A Legacy of Purpose, Passion and ‘Playing it Straight’
When he was just 12 years old, James (Jim) O’Malley would ride on the running board of his father’s car, jumping to the curb each time they arrived at a construction company’s office. He would proudly hand deliver copies of freshly printed directories, containing the most complete and accurate list of commercial construction companies in New York City. At that early age, Jim had no idea where his hard work would lead.
Years later, the young man who rode the running boards turned his father’s small directory company into a 100-plus-year-old information icon that continues to bring buyers and sellers together throughout the entire U.S. commercial construction industry.
If you are reading this, you probably have benefited in some way by Jim’s desire to connect people in this industry. Whether you’ve found a local trade through the legendary directory, searched for companies at TheBlueBook.com or exchanged handshakes with a new acquaintance at a Blue Book Network event, you’ve been touched by the lifework of Jim O’Malley.
Inspiration to All
Jim touched millions of lives. He was a man driven with purpose—and always with heart. He embodied an unwavering passion for people and a fierce commitment to playing it straight. Perhaps most important, Jim quietly instilled that passion in a company built to last for generations to come. When he passed on in 2018 at age 86, his connection to this world may have been severed, but his legacy lives on in the hearts, minds and actions of those who knew him best. This is his story, told through their eyes.
An unassuming man, Jim was born in 1931 in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, a borough of New York City. He attended Fordham Preparatory School and Fordham University in the Bronx. In 1953, he graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he joined his father’s small business, publishing The Subcontractors Register, sometimes referred to as the “Yellow Pages for Contractors.” The company had just a few people, mostly family. And although the paychecks were meager, the energy was high. The small, determined team kept expanding the business’ reach by adding publications in new regions. The thorough listings of contact information for commercial construction companies, including contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and manufacturers, provided an unparalleled service to the construction industry. When Jim’s father, Joseph O’Malley, entered retirement, he left the little company to his children. Jim bought out his siblings and took The Subcontractors Register in a new direction. As he grew closer to retirement in 2013 (which coincided with the firm’s 100th anniversary), Jim had transformed thecompany from a directory publisher into a full-service, fully online and automated digital workflow solutions company that enables construction professionals to connect with people, products and projects—to share construction documents, streamline bid communications and so much more.
“I think deep down, he was always a kid from the Riverdale section of the Bronx,” comments Jeff Fandl, The Blue Book Network’s Director of Company Information and an employee approaching 40 years with the firm. “I think he was amazed that he had the opportunity to contribute to and shape the $1.2 billion construction industry. His passion was contagious. He assembled this ragtag team here when we were all in our twenties—all very different types of people—to make his vision come true. He taught us all to have intellectual curiosity in everything we did. And we all soon realized that when we combined his passion for excellence with a genuine curiosity to improve, our information and our ability to connect buyers and sellers continued to improve as well.”
"We’ve helped a huge construction industry. We’ve helped our customers grow their businesses and, at the same time, we’ve enriched our employees. And it’s all because of him.” — Jeff Fandl, Director of Company Information, The Blue Book Building & Construction Network®
Through his passion for both his employees (whom he referred to as his family) and his commitment to delivering quality information, Jim was able to develop a formula for success that lasted for nearly 56 years under his leadership. Jim’s son Terry summed up his father’s success this way: “My father taught me that running a company was not intrinsically about making money, but more importantly about protecting the livelihoods of all employees and their families.”
Jim’s mission for The Blue Book was predicated on one simple goal: “Bring Buyers and Sellers Together” in the construction industry. He wanted the print directory to be on the desk of every decision-maker in the business. When firms needed to hire a subcontractor or find a general contractor, Jim wanted them to reach for The Blue Book. His belief in free distribution of the information to buyers was part of his overall strategy. In his early days, Jim wore many hats. He handled all sales and marketing decisions and managed the operations—including donning a green visor one time each year to physically layout each letter on each page of the directory. He understood the buyer and made sure his customers’ information was always accurate and properly displayed for the buyers. Through the years, as information moved from print to digital, Jim never wavered in his focus to make it easy for the industry to find what they needed. “He understood the customers’ perspective and focused on being the top local player in key markets,” explains Howard Mager, President of M Team LLC and a Blue Book Network Steering Committee member from 2010 to 2017. “He understood that the sum of the local markets was greater than the total national market.”
Jim always wanted to initiate that buyer/seller handshake. Over time, this fundamental mission evolved to fit neatly into a solid, four-sided foundation of:
- Unparalleled information.
- Careful deployment of technology.
- Continuous improvement.
- Unwavering ethics and integrity.
Information: Connecting People AND Projects
Jim knew that information was the secret sauce that would bring buyers and sellers together.
“Jim was one of the most successful leaders at making it so easy for local and regional construction firms to build success by providing them with vital connections,” Mager adds.
In the early decades, every construction company’s fundamental details were captured in The Blue Book’s print directories. Today, companies’ extended information is intricately detailed within The Blue Book Network’s web portal. There, a company can display its expertise, find teaming partners through unlimited search options and collaborate on projects, plans and proposals. These businesses can also request a quote, bid on a project, find trends for a product or industry, perform market research and build new relationships. “Jim understood that the internet would one day be the primary source for information and that we had to embrace the technology,” says Robb Kalmer, the company’s Corporate Services and Facilities Manager who is approaching his silver anniversary with the firm. “He wasn’t comfortable with technology himself but was able to see the benefit, understanding the internet’s value in connecting buyers and sellers. He trusted we could do this. We were truly early adopters.” With Jim’s support, the internal information technology team had The Blue Book online by 1997.
Today, the construction industry still needs people to facilitate handshakes, and that was a cornerstone within Jim’s process planning. He had an unwavering desire to be sure that all employees facilitated those relationships between buyers and sellers. In this era where many people focus on texts and pings and digital high-fives, The Blue Book Network team still brings folks together with a handshake and the eye contact that begins the advent of a lasting working relationship.
Technology: Adaptation’s Critical Lessons
The technology explosion of the late 20th century provides a good example of Jim’s ability to think in terms of the future and adapt accordingly. “While the industry moved from fax machines to computers and cellphones, Jim’s team demonstrated industry leadership in adopting new technology,” Mager says. “He was the one who pushed for the company’s transformation to digital…he was a visionary and repeatedly invested in cutting-edge technology.”
Mike Tartaglia, Director of Content and Creative and a 24-year team member, agrees. “Jim led us in a very careful introduction of technology. He didn’t want us to lap the industry. He challenged us to understand what the buyers and sellers truly needed and what was the best way to deliver it. Once we established those parameters, he was determined—and we were determined—that no one on the planet was going to do it better than us. Though our products and services evolved, Jim ensured that our mission never changed.”
Brian Tonry has a unique perspective. He worked with Jim collaboratively when he was with The McGraw-Hill Companies and, in 2017, he joined The Blue Book Network team as their Vice President of Data and Analytics. “I give Jim a ton of credit for evolving with the times,” Tonry says. “The internet killed most of the directory businesses, like the Yellow Pages.” But, due to Jim’s foresight, Tonry says that The Blue Book Network has more than doubled in size since the dot-com days. “In 2001, he had the courage to launch The Blue Book’s first online platform, BB-Bid,” he adds. “While other directory firms were still faxing and phoning, he was innovating online. Today, 1.2 million messages go out on our platform every week, connecting subs, suppliers, contractors and design teams. Over 100,000 sets of plans and specs are uploaded to our web portal every year, and over 50 percent of those are user-contributed invitations to bid placed through our online network. It’s amazing,” he says.
Improvement: Good Enough Was Never an Option
Throughout the evolution of The Blue Book Network, Jim wouldn’t let the company rest on its success. There were always new mountains to climb—and better ways to scale them. Continuous improvement was standard procedure and became a way of life for The Blue Book Network team.
Much of his forward-thinking approach to business can be attributed to his humility. He knew what he didn’t know, and he was not afraid to ask for help from experts representing various industries and backgrounds. This openness to new ideas spurred Jim to hire the best employees, with diverse skills and attributes, and then help them become the best they could be. “You feel his passion in every piece of this company,” says Rich Johnson, who is President of The Blue Book Network and who worked with Jim for over 30 years. “You feel his presence in the corridors of the company. We won’t forget what Jim gave us all and we will share his passions and purpose-driven dreams with the generations to come.”
Integrity: An Unyielding Determination to Do What’s Right
Norbert Young, FAIA, is the Executive Vice President at Lehrer Cumming, a construction advisory firm in New York City. He remembers Jim as a man with “clear focus and rich mentoring skills, and as a model for every business leader.” He adds, “Our industry misses Jim as he set the bar for business ethics.” Jim’s commitment to always doing the right thing permeated the decisions and directions of both his business and personal dealings, every day of his tenure.
This unbreakable thread of ethics still influences the company and the decisions of its people, whether on the job or off, thanks to such tutelage. Tartaglia adds: “I think we’re still guided by a ‘What would Jim do?’ compass as we move forward. We challenge ourselves, and each other, to ‘get a headache,’ ‘get it right’ and ‘always play it straight.’ His impact on us individually and collectively is immeasurable.”
Many in the firm attest to the daily examples of unwavering ethics Jim personified. “Jim was extremely ethical,” says Doug Wulkan, The Blue Book Network’s Chief Financial Officer. “He really made a point, probably my first day here some 30-plus years ago, that this company puts honesty first, that employees will always be honest with our customers and that honesty would apply to our taxes as well! So, it’s been very easy for my staff to deal with auditors because we come from a position of strength. And we can look an auditor in the eye and say, ‘This is what we do and we’re proud of what we do.’ And that’s very unusual in the business community—highly unusual. Jim was the only entrepreneur I know who was willing to impart that level of ethics in his people.”
Such passion for integrity transferred from Jim to those around him, making the company and its people better in the process. “He instilled his ethical behavior into us all,” says Meg Hillmann, the firm’s Customer Transaction Team Manager and a Blue Book Network employee for nearly 40 years. “He did such an awesome job. I try to bring [his ethical code] to the people on my team at work, in my personal life…into everything.”
A Heart Filled with Compassion
Jim’s daughter Mary recalls that her father “always had to be the first one in the office each morning, and he never took a sick day.”
Terry O’Malley, Jim’s eldest son, concurs. “I remember a vivid example of this principle in action during a severe construction recession in New York back in the early 1980s. Company sales were doing very poorly, revenues were decreasing, and his advisers encouraged him to lay some people off. Against a lot of social and economic pressure, he steadfastly refused, instead rallying everyone for cost-cutting ideas and a hiring freeze. I think this was probably one of his proudest accomplishments.”
For the People: The Legacy Lives On
Throughout the years, and into his retirement days, Jim was adamant that the company be independent. “He had many opportunities to sell the company, but he didn’t want his people working for some corporate bureaucracy,” Mager recalls. “In an era when mergers and acquisitions were the name of the game, Jim had no desire to play.”
Mark Griswold, the firm’s Vice President and Chief Information Officer, concurs: “Over the years, especially around the dot-com era, Jim had to deal with potential suitors all along the way. In his humble-pie fashion, he listened to them, usually thanked them, but then, in an almost ‘Columbo-like’ way, he would turn the tables on them with things like, ‘Yes, maybe I should consider buying a company like yours.’ Meanwhile, all along he’s thinking, ‘OK, does this fit our mission and vision? And if it does and I believe in it, we’ll invest the profits and move forward.’ “
Ultimately, the suitors subsided, and Jim made a huge commitment by giving the employees the company—all with equal ownership—via an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). “Jim wanted the team that built the company with him to be intact and keep the company moving forward,” Johnson explains. “It came down to the fact that he wanted to make sure this company lived on, and he knew that the employees had a vested interest—just like he had a vested interest—and that we all had learned his passion. If we can all deliver this passion that he had—that we now have—and pass it down to the next generation, then this company will live on in perpetuity.”
Today, the ESOP continues to be a source of tangible employee pride. “Jim could have done like what most do out there,” Kalmer says. “He could have sold the company to a venture capitalist, pocketed the money and moved on. The ESOP and the values represented by it are what make this place special and why it will hopefully always be special. Our job is to prepare the next generation to take over where we leave off.”
An Ending Becomes a Beginning
Jim is missed, but employees say his legacy will fuel the continued growth of The Blue Book Network. “We’ve helped a huge construction industry,” Fandl says. “We’ve helped our customers grow their businesses and, at the same time, we’ve enriched our employees. All three things make it a win, win, win. And it’s all because of him.”
That legacy is perhaps best summarized by Griswold, who joined the firm over 30 years ago and worked closely with Jim throughout the years. “Let me tell you what made Jim a good business person,” he says. “He knew how to overcome challenges—from customer relations to the conversion from print directories to digital data development. He lived through some amazing economic highs and lows and the whole technology and dot-com craze. But the biggest lesson learned from Jim was to look at and solve issues with a view of the long term—not just do what will get us through the current crisis. That long-term vision truly made a company built to last.”