The Consummate Gentleman: An Engineer of the Highest Caliber


The Consummate Gentleman: An Engineer of the Highest Caliber

Remembering the life and times of Bill McAlpine.

Bill McAlpine

In the building construction industry, everything relies on a strong foundation. In the structural components industry, the success of the individual truss relies on the engineering behind it. No matter who you talk to, these two important concepts converged in one person: William “Bill” McAlpine.

“The thing about Bill was that, when you first met him, you immediately respected him,” said longtime friend and associate Charlie Vaccaro. “He had immediate credibility, and that has always been of the utmost significance in this industry.”

To really appreciate McAlpine’s contributions to the structural components industry, you have to start by looking at where he started from, and then take in the big-picture view of how he had a hand in transforming the industry into what it is today. To appreciate him as a man, you need go no further than what his contemporaries have to say about how he conducted himself and lived his life. He was truly the consummate engineer and gentleman.

William “Bill” McAlpine passed away on Saturday, May 26, 2012. Born on June 23, 1931 in Rochester, NY, he graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in civil engineering. While it was Carroll Sanford who is credited with taking the plywood gusset concept and making it out of metal, it was entrepreneurs like Cal Juriet, Bill Black Sr., Charlie Harnden, Bill McAlpine and George Eberle, who developed the “nail-plate” between 1952 and 1960.

The Man Behind the Name

McAlpine got his start in the truss business by responding to an advertisement looking for an engineer to design connector plates. At the time, he told his soon-to-be former boss that he thought he would just design a few truss plates and be done with it. As it turned out, he had a lot more to contribute. He started work in 1958 as the Chief Engineer at Sanford Industries in Pompano Beach, FL. Carroll Sanford was an architect by trade, but he saw the possibilities of truss construction and is credited with inventing the nail plate and the gantry system used in truss assembly.

The truss industry was just getting off the ground at this time, and faced numerous obstacles. One of the most significant was doubts within the building inspection and engineering communities that trusses could withstand the loads they were purported to handle. “The truss business was, and still is in some ways, the Rodney Dangerfield of the building industry,” said Vaccaro. “It got no respect. Building officials didn’t understand how the 2x4 in a truss could suddenly replace a 2x10. They didn’t understand the theory behind trusses.” It was this constant confrontation with skepticism that continually drove McAlpine toward full-scale controlled testing of his truss designs—a pursuit that would define him over the years, and contribute to his reputation as one of the best engineers in the business.

During the industry’s early years, McAlpine met Charlie Harnden, one of Sanford’s lead salesmen. They quickly became friends, and when Harnden forged out on his own, McAlpine joined him soon after to start their own company. In 1966, Harnden and McAlpine founded Alpine Engineered Products (which today is part of the ITW Building Components Group). Bill once remarked he got the better end of the arrangement; while Harnden was President of the company, Bill joked he got the naming rights. Possibly it was that simple, but in looking back, many of his contemporaries argue that it was the strong engineering reputation McAlpine had already established in the field that differentiated Alpine from its many competitors.

Qualities of a Leader

“Many competitors” could possibly be an understatement. In the mid-1960s, 40-50 companies produced their own plates, and some produced trusses as well. Harnden and McAlpine decided to focus on producing plates and providing the engineering to use them. But to be successful, they needed help.

There’s the old adage that great leaders surround themselves with great people. Harnden and McAlpine did just that. “Find good people and grow old together, that’s what Bill always used to say,” remembered Charlie Hoover, Executive Vice President.

From their days at Sanford, they called upon two key individuals: Walt Friedly and Charlie Vaccaro. Walt was the money man. He was an accountant who had earned a lot of respect already in the industry, and he was instrumental in working with banks and investors to raise the funds necessary to start Alpine off on a good foot, including purchasing the plate designs and equipment from a company called WoodLoc East.

Charlie Vaccaro was another important piece to the puzzle. Harnden found himself struggling early on to secure customers. Vaccaro, an accomplished salesman in the industry, brought a little of his swagger to the endeavor. Even though all three of them were engineers, Vaccaro warned McAlpine, “Hire another engineer, you’ll need him to be ready for all the business that’s about to come our way.”

So how did Alpine distinguish itself and rise above its considerable competition? “First, it was their product. Bill was just a superior engineer, and that showed through the reliability of their product,” said Hoover. “Second, it was their salesmanship. Finally, it was their customer service.”

Alpine expanded rapidly, first to Atlanta, GA, then to San Rafael, CA (where they bought WoodLoc West), and finally to St. Charles, IL. As the company grew, McAlpine’s focus increasingly shifted from one of growing his company to one of growing the entire components industry. As an engineer, he understood, possibly better than many of his competitors, what the truss industry truly was capable of accomplishing in the building construction industry.

“Bill came up with many ideas that others have since taken credit for,” said Vaccaro. “But that was fine with him, as long as it helped the industry.” Indeed, it was McAlpine’s commitment to seeing things done correctly that led him and a group of others to found the Truss Plate Institute (TPI) and develop the TPI design criteria that today is known as ANSI/TPI 1 National Design Standard for Metal Plate Connected Wood Truss Construction. Bill emulated TPI’s mission statement: “To maintain the truss industry on a sound engineering basis.”

McAlpine was also a man of principle, and very active in his church. “Charlie Harnden used to refer to Bill as our moral leader,” said Hoover. “To which, Bill always joked back, ‘does that make you, Charlie, our immoral leader?’” That strong sense of morality drove McAlpine to continually steer Alpine toward what he felt was right as opposed to what was expedient.

Bill at test rack

It was this constant confrontation with skepticism that continually drove McAlpine toward full-scale controlled testing of his truss designs—a pursuit that would define him over the years, and contribute to his reputation as one of the best engineers in the business.

Embracing Change, the Right Way

The best example that illustrated McAlpine’s character could have also led to Alpine’s failure if it hadn’t been for their already strong reputation. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, computer software was being developed to handle much of the design calculation work. By the mid 1980s it was also possible to purchase personal computers, which allowed companies to do the design work for themselves in-house.

“Initially, Bill resisted using the software to do the engineering,” said Vaccaro. “He was very concerned the software that was out there would allow designers to make mistakes.” However, the software’s advantages were quickly embraced by the industry, and McAlpine’s reluctance started to cost Alpine customers.

It took almost three years, but McAlpine succeeded in developing a software system that addressed his concerns. “The approach he took made sure that everything was double-checked,” said Vaccaro. “It ensured there wasn’t a mistake. That was just one of many instances where Bill’s need to do things right had a profound impact on the industry.” As a result, Alpine’s software became an industry standard that others quickly tried to emulate.

From 1966, until the time Harnden died in 1998, the two of them ran their business as a team. “They never argued,” both Hoover and Vaccaro agreed. “They both ran their respective sides of the business and collaborated so well together, “ said Vaccaro.

Respectful & Respected

Hall of Fame induction“Bill was an absolute gentleman and an absolute professional. Everything about him was quality,” said Hoover. “I looked up to him and respected him, and I think most people felt the same way.”

“Bill respected everyone at the company,” echoed Vaccaro. “He treated everyone like family.” His involvement with TPI and WTCA was apparently no different. “When Bill showed up for those meetings, his peers recognized his intelligence and respected him and his opinion,” added Vaccaro.

In recognition of his significant leadership and engineering prowess in the development of the truss industry, as well as the respect his peers had for his dedication for doing things the right way, McAlpine was inducted into the SBCA Hall of Fame in 1995 by Past President John Herring (see photo above).

He ensured the structural components industry was built on a strong foundation.

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