Back in the Day
March 14, 2023
In recognition of NDA’s upcoming 50th anniversary in August of this year, we are connecting with past leaders and other important figures in NDA’s history to hear their perspectives on the industry and association. For this issue, we caught up with Leonard Cherry, a past member of the NDA board and 2019 NDA Lifetime Achievement Award winner.
What is the history of Cherry Companies, and how did you get involved in NDA?
Our parents started a house moving company that was incorporated in the early 1950s. They had four sons, of which I’m number two, and, for the most part, us four boys were my dad’s crew. My mom did the books. We did hand demolition, tearing down garages and that sort of thing. Sometimes we moved a house or a structure, which was picking up the wood frame house and moving it from point A to point B.
But that was a relatively small industry, and our growth was limited, so we began looking for other things to do. As each of us boys came out of high school, we noticed that only one out of every 20 houses we looked at to move were actually movable; the other 19 got demolished. We said, “Well, tearing them down can’t be that hard compared to moving them,” so we began estimating demolition.
I was doing this while I had a full-time job at the Houston Fire Department. We lost money on our first two demolition jobs. My dad informed me if we didn’t make money on the third house demolition, we were going to be bankrupt. Thank God we made $100. We come from a very humble background and beginnings. Our demolition business continued to grow because opportunities by volume were greater in demolition than they were in house moving. We started by sharing assets, manpower and equipment between house moving and demolition. Consequently, our first demo jobs were using winch trucks and cabled-up trailers that don’t even exist anymore. It was shared equipment that we could use in both companies.
As the demolition business grew, we were encouraged by one of the larger demolition contractors here in Houston to get involved in the then-called NADC because what we had begun doing was subcontracting demolition work from the larger demolition companies. They really didn’t want to fool with tearing down houses and small commercial buildings. They wanted larger projects, and we were perfectly fine making a living on those smaller opportunities.
Do you remember the first NDA convention you attended? How did your involvement evolve?
One of my brothers and I attended the first convention for us, which was in the mid-1980s in New Orleans. We were blown away. We had never seen excavators used in the demolition application before until we went there. We walked out of there and bought our first excavator. Watching that transition of heavy equipment application, and that technology of attachments — what we saw back in the mid-1980s to what we see now is something completely different.
At that point, we were involved in a statewide house moving association, and we had found real value. We thought, and were correct in our thinking, that NDA would help us grow our business. From that first convention, we continued to attend regularly. I think I went on the board of directors in the late 1980s, probably five or six years later. I went on the executive board in the early 1990s, and then went through committee chairs through 2003.
What can you tell me about your time on the NDA leadership team in those earlier years?
The association was certainly smaller at that time but very close-knit. The majority of the companies then, even more so than now, were family owned and operated by local or regional contractors. There were very few contractors that expanded beyond their own state lines. It made it very easy for the sharing of information. If you’re never going to compete with each other, than you’re happy to share, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes I do. There’s a curve that goes with that process. You gain information and knowledge, and then you pay it back or pay it forward to the generation that’s coming behind you. We were very fortunate to ride that cycle both ways.
The biggest challenges we initially had were recognition as the voice of the industry. We focused a lot on both the federal and state level, on gaining credibility as the trade association that represented the demolition industry. The second biggest challenge was the growth of safety, with environmental and asbestos, etc. The Environmental Protection Agency was in its early stages when we first became involved, but environmental and safety concerns were growing.
During the recession in the early 1990s, did the economy play into how your business or NDA operated?
The economy is cyclical, and I’m a firm believer that history does repeat itself. There’s nothing from an economic driver perspective you’ve probably not experienced that I haven’t experienced, I’ve just experienced it more often than you. You would see as the economies thrived, our membership would increase, our revenue stream would be greater, our attendees for conventions would always be higher. Consequently, we had more revenue to work with for the next year to work on issues within the industry. When the economy was slow, our revenue stream was down.
What is your biggest takeaway from being involved in NDA and this industry?
The recognition that there is truly the ability to be friendly competitors in this industry. I was initially impressed to see family owned businesses that had children working for competitors, or for other companies in other areas of the country. You’d have family members from California working with companies in Chicago. Even if you didn’t exchange children, for the betterment of the industry as a whole, and the improvement of your individual company, there was always open lines of communication relative to processes and procedures that would make us safer, more efficient or environmentally compliant. That was always the core that held the group together.
What does your involvement look like now?
My wife and I sold our business two and a half years ago to a Fortune 500 company. I’m completely retired from that business. I’ve opened up another business because I’m still under a noncompete. What we found was, much like our family had diversified from house moving and still retain that business line to demolition, we found that same model to be true with the successful demolition companies. The majority were diversified or in the process of diversifying. Whether you were into salvage sales back then, or operating your own landfills, or recycling, or environmental and asbestos abatement, the process from the mid 1980s until the time I left was constantly evolving. When we sold, we did a fair amount of demolition work, but we were also the largest recycler in the state of Texas. The Fortune 500 company that bought us did so not because of our demolition expertise but because of the fact that we were green and we liked hugging trees.