The Construction Owners Association of America
Success… “The COAA Way”
Business View Magazine interviews representatives of the Construction Owners Association of America for our focus on Facilities Management
The Construction Owners Association of America (COAA) is a national non-profit organization of and for facilities Owners, especially those “serial builders” who are continuously expanding or renovating their built environment. The organization was founded in 1994 by Atlanta-based construction law attorney, Al Phillips. At the time, Phillips wondered why there was no Owner-focused organization for networking and education, similar to AIA for architects and AGC for builders. COAA’s early years were centered on two national conferences each year, a suite of Owner-friendly contract documents, ensuring that Owners were “at the table” for industry-wide discussions, and grass roots advocacy for and on behalf of Owners.
Today, COAA has a dedicated mission to educate Owners and support their improvement of the construction/renovation project delivery process. A primary means of doing this is through two national conferences each year, plus shorter workshops hosted by state or regional chapters. Another is through the unique Owner Training Institute®(OTI), which features 12 courses presented by three-person instructor teams comprised of an Owner, design professional, and builder.
Additionally, the association’s Value Proposition speaks to education, events, and people with clear distinctions of why COAA offers something different and better. Another key aspect is The COAA Way concept. It relates to People, Best Practices, and Culture and the idea that COAA events, COAA Owners, and the projects led by COAA Owners are different… better in tangible and intangible ways.
As of January 2021, COAA had approximately 2,700 members from about 290 organizations. Owner organizations represent about half of that 290 figure, but more than 90 percent of the head count. Most Owner members are governmental or institutional entities – higher education campuses; Federal, state, county, and city-level agencies; K-12 school districts; healthcare organizations; and airports – but developers and the private/corporate sector are also well-represented by research/pharm, insurance, financial services, and other business types.
“Associate” COAA membership is reserved for the service providers Owners partner with on capital projects, including architectural and engineering design firms, CM/GC builders, and software vendors. Some of the nation’s leading firms are both members and sponsors of COAA, including The Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., Autodesk, and HGA.
2020 and Current Initiatives
Like many organizations in and outside of the AEC industry, COAA suffered financially in 2020 due to its reliance on in-person events. Still, the year proved to be fruitful in other ways:
- The roots of a new chapter in Wisconsin were formed
- A new members-only, Teams-based “eForum” was launched, providing a 24/7 means of peer-to-peer networking and problem-solving
- Conferences, workshops, and other in-person events were transitioned to the virtual realm and new ones were born, including two “town hall meetings” to discuss COVID-19 impacts and responses. Roughly 1,870 people attended COAA events in 2020, including nearly 1,200 Owners
- The new “COAA Cares” initiative was born, stemming from a hands-on effort at the fall 2019 conference in Atlanta; this initiative seeks to provide a means for COAA event attendees to give back and a platform for charitable organizations within the industry to explain & promote their mission (examples include the ACE Mentor Program and Construction Angels)
- A new membership database and e-commerce platform was launched, along with a new website
- Ties were made or strengthened with other AEC industry associations, forged in part by a desire to share best practices in dealing with COVID impacts
- While complete transition of the OTI curriculum to virtual was impossible due to the heavy involvement of volunteer instructors, two of the courses were delivered in abridged virtual form
- The staff, Board, and other volunteer leaders became even more connected and synchronized thanks to regular virtual gatherings
Business View asked several representatives of COAA this question: Why is COAA a valuable association and what does it mean to you? Here are their enlightening replies…
COAA President, Allison Muth, Texas Children’s Hospital: “The journey that brought me to COAA stemmed from my being on the Owner’s side for 18 years in healthcare. I was looking for an organization with engagement from Owner perspectives in industries outside of healthcare. What drew me to COAA was all the different industry perspectives and how we’re all trying to solve the same problems – how to deliver our projects the best way we can; how to bring the right teams together. I think the biggest value is that we have such an open forum. Our goal is not to stand up and lecture, we need to hear from everyone. Sharing those ideas through an open dialogue is how we will learn and improve this industry as a whole. That’s why I love being here and want to encourage others to join.
“The biggest change we’ve had in the industry during COVID was learning to engage through every possible virtual platform. This culture we’ve invented within COAA helped project teams move along faster – The COAA Way premise of building the culture, building the team, doing things the best way we can. So when we had to change to the virtual platform, that mindset carried through. We’ve all had to work through it, but having the right mindset and culture is helping members continue to move forward.”
Past President Joe Sprys, National Heritage Academies: “When I joined many years ago, I found that COAA was an organization where people were willing to share information. It was nice for me to be able to call on people with common goals – how to reduce time, reduce costs, get your projects to market faster, more effectively, more efficiently. All the issues we had and continue to have. So it’s nice to talk to people from so many different industries in similar situations, who can relate to what you’re doing and offer assistance. The networking and camaraderie that you get from COAA has been very important.”
COAA Treasurer, Marvin Woodward, Georgia State Financing & Investment Commission: “For most of my career, I was on horizontal construction sites, doing highways and bridges, so this organization was recommended to me when I made the switch to vertical construction. And it really accelerated my learning as a facility builder and Owner to be able to learn from other people. The culture of COAA is that we like to share what doesn’t work, not just what works. We’re not afraid, and you don’t get that with a lot of associations or groups because nobody wants to talk about a failure. We have a culture where we talk about the technical things but, in this business, the soft skills are just as important. So in the training and in our conferences we spend time trying to improve in both of those areas.”
COAA VP John Zahor, University of Maryland, Baltimore County: “A few years back we were talking about how COAA projected and promoted this philosophy – the collaborative efforts, the transparency, the ability to communicate and work together. That became The COAA Way. Following The COAA Way means looking at a problem as being everyone’s responsibility to solve. In our Owner Institute Training classes, we learn how to be a “good” Owner – being engaged, decisive, most of all leading the team. When you’re the Owner, you’re leading by example of how to work that way, to admit when you’re wrong.
“We’re building a group of people in COAA who pledge that this is the way they want to work. So if you hire a contractor or designer that is part of COAA, you know you’ll get someone who understands that teamwork philosophy. That’s what COAA is to me.”
Moving forward and beyond 2021, COAA will strive to find a healthy balance between in-person and virtual offerings to ensure training & information can be accessed by the widest possible audience. Like the rest of the industry, COAA suffers from a lack of diversity in terms of member/attendee age, gender, and race. Among other diversification efforts, COAA is seeking to lower its median age with an “Emerging Professionals” class of membership and an educational series devoted specifically to less experienced Owners. COAA is also excited about its relationship with the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) and the organizations’ joint development of a new Owner Training Institute course, “Lean for Owners.”
The Fall Owners Leadership Conference (November 17-19) is currently planned to mark the return to in-person gatherings at the ‘M’ Resort in Henderson, NV (a suburb of Las Vegas). In addition to the usual blend of quality educational sessions, a golf event is also planned at the nearby Revere Golf Club.
Ultimately, it’s Owners working together on best practices that is driving the industry forward, and COAA as the resource and the safe haven for members to share is helping make that happen.
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AT A GLANCE
Construction Owners Association of America (COAA)
What: National organization of public and private Owners who manage facilities development and capital improvement projects
Where: Based in Austell, Georgia