the state of Illinois, view the labor-management image of Peoria against a backdrop of Caterpillar-UAW contract negotiations and picket signs.
Lost, unfortunately, in the media hype are the efforts of so many in labor and management to build mutual trust and respect, to maintain open lines of communication, and to ensure a productive future for all of Peoria. We can be burdened by the past, we can be derailed by negativism or cynicism, or we can be defeated by protectionism and greed. How we respond to issues facing unions and their business partners will determine how the nation views us.
Organizations such as PALM and TriCon are excellent vehicles to spread the word of labor-management cooperation in central Illinois – especially at the national convention. However, commitments by labor and management that are operational, mutually planned, and realistic are necessary to provide substance to the image we desire to project throughout our community and across the nation.
You have been very active in civic and social organizations in the area. What is your philosophy of community service?
Nick Owens, when president of Keystone, was approached by a young managed who asked him how he could get selected to a board of any organization in the Peoria area, most likely as a volunteer. Nick answered “distinguish yourself in your profession and organizations will notice.”
While I don’t know the specific reasons that young manager wanted to serve, I do know many organizations in the Peoria area are in need of volunteers willing to serve for the right reasons.
John Bearce, past chairman of the board of Easter Seals, always spoke of sharing time, treasure, and talent. Any of us in the community are blessed with varying degrees of each. As we are blessed with time, talent, and treasure, we should be willing – graciously – to give back a portion for the benefit of others.
I became very involved in the associations which served our construction industry, believing I couldn’t complain about the direction others were taking our organizations if I wasn’t willing to participate in efforts to address the problems of our industry and commit to help solve them.
As a board member for Easter Seals for 10 years, I’ve experienced the anxieties of financial shortfalls, a large capital campaign, the construction of a new rehabilitation center, a merger with United Cerebral Palsy, and a tremendous increase in those with disabilities using our facility. I am so thankful for the giving hearts of our staff, board members, committee members, and volunteers, and I’m honored to be involved in this rewarding experience.
You are currently the chairman of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. What role does the chamber play in business, legislative advocacy, etc.? In your opinion, should the chamber play an even stronger role in city, county, and state issues as they relate to business?
The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce is a business development organization with approximately 1,300 members. The majority of them are located in and around the City of Peoria. Many are also members of other chambers in surrounding communities.
The job of the chamber is to make sure member companies and their employees have the information and the support needed to grow and prosper.
Companies or organizations join the Chamber of Commerce for many different reasons. For instance, many labor unions are members because they believe the welfare of their membership is proportional to the general business climate of greater Peoria. There is an underlying value of having a chamber to all businesses – whether members or not – in that a comprehensive umbrella organization, with organized capacity to initiate, react, and respond to issues exists. The presence of a Chamber of Commerce makes for a healthier and more stable business climate.
The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce is very active politically. We are one of only a few chambers that actually review candidates for public office and make recommendations to our members as to whom we believe will best represent the business community’s interests.
We have a comprehensive legislative agenda, we meet periodically with area legislators on both sides of the political aisle, we appear before the City Council, we arrange and facilitate a Washington, D.C. fly-in each year, we work with other area chambers (mainly through the TriCounty Chamber Coalition) to produce a unified voice on various regional issues, and much more.
With all the programs, support, leadership, services, etc. provided by the Peoria Chamber, there is still more we can do. To revisit our vision and mission and to re-evaluate our role in city, county, and state issues as they relate to business, the chamber recently conducted a four-hour retreat, independently facilitated, for the full board. This recent planning process may lead us to playing a different and/or stronger role in this arena in the future.
Personally, I would appreciate a stronger stand by the chamber on certain issues. However, I do understand the diversity of our board and the necessity of having consensus so we can speak with unified voice.
I also understand what would be important to myself or The Finch Companies may not be the best for our membership as a whole.
In your opinion, what are the greatest attractions to the Peoria area for business? What, if anything, hinders new businesses from coming to Peoria?
What are our greatest attractions for business? The people who live here – with principled base values, a strong work ethic, and genuine Midwestern friendliness. A good standard of living, affordable housing, and real quality of life to attract good employees to our area. Caterpillar with its customer/supplier base. Diverse customer base. A skilled workforce. Bradley University and Illinois Central College, very respected institutions of higher learning.
Recreation that attracts those who run businesses and entertain – boating, fishing, hunting. Civic Center events. Professional hockey, baseball and football. Ballet, Civic Orchestra and theater, and so much more…all add to the attraction of Peoria to businesses.
With the growth cells and intergovernmental agreements, land is available for business to grow.
What hinders new business from coming? The image of Peoria as a tough union town. High labor costs. Limited jet service. High real estate taxes. Low unemployment, thus low availability of workers. Lack of sustained growth. Only one freeway for business access. Inability of city council to form a cohesive vision, especially in development matters. Negativism and cynicism. Protectionism. Insufficient shopping venues. Cold weather, hot humid weather. Low minority involvement. Illinois workers-comp laws.
What gives you the most satisfaction in life? The least?
I am blessed that the sources of the greatest satisfaction in my life are many. The security of a loving and supportive wife and family. The opportunity to work with so many wonderful employees who are the true foundation of The Finch Companies. The 30-year relationship with my brother-in-law and partner, Tom Finch. The many friends I’ve found through involvement in work, church, volunteerism, and recreation. Memories of my mentor, my father-in-law Lyle Finch. The loving home provided by my parents. Watching our children develop into young adults.
It is always a thrill, as a contractor, to take a bare piece of land and watch a beautiful, landscaped facility emerge in an amazing transformation. Even more of a thrill, however, is to watch a child with crippling disabilities take his or her first step after months of therapy or with the aid of a specialized walker or high tech leg braces. That true-life image is really satisfying to those who have been involved in the rehabilitation process. Ultimate satisfaction for me, however, is continually seeking God’s will for my life and staying within it.
Dissatisfactions? Conversely, disobeying or ignoring what I believe to be God’s will for me. Knowing what I should do and not being able to do it – either because of time constraints or factors beyond my control.
My personality is such that if I see “loose ends,” I simply cannot leave them untied. This trait is often a burden, not a blessing. My wife still teases me about the time I jumped out of the car at a red light to straighten the hood ornament on our car to my satisfaction.
What are your plans for the future?
Occasionally I am asked if I have any ambitions to run for public office. My oldest brother is convince that I am ignoring a calling to get involved in politics. Admittedly, I have encouraged and supported others to become involved politically, but truly believe I can best serve The Finch Companies, my family, and the community by continuing the direction I’ve been going. While I respect and applaud those who serve in the public arena, I believe the political process is not the venue for me.
Corporately, we have been very preoccupied with planning for the future. We just completed a major transition, moving N.E. Finch Co. operations from East Peoria to Peoria.
Again, for the first time in our history, we are under one roof – operationally and administratively. We are approaching (slowly, we hope) the back third of a second generation, with Tom Finch and I both looking toward retirement within the next 10 and 15 years.
We must plan carefully for a third generation, knowing that, historically, most closely held construction businesses don’t survive a third generation of operations.
We believe we are positioned to meet the future challenges of a dynamic industry with a new facility, expanded services and products, and – most importantly – by building a team of talented and skilled individuals who have the necessary vision and passion to continue the mission and success of the companies.
With the time and effort spent on issues of the companies during transition, as well as volunteer responsibilities, I honestly have not thought much about future personal plans. Obviously, I would like to continue helping The Finch Companies progressively meet the challenges of our industry and to remain active in community volunteerism, and I hope to be more involved with mentoring young people as they consider business for a vocation.
Also, with the many active Christian organizations in the Peoria are – Young Life, FCA, Youth for Christ, Salvation Army, a variety of camps and missions – I know I’ll never lack for an opportunity to serve God and the community now and in the future.
Finally, I plan to continue to enjoy the love and lives of my friends and family, especially my wife and children, and, eventually, grandchildren. IBI