Like father, like son

We all want our kids to have something better than our own lot in life, and the late George H. Laufenberg, a union carpenter who headed the New Jersey State Council of Carpenters from 1982 until his death in 1995, was no exception.
Likefatherlikeson
Christopher Barth

We all want our kids to have something better than our own lot in life, and the late George H. Laufenberg, a union carpenter who headed the New Jersey State Council of Carpenters from 1982 until his death in 1995, was no exception. He hoped his son would be a professional man, not a carpenter like himself.

“He didn’t know if this industry was going to be as successful in the future,” explains that son, Allenwood resident George R. Laufenberg, 59, who himself worked in construction every summer starting when he was 16. “He and my mother did their best.” Laufenberg smiles. “But in spite of that, I decided to stay in construction.”

He did earn a college degree—at Susquehanna University, with a major in economics. But the Morristown-born, Paterson-raised Laufenberg also pursued an apprenticeship during time off from school. “I remember waking up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning to drive to job sites,” he says. “Carpentry is what I really enjoyed doing.”

He became a union carpenter in 1972, and followed his dad into labor leadership, first with a three-year stint as a union organizer in Pennsylvania, settling grievances and setting up employee benefit programs. For 25 years he’s been administrative manager of the New Jersey Carpenters Funds in Edison—he now oversees health, pension, annuity and vacation benefits for the state’s 17,000 union carpenters and their families, as well as 5,000 retirees. During his tenure the Carpenters Funds’ assets have increased more than thirtyfold, from $80 million to $2.5 billion.

But even though he was following his dad’s path, Laufenberg had his own lessons to absorb along the way— and ironically they led to professional-level achievement. “I learned that if you’re not involved in the discussion, what you want to happen can get lost,” he says.

A bitter example came in the early ’80s. A new system of payments to hospitals called DRGs (diagnosis- related groups) failed to give the Carpenters Funds what he thought it deserved— preferential rates comparable to those it gave other groups that bought similarly generous health insurance plans.

“Organized labor was not at the table, and as a result we paid more than our fair share,” he recalls.

So Laufenberg got busy. Taking on his current job in 1984, he took financial management courses at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, earned certification as an employee benefits specialist from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans and boned up on the hot topic of health policy. Then, in the early 1990s, he helped rectify the problem as a member of Gov. Jim Florio’s Hospital Rate-Setting Commission.

Today, Laufenberg enjoys time with his wife, Pamela, and their four grown children, and relaxes with golf and spy novels. But the professional challenges go on. “With 30 percent unemployment in our industry right now, we’d like to get everybody back to work and have our people retire with the good benefits they deserve,” he says. And his leadership isn’t limited to labor. He also chairs the New Jersey Alliance for Action, a nonprofit pro-growth consortium of business, labor, government and academic leaders, and serves as a trustee of Monmouth Medical Center, which will honor him at this year’s Crystal Ball. Somewhere, perhaps, the spirit of George H. is winking with pride.

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