Forty-one years ago, in the fall of 1982, members of a committee from the Utah chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America were looking for a new leader, and they “decided to give a young kid a chance,” says Rich Thorn, CEO and president of the chapter. At the time, Thorn was 25 years old and had been working as a staff assistant at the chapter for two years. In accepting the offer, he became the youngest AGC chapter executive in the country and quite possibility in the association’s history. In March, Thorn will step down from the position after 42 years, making him one of the longest-serving executives in the association as well.
“I feel like one of the luckiest guys in the world,” Thorn says. “This job gave me and [my wife] Sherrie a chance to raise a family and work with some of the most amazing, hard-working people in this state. I have friends in chapters all over the country. It’s been more than I could have ever imagined as a kid from Springville, Utah.”
The AGC of Utah Training Facility was the realization of a long-held goal for a space dedicated to training the next generation of workers and keeping current workers’ skills up to date. Rich Thorn, third from left, watches as Gov. Spencer Cox and Scott Okelberry, 2021 AGC board chairman, fourth from right, cut the ribbon.
Photo courtesy AGC of Utah
Stephen Sandherr, CEO of AGC America, has known and worked with Thorn for nearly 38 years. “In a state full of nice people, you won’t find a guy nicer than Rich,” Sandherr says. “He’s knowledgeable, has great integrity and does the right thing. The fact that he has led the Utah AGC for as long as he has is a testament to how well he knows his members and is seen as a resource to his officers and board members.”
Thorn has led the Utah organization through economic ups and downs, preparations for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and the completion of historic, landmark projects like the renovation and seismic stabilization of the Utah State Capitol building, City Creek Center in the heart of Salt Lake City, the National Security Agency Data Center in Bluffdale, multiple expansions of sections of U.S. Interstate 15 and the replacement of the Salt Lake City International Airport, among many others, all led and completed by member firms.
“For more than 40 years, Rich has been an effective advocate for Utah’s construction industry,” says Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R). “With energy, skill and compassion, Rich has represented general contractors well and helped the state grow.”
Thorn (center) and Joey Gilbert (right) are familiar faces to Utah lawmakers. The two, along with Jason Klaumann, regional manager for Granite Construction and AGC of Utah secretary/treasurer, make a presentation on the floor of the Utah Legislature.
Photo courtesy AGC of Utah
Thorn came to the AGC with a family background in the construction industry. His great-grandfather founded Thorn Construction, a highway paving firm, in the mid-1920s. As a young man, Thorn filled numerous positions in the firm and was a heavy equipment operator before the company shut down in 1981. Thorn attended Dixie State College (now Utah Tech University) in St. George on an athletic scholarship playing football and baseball before enrolling and playing baseball at Brigham Young University, where he graduated in 1981. He credits playing sports with instilling a level of fearlessness and confidence he’s used in approaching new situations during his career.
“With energy, skill and compassion, Rich has represented general contractors well and helped the state grow.”
—Spencer Cox, Governor of Utah
“When I’ve needed to speak in public, that doesn’t bother me. Going to the Capitol doesn’t scare me. Growing up as an athlete and competitor, I was just willing to get in and do what needed to be done,” Thorn says.
He may have also gotten a taste for politics by way of his mother, Karen, who worked for two U.S. representatives and two U.S. senators during her career and relocated the family to Washington D.C., for four years in the early 1960s.
Thorn has represented AGC members on numerous boards including the Utah Labor Commission and the Workers Compensation Advisory Council and helped build relationships with the Utah State Dept. of Facilities Construction and Management (DFCM).
“With his support and leadership, we were able to organize and pull off the first-ever DFCM Meet and Greet with contractors in 2012,” says Jim Russell, DFCM director. “Due to restrictions placed on state employees related to conflicts of interest and socialization, these two events are the key interaction between DFCM, our agency partners and the AEC community. Over the years, Rich has been a huge friend to DFCM. He is always willing to listen to our needs with a can-do approach that has helped us involve the AEC community in problem-solving and working together.”
Over the years, Thorn has built strong relationships with Utah’s congressional delegation. The late Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) helped direct billions in funding to building projects in Utah.
Photo courtesy AGC of Utah
At the association’s 2022 convention, Thorn presided over celebrations of the chapter’s 100th anniversary.
“That was really something special to celebrate and to see how far we have come as an organization and all we’ve accomplished,” Thorn says. “It’s really gratifying to see how we’ve become a major part of a coalition of key groups like the Chambers of Commerce, the manufacturers, mining and others who come together to work with our lawmakers and make Utah a good place to live and do business in.”
Thorn says some highlights have included working with and lobbying at the state Legislature for issues ranging from gas tax increases to fund highway construction, changes to lean laws for contractors and, in preparation for Olympics-related construction, supporting bonding efforts and pushing for the state to allow design-build delivery.
“Rich has always understood the big picture, that at the end of the day it was always about what was best for our state.”
—Carlos Braceras, Executive Director, UDOT
“That was a new thing that even some of our members weren’t sure about,” he says. “But we had others who said this was a way to get things done and get them done in time for the games. We rebuilt I-15 around Salt Lake and other Olympic venues using design-build. I think it was a huge vote of confidence in our contractors that folks at UDOT and the Utah Transit Authority—and even some large, private owners—would embrace this new thing and believe in our people.”
Carlos Braceras, UDOT executive director, praised Thorn’s efforts to help introduce new delivery methods and work with the department on other issues.
“Rich has always understood the big picture, that at the end of the day it was always about what was best for our state,” Braceras says. “Rich was a big champion and supporter of new transportation funding and is a big reason for all the success we’ve had. The introduction of value-based procurement [design-build, construction manager general contractor, progressive design build] was a really big deal, and it was really hard for all of the contractors, but Rich, with a gentle voice and wisdom, helped us all get to where we needed to be.”
Through most of Thorn’s tenure, the organization has seen membership numbers grow. Today, AGC of Utah stands at about 650 member firms. The physical assets of the chapter have also grown. A new 10,000-sq-ft headquarters office building was constructed by members in 2008 and, on a site adjacent to the headquarters, a 16,000-sq-ft training center opened in November 2021. To serve the growing membership in the southern part of the state, the chapter opened an office in St. George in 1994, which is currently being renovated.
Thorn says his wife, Sherrie, encouraged him to apply for the job as AGC president more than 40 years ago.
Photo courtesy AGC of Utah
“I’ve always tried to make sure members understood the value of being a part of AGC and they never had to question their membership,” Thorn says.
Joey Gilbert, AGC of Utah vice president, has worked alongside Thorn for 25 years and will assume the position of CEO and president when Thorn steps down. He says the chapter’s growing number of facilities speaks to the confidence the members have put in the leadership.
“I think it says a lot about the quality and dedication of our members and Rich’s leadership that we’ve been able to grow, not just the membership, but the physical assets of the chapter as much as we have,” Gilbert says. “I’ve learned so much from Rich. The AGC motto is ‘Integrity, Skill and Responsibility.’ Rich really embodies all those qualities, and I hope it’s something I can continue.”