Spotlight on VSI’s Alex Fernandez
Earlier this year, the Vinyl Siding Institute’s Director of Advocacy Alex Fernandez and his government affairs campaign got off to a very ambitious start – six states were introducing legislation that would prohibit the banning of vinyl siding from home building and related developments.
“It was the biggest lift we ever had,” Fernandez said.
This “lift” was the result of Alex’s hard work and dedication since joining the VSI team in November 2018. Leveraging his unique legal and grassroots campaign experience (along with growing up in a family construction business), Alex was able to transcend VSI’s lobbying capital to help introduce vinyl siding-friendly legislation in Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, Minnesota and Oklahoma this past year.
“During this time, we learned that Kansas was also introducing similar legislation based on our efforts,” he said. “It’s gratifying to know that leaders in other states were monitoring our progress.”
And just as the industry was making unprecedented headway, the COVID-19 virus spread to the U.S. and all sessions were suspended indefinitely in March. Since then, everything has been up in the air.
“There is not only delay, but we have to start over and do a ‘repeat’ of everything we worked so hard for in all of these states,” he explained. “This means getting everyone back on board, getting coalitions back together or holding them together. We have definitely been impacted when you look at time, costs and momentum.”
Notwithstanding, Alex remains cautiously optimistic – and with good reason. This spring, Oklahoma became the fourth state to pass a law (along with Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina) clearing the way for home builders to use vinyl siding for new developments and projects.
“It is a major victory for the polymeric siding industry that we were able to pass any kind of legislation during this time. After their session was suspended for over a month, the Oklahoma legislature felt that – even during these crazy times – it was important enough to move this bill forward. And the Governor (Kevin Stitt) signed it right away on May 21, when he easily could’ve sat on it.”
With legislative sessions gradually coming back, Alex believes the success in Oklahoma provides a great story to tell legislators looking for cost-effective solutions to offset the economic downturn caused by the crisis.
“It’s a unique situation because of COVID-19 – I describe it as radio silence,” he said. “A lot of legislators are part-time, and there is a lot on their minds. But among their biggest concerns is economic recovery and job creation in their districts. I think we can help by saying, ‘look what they did in Oklahoma, and why they moved so quickly.’"
Alex sees his mission as a noble one: work to advance VSI’s interests across the country, at the local and state levels, promoting and protecting members’ interests against what he calls “considerable attacks” from all sides – politicians, competitors, bureaucracies and the misleading perceptions they spread that have become barriers to access for home builders.
“I want our members to be protected, so my job is to safeguard and promote their interests,” he said. “But anyone who believes in fair trade and true capitalism should appreciate how our work benefits everyone. At the end of the day, it’s about people being allowed to choose the products they feel are best for their homes, and anyone who is receptive to this idea becomes a convert when they learn the truth about vinyl siding.”
In normal times, Alex typically dedicates the first half of the year to extensive legislative travel. He politics at the state and local levels, using education, goodwill, meetings and engaging member feedback.
“We sponsor the Home Builders Association and several local and regional home builders’ associations, supporting them financially and sponsoring legislative receptions and other meaningful events,” he said.
Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, Alex was in Georgia in mid-January, Indiana the next week and back to Georgia the following week. He also went to North Carolina in early February, Oklahoma the second week, and returned to Georgia at the end of the month. His agenda during each visit is strategically packed with meetings with legislators and staff, industry events and developing relationships with key influencers from home-building, local government and various trade groups.
During the second half of the year, Alex spends more time as program manager for the Architectural Design Program (ADP). This work includes organizing the architectural support conferences and staffing the New Urbanism Project Work Group. During his tenure, the program has produced some wonderful local conferences to groups of 15-20 American Institute of Architects (AIA) members and Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) members.
One of the biggest initiatives Alex is working on in this front is scaling the ADP to reach 500-1,000 participants.
“We are working with a clearinghouse to host our webinars on a trade website for architects. This would mean raising our numbers from 15-20 to 800-1,000 people looking at our content every year,” he noted.
Alex and the ADP will continue organizing local, face-to-face conferences while also exploring creative outlets to reach larger audiences.
“We expanded our scale by adding six local events this year in places that are outside of our market – like Idaho in early March, where people were very excited to hear about our presentation, and in places like Atlanta, where we have legislative issues that we’re addressing. And, of course, we still present in places that are market strongholds – like New Orleans. Louisiana is a large market for us for modular homes, and affordability is a factor in the inland rural communities. We would love to see more traction in the coastal areas and in New Orleans, where our products’ wind resistance and design versatilities can benefit historic neighborhoods.”
The VSI will also be participating in four large national trade events, including the National Town Builders Association Meeting and the Sunbelt Builders Show in Texas.
“We need to have a bigger presence in Texas since they have passed vinyl siding-friendly legislation in 2019,” Alex said. “We have a small market share here because there have been a lot of barriers to access for our members. Now that we have a legal ‘right-of-way,’ the VSI needs to develop more local industry relationships.”
Alex’s work with the ADP has become an ideal complement to his legislative reform efforts.
“The ADP architects educate me on how they see things, and when I meet local architects, code officials, zoning board or other influencers, I can have more engaging conversations with them,” he explained.
“Information is power, but education can be so galvanizing. It’s awesome to see these key players tick all the boxes while they’re learning – sustainability, recyclability, cost-effectiveness, design versatility, wind resistance, product performance – and say ‘we’re all in.’”
A prime example of the ADP’s influence on the legislative agenda has been Alex’s work with the fire chiefs in Indiana. “They were so opposed to vinyl siding because of their own perceptions of fire risk. But when I used the ADP literature to inform them on vinyl siding’s flame-retardant chlorine base (making it the most difficult of all construction materials to ignite), all their fears went away.”
Alex feels there is a lot of crossover – and that the educational programs are also strategic tools for legislative reform.
“Because we have transitioned nicely from in-person to virtual events, we can invite legislators, their staff, other government stakeholders and home builders in these battleground states to participate. So far, we have had two webinars for architects and two for members’ sales teams that have attracted over 100 attendees. I strongly encourage my legislative contacts to check out the webinar we produced last May on ‘How to Sell to Architects.’ We use common sense language to help architects understand why they should use vinyl siding in their specs –and it really resonates with state legislators.”
In spite of some of the missed opportunities caused by the COVID-19 crisis, there is much to be excited about in 2020 and beyond with regard to VSI’s advocacy efforts. Thanks to his campaign expertise, his strong “customer relations” skills, and his passion for empowering both home builders and the industry, Alex is poised to help expand the vinyl siding’s market reach through legislative reform and education that truly galvanizes.
Don Browne is a writer, entrepreneur and local legislator who believes that the power of words can change the world. He provides unique writing services for clients in the construction, health care, IT and hospitality sectors. He has a passion for small business and start-ups, as well as writing about Irish history, family and corporate biographies. As a homeowner and father of four who is passionate about community development, Don looks forward to writing more about the exciting possibilities of creating traditional neighborhoods and more sustainable communities using modern materials.