Q&A: Builder Chris Eccleston has busy agenda

In January, Chris Eccleston assumed the reins as Chairman of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, a move which he describes as “a natural progression” because he has served the inner-workings of the the business support organization for so many years,

The founder of the upstart Delmarva Veteran Builders, Eccleston served six years in the U.S. Navy as a Nuclear Machinist Mate. Upon returning home, he merged the skills he learned in the service with his lifelong interest in construction, and was quickly hired by local contractor Gillis Gilkerson.

During that time, he earned a bachelor’s degree in construction management from University of Maryland Eastern Shore, LEED AP certification for the development of sustainable (‘green’) buildings from the U.S. Green Building Council, and is currently working on his MBA from Salisbury University.

Named one of “Top 40 Under 40” in 2012 by Building Design + Construction Magazine, he is currently on the boards of Lower Shore Enterprises and the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce. He is a past member of the boards of directors for both the local Habitat for Humanity chapter and the Salisbury Lions Club.

A project close to his heart is his effort to restore the Wicomico War Memorial at Priscilla Street and North Salisbury Boulevard, an effort that continues and is proceeding with abundant community support.

Q. The company you founded, Delmarva Veteran Builders, is celebrating its first five years in business. What do you all do?

A. We’re a small-to-medium general contractor on the Shore. We’re focused on hiring and employing veterans, and just really focused on customer service, commercial construction. We get a lot of phone calls all the time for residential stuff, but I’m strictly commercial. I’m a general contracting and construction management.

Q. So your workforce is primarily guys who were vets.

A. Right now about 75 percent of our workforce is either currently serving or has served. We’re always hiring; we could hire four or five people right now and put them right into the workforce. And I think the unique thing about our company too is that we’re a company that’s about improving our team members. It’s kind of neat to see that happen and have a construction company willing to take that risk on employees.

We have 22 employees now.

Q. Your offices are located right Downtown in Salisbury and not out in some office park.

A. We are Downtown. I’m a Downtown guy. I think that’s important. I believe in Downtown, so we’re Downtown and in the Plaza Gallery Building and we will be there for a long time.

Q. I ask this to everyone where it fits: You’re a smart guy who could live anywhere in the world, yet you chose to be here. Why?

A. This area, I’ve said this several times, if you’re a younger person and you want to work hard, I believe this community will embrace you. The community wants to see young people prosper and there’s a lot of opportunity out there. Nationally too, if you look at national trends, you have an aging workforce with the Gen X and the Baby Boomer generation. So, I mean, there’s just a lot of opportunity. You’re going to see a lot of transition and turnover in the next five to 10 years. It’s going to happen fast. You have the quality of life here. In 20 minutes outside of here, you’re in God’s country where you can, you can do whatever you want.

You have the beach, you have a vibrant economy. You have a booming area up on the Delaware beaches. We have low crime rates and this is a great place to raise a family. And then the last piece that has always excited me about this community is the civic aspect of it all. The people who are involved who want to see this place better, that get involved and get things done. I mean, that to me is kind of its own little family thing and that, that to me is what attracted me the most.

Q. You had a vision that came to fruition with last year’s Transformational Community Leadership series that exposed young leaders to community institutions and issues. It seemed to be an incredible success and opened lots of eyes on lots of people.

A. That was really Mike Dunn (of Greater Salisbury Committee)  and and Heather Duma and Dave Hanlin (of Coastal Hospice) and Mary Angela Baker of Salisbury University) who made that happen.

Q. But they were just the team behind your vision.

A. Well, a couple years ago I had this idea, but — to tell you the truth — I really wanted to go learn about these places that are important to our community.

So the idea was taking people before they age out of the workforce and expose them to the community and the issues. So it was taking those people in that (age) 30 to 40 range that are going to be our decision makers in the community for the next 15 to 20 years in and getting them educated and understanding of how intricate and how detailed and how many moving parts that are with, you know, our prison system, our wastewater treatment plant or water plant, you know, the airport, the economic development, all those different things. Once we got a program like that in place, the community leadership got behind it and saw it as a positive thing. That to me is what makes the community great.

Q. As a young professional with young kids, you talk about public education a lot and whether our community does enough to fund and support it. Do you support public education?

A. Yes, absolutely. I believe because I believe that that’s a huge economic development engine for our community.

I applaud leaders who are stepping up on the issue. Bill Chambers, the CEO of the Chamber, and Mike Dunn of the Greater Salisbury — they recently put together a “State Of The Schools” address (held at Parkside High School and at the GSC meeting room with Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin).

I’ve been talking for two years at anybody who will listen that we’ve got to have events in our school system where we see how great our schools are or, you know, learn what we need to invest in. And I think that’s a shift that you’re starting to see. I look at public education as an investment in my future — for our community, for my business and for our employees and for my children. I don’t know that my children will go to public school — I want them to, but my wife feels differently. I say that all the time, but it’s a family decision. Also, it depends on the kid and, you know, so we’re still figuring that out.

I definitely believe that public education is the future. A couple of years ago. I went and toured some schools. In Kent County and Sussex County (in Delaware) I was blown away by the technology and the programs. I realized during that, if I’m an employer, and not necessarily Delmarva Veteran Builders but any employer, and I’m sitting here in Salisbury, if I’ve that kind of talent is coming out of a school system 30 minutes from here, that’s where I’m going as an employer. I’m certainly not discounting our school system. We have a great, great school system.

Every community has the ability to just start focusing on the negative and lose the positive. We have an 83 percent graduation rate; we we have a lot of things that we need to be proud of. Our mayor, he’s a product of our school system. He’s a great leader and he’s graduated from top echelon schools. There’s a lot of, a lot of great things that come out of our public school system, but we don’t wave that banner or flag.

Q. You’re the new Chairman of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce. What are your thoughts as you take on this responsibility?

A.  I’ve been involved with the Chamber for, for a long time, on the board, so it was a natural progression for me.

Again, I’ve really enjoyed serving the community, so it’s another chance to serve our business community and serve our overall community.

I’ll raise some uncomfortable topics, like public education, and we’ll all have a conversation about it.

The chamber has a 100-year anniversary coming up in 2020, so that’s a big thing. And then it’s important that I work to continue to move the Chamber in the direction that it’s moving.

Q. In all the towns I’ve covered and lived in, I’ve never seen a Chamber that was so pertinent to everything that goes on in a community.

A. Yes, I definitely think that. And this is something that I’m so proud of and I hope everybody else in the community is. But when you sit up and watch, you see our Chamber and our Greater Salisbury Committee and our economic development arms, all moving — but not in a unit. They’re moving in unison most of the time, but obviously they’re going to have disagreements on some things.

You start to see things get done and when you have civic leadership behind (issues in) both in the city and the county — that’s good leadership and you’re starting to see a lot of things ripening for a boom. I’m excited about it. It’s a positive leadership and a can-do kind of feeling.

Q. Is that a new attitude for Salisbury?

A. Salisbury didn’t have that when I first moved here. It was, you know, always doom and gloom and a lot of fighting internally. Discourse and disagreement is important, but to always move forward, you have to be positive and look at the positive side of things. That’s how you get things done and move forward in this marketplace of Delmarva.

Our school system has to adequate children for the workplace. So are we doing a good job of that? I would say the answer to that is yes. Could we do better? The answer to that is yes. Are people (elsewhere) doing it better than we are currently? Absolutely.

We have to recognize that and we have to compete — that’s the new marketplace that we’re in.

 

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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