Skill And Respect: A Powerful Combination

March 4, 2003
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Jeff Neville (left), design engineer Steve Setzko (center), and chief operating officer Dana Finnegan look over the piping cunningly installed in the rather cramped basement of the historic Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Conn. (Photo by Hunter Neal.)
VERNON, Conn. — New England Mechanical Services Inc. (NEMSI) is not just another HVACR contractor. Its employees are not just your average workers. Chuck Reagan is not just another company president. Put it all together and you’ve got The News’ 2002 “Best Contractor To Work For” in the New England region.

If anyone calls NEMSI an HVACR contractor, Reagan will correct him or her, quickly and firmly. The company is “a facility technology services company that specializes in designing, building, and maintaining HVAC, electrical, and automation systems to support the critical infrastructure of commercial facilities,” he says.

NEMSI has five offices throughout New England. Each office provides the gamut of the company’s electrical and mechanical offerings. The company’s main strength is in the autonomy of its staff — people are allowed to make their own decisions. This means that the right staff must be hired in the first place. It also creates a positive workplace environment, where employees are treated with respect and empowered to make key decisions.

Piping superintendent Steve Small and company president Chuck Reagan discuss the NEMSI philosophy of employee empowerment. (Photo by Hunter Neal.)

Building From Within

“We strive to hire the right employees for the right position, and then let them do their jobs,” explained director of Marketing Nancy Hendryx. “We figure that if the position is a match to the employee’s skills and experience, they should be able to work well independently, freeing up supervisors and managers for bigger picture work.

“On the other hand, if an employee does not turn out to be a good fit, we try to make that determination early on and wish them well.”

The NEMSI management team puts action behind these words. The nonunion company deploys what it calls a “grow our own” apprentice strategy.

“We have the largest number of apprentices of any company in Connecticut,” said Hendryx. “We put a lot of effort into our trade school relationships, especially trade high schools. We work hand in hand with them to recruit talented junior high school students into their programs.”

The company also sponsors a competition for third- and fourth-year vocational technical high school students, who compete for $2,000 worth of gift certificates to pay for tools for their chosen trade. The company also has an employee referral bonus program that rewards current employees for recruiting new ones.

Paul Gray, VP of construction, shows the silk screens originally used for air filtration at the Hill-Stead Museum — a design obviously ahead of its time. The building was originally completed in 1901. NEMSI recently won an award from the Associated Builders and Contractors for the design and installation of the museum's HVAC and fire controls and mechanical systems. (Photo by Hunter Neal.)
In addition, “We do many public relations activities to maintain and increase NEMSI’s visibility as a top employer,” Hendryx said. “We celebrate employee achievements by making sure we send word of awards and promotions to the employee’s local press. We underwrite programming on National Public Radio stations.” Among other things, this gets the attention of potential employees who can think independently.

Like many other employees of “Best Contractor” contest winners, service technician Tom LaPoint came from a company with a different set of standards. “Where I was, wasn’t working out for me,” LaPoint said. “They treat you differently here. They let you make your own decisions.”

The diversity of the company’s offerings, from HVACR service to automation and electrical systems, keeps its technical staff from getting pigeonholed and bored. “Every day it’s something different,” said technician Jason Hinners.

“This company shines,” he said. “The resources here are phenomenal. We can get equipment when we need it.” This includes heavy equipment, such as lifts, that other contractors often have to rent, which can result in delays.

Every Friday morning, the service staff meets to go over the week’s experiences and hopefully share useful, new information with the rest of the staff. According to Hinners, “Friday meetings bring out the tidbits of what happened during the week.”

Company vehicles are washed weekly and well maintained; uniforms are provided too. “We want our employees to take pride in our company, and one way we do that is by providing them with everything they need to do their jobs well, from tools and training to transportation and uniforms,” said Hendryx.

Service technicians Rob Girard (standing) and Pier Man prepare to set off for the day's rounds. Trucks are cleaned weekly.

Parties And Philanthropy

NEMSI also offers a fun atmosphere, from the planned Christmas party to spontaneous ice cream socials, which help break the tension of summertime service.

In addition, on-call duties are rotated. “We confer with our technicians about overtime allocations, and maintain regular meeting and training schedules to give the technicians a chance to resolve issues before they escalate into burnout,” said Hendryx.

“We also reward groups of workers who step up to the plate during our busiest times by holding special events for them, such as fishing trips.”

In addition to the weekly service meetings, Reagan and chief operating officer Dana Finnegan hold regular monthly breakfast meetings, to which they invite groups of employees on a rotating basis to discuss their concerns. Still another group of employees meets to nominate employees of the month and year.

That’s not all. “Something we believe is unique to our company is an employee initiative that the company as a whole has embraced,” noted Hendryx, referring to a group of NEMSI employees who formed the company’s “Hearts and Hopes” charitable group in the fall of 2001. Its goal is “to undertake fundraising for charitable activities that, in large part, benefit our co-workers,” said Hendryx.

In 2001, Hearts and Hopes ran bake sales, cook-offs, raffles, and logo-item sales, collecting approximately $2,000 for an employee who lost his home in a fire. “This year [2002], we found two stairway chair lifts and paid for most of the cost of a wheelchair ramp [$4,033] at the home of another employee whose wife has advanced multiple sclerosis,” Hendryx said. Hearts and Hopes also does work within the community.

Service supervisor Jeff Neville conducts NEMSI's Friday-morning service meeting.

Appreciation

Joe Crossman has been with NEMSI 33 years; he was hired by the previous owner. “When I came here, there was only three of us,” he recalled. Now there are approximately 400 employees. “I met the previous owner up on a roof. He offered me a job.”

Crossman is still doing rooftop work, going out as one of the company’s top troubleshooters. “I still enjoy going out there. If you’re going to do this business, that’s what you have to do.”

He has had some offers through headhunters. “I never thought of moving or going into my own business,” he said. “The company appreciates the techs and what we do.”

Piping superintendent Steve Small commented, “Chuck made this place what it is.” The NEMSI philosophy, he said, is to empower your employees and they will produce. “Other places put a whip in your hand.”

Employee loyalty is reflected by their hard work during tough economic times. “We’ve had a decrease in sales only two times,” Reagan said. Last year was one of those times, but NEMSI maintained its profitability. Reagan calls this the true measure of productivity.

Human Resources Director Heather Kish has been with the company three and a half years. From the start, she said she was impressed with the company’s openness. “Abilities are respected, people are respected,” she said.

The attitude comes from the top. When new people are hired, Reagan works to be able to match their names with their faces. “This is a company where you’re a name, not a number,” Kish said.

When an employee’s child died, Reagan paid for the funeral, Kish recalls, so the employee wouldn’t be burdened during her grief. The attitude trickles down to the rest of the NEMSI employees, who “step up to help their own,” Kish said.

Employees are also allowed to disagree, no matter how high up the person is with whom they disagree. “They get to say, ‘No, that’s not the way to do it.’

“We hire professional adults,” said Kish, “and we expect them to act that way.”

Sidebar: Just The Facts

Name: New England Mechanical Services Inc.

President: Charles Reagan

Location: Vernon, Conn.

Years in business: 36

Bulk of market: Commercial-industrial full-service service, installation, automation, electrical, and building operations

Total revenue for 2002: $52 million

Total employees: 455

Total service technicians and installers: 325

Average hours employees spend in training: 30 per year

Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Reimbursement for employment-related training, paid time-off hours, short- and long-term disability insurance, tool allowance, uniforms, pretax flexible spending accounts, matching 401(k), and annual summer and winter events are offered.

The News selected this contractor because: NEMSI has fine-tuned its ability to attract and retain employees, and recognizes and respects their worth. Management takes extra steps to stay in touch with employees’ needs, giving the company a family atmosphere.

Publication date: 03/10/2003

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