Meet Jay Elbettar, President of the 2017–18 ICC Board of Directors
Jay Elbettar is the president of the International Code Council (ICC) Board of Directors. After watching others in years past sworn in as president, Elbettar had his day during the ICC Annual Conference in Columbus, Ohio. We had a chance to talk to Elbettar – an engineer licensed in seven states (Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, California, Texas, Colorado and Nevada) – at his beautiful Mission Viejo, Calif., office about what traits have served him well in his career and service to ICC, his love of basketball, and some other things about him that may surprise you.
Q: What does becoming the board president mean to you?
It’s a great honor. I was inspired by the past presidents, and then I got involved with the codes and attended the functions. I used to watch folks whom I perceived as the icons of the industry – they were up there on the podium. I wanted to one day be like them and contribute as much as they contributed.
I’m hoping to basically carry the same message our founders did. I just pulled up the 1937 [Uniform Building] code [from ICC legacy organization International Conference of Building Officials]. It says it’s “dedicated to the development of better building construction and greater safety of the public, through the elimination of needless red tape, favoritism, and local politics by uniformity in building laws; to the granting of full justice to all building materials on the fair basis of the true merits of each material; and to the development of a sound economic basis for the future growth of cities through unbiased and equitable dealing with structural design and fire hazards.” This is in 1937. I’m honored to be part of this, and I hope I can continue this legacy and inspire others.
Q: What specific strengths do you feel you bring to your role as board president?
My passion for the membership. I care about the members. I care about folks in general. I want to help people do their best. I’m a good listener, and I feel I have a lot of empathy for folks. Whether it’s the public at the counter, whether its fellow co-workers in need or fellow code officials, I try to help and assist whenever I can. And I’ll continue that trend, whether it’s with the board, with staff or with the members in general.
Q: What are some of your top priorities as president of the board?
The first priority as one of a team of board members is to make sure the team works together cohesively and is able to help serve our members because I believe in the servant-leader role.
The second is to focus the association on the members and the value members can bring to the association. I believe our members could be our strongest advocates. After all, it’s their association. They should feel free to criticize, praise, offer feedback or offer suggestions. But also, they should understand they must contribute, get involved, participate and use the services. There’s no way you can critique and provide feedback without being an active user of the services.
I want to highlight the value of the code official. I believe if code officials are appreciated by their superiors and their jurisdictions, they will be more credible when they request funding for resources for training, education or certification, etc.
[Our ICC Government Relations] staff does a great job. But the code officials are on the front lines. They are the ones who can do a lot of advocacy for us.
Q: What excites you right now about being a code official?
What excites me is seeing people grow and helping them grow. We are facing a huge challenge in our industry. We need to bring people, the younger generation, to our industry and have them get excited about joining our industry.
I also find it rewarding as a code official to help people seeking permits achieve their goals. I try to work with the public and help them understand we are doing this for their safety, especially the homeowners. That really keeps me going and motivated to do it every day. Being empathetic, and understanding and explaining. Not many homeowners get involved with this more than once or twice in their lifetime, so they are not expected to know.
Q: What do you like to do for fun?
I love to play sports, basketball and volleyball. I collect stamps—an old-fashioned hobby. But most of my time is spent with my family, watching them grow and be the best they can be. I love my family. I have a young daughter now, 18 months. I love to spend time with her. It’s hard to leave the house, and it’s great to come home. I love watching my younger son. He’s an athlete, a big guy: 15 years old, and he’s 6′ 7″. He’s a shot putter and discus champion, and he’s playing football.
Q: Tell me more about your family.
Our daughter, Tessa, is graduating in December with a degree in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where she had a scholarship. She’s an artist – visual arts, paint, photography and sculpture. She wants to branch out to anthropology now.
Blake is going to Arizona State University in December on a scholarship. He wants to be an engineer. He was at the Annual Conference, and when he saw me on stage, he told me that he wants to be there someday.
Cameron just started college as a math major; Aidan is a sophomore in high school. Cameron is 6’ 5”, and I’m 5’ 11 ½” on a good day. But my wife is 6 foot, and her brothers are 6 feet or taller. Aidan is 6’ 7″, very gifted athletically, and he’s very good in math.
And our youngest addition, 18-month-old Nora.
My wife, Tess, is the most important person in my life. She is very special to me and to the whole family.
Q: Read any good books lately?
One of the most important books I’ve read is “The Fred Factor,” about a postman named Fred and customer service. I also read a book several years ago that really resonated with me, though I can’t remember the name of it, and I try to practice its lessons every day. The book advocates that bosses and leaders should be interested in their employees’ personal lives as much as possible, showing the employees how much they care, giving them responsibility. You show them it’s not about pay and money; it’s about making them feel relevant and understanding their contribution and the value of the work they do.
Q: How has your family supported you in your career and board activities with ICC?
Families put up with a lot as you get more involved as a board member and then the executive board. Tess reminded me that one month I was home only one week. People ask how many hours a week it takes. You can tell them it’s really more than a full-time job if you want to do it right. But it’s really up to the individual.
The families are really the main recipient of this challenge and pressure. If they don’t support you and understand, it’s very difficult. So, I’m blessed with my family, my employer and the city that I work for.
Q: It’s such a short term, just one year, but when you think about what’s involved in getting to that position, it takes up even more of your time.
It’s true. And the way it’s structured, when you are president and you preside over the ABM is when you are on your way out. So, it’s incumbent on you during your presidency or even prior to reach out to folks, to chapters all over the country and overseas and try to make yourself available to listen to their concerns, to their issues, the challenges they face, and try to work on those during your presidency.
Q: You mentioned reaching out overseas. Being born in Michigan and having spent your childhood in Iraq, do you see any potential opportunities in the next year that will have an impact on codes in Iraq or the Middle East that you would be uniquely situated to influence?
Staff is doing a wonderful job in their outreach and their efforts globally, and I view myself as a resource to staff, helping them understand the culture and the values. To do business and help those countries, we first have to understand what matters to them the most and how they do things.
I know Arabic fluently, and I understand the culture and values. There is huge potential in global markets. But I don’t want to be in the forefront. I want to leave that up to staff and be a resource for them.
Q: Anything you think our readers might be surprised to know about you?
Maybe that I played basketball. Or that I failed my plan examiner test the first time I took it. That was my first certification. I also worked on the Space Shuttle program and for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share with us?
I like to fix things. It’s a challenge to me. I think this is something that drives people crazy. If it’s broken, I have to fix it, whether it’s my daughter’s toy phone, or a car or an appliance. I have a good sense of humor—my wife accuses me of that. I’m a good observer.
I remember phone numbers, the price of meals and what you ordered last year when we had dinner together for some reason. I think my fellow board members need to know that because sometimes when I recall a number they doubt it. But yeah, I remember numbers very well.