Lowell Catlett, a Ph.D., from New Mexico State University, reminded Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association members that North America still has a standard of living that is the envy of the world.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Getting the sheet metal industry out of its years-long funk will take new ways of thinking and working, according to the speakers SMACNA booked for its Sept. 25-28 annual convention.

Many of the experts hired by the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association spoke about survival-themed subjects: financial health, boosting profits, leadership and transition planning. Several told attendees things won’t be the same as they were during the boom times of the early and mid-2000s, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good again one day.

In case they had forgotten just how good life in the United States and Canada is compared with almost everywhere else in the world - even during a recession - SMACNA hired Lowell Catlett, a Ph.D., from New Mexico State University for its Sept. 25 keynote speech.

A popular conference speaker, Catlett has appeared at several Air Conditioning Contractors of America annual meetings.

He told attendees that by any measure, the North American standard of living is still the envy of the world. Americans and Canadians still have more cars and disposable income, and own their homes at higher rates than residents of most other countries.

Despite that potentially uplifting statistic, many people still find themselves depressed and their businesses struggling. That’s where a talk with Richard Flint may help. Flint has appeared at several SMACNA conventions. Longtime attendees may remember the motivational speaker for the loud-print Hawaiian shirts he wears no matter the weather or convention’s location.

Motivational speaker Richard Flint told SMACNA attendees the current economy is more challenging, emotionally and professionally, than any other time in most peoples’ memory. Image courtesy of Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association.

The ‘bounce'

This year, Flint spoke about “Bouncing Back,” something no doubt many in the audience at his Sept. 26 session were looking to do.

Flint did not try to gloss over the current economy or the struggles many SMACNA members face.

“We have to be stronger today than we have ever been in our lives,” he said. But he did reassure them.

“You’re not alone, folks,” he added. “There is not one industry today that is not being challenged.”

He said stress and fear are among the top reasons people - and companies - are not able to grow.

“When I research companies today, I find there is so much stress inside them,” Flint said. “Stubborn people are resistant to change because of fear.”

But to succeed, personally or professionally, you have to change.

“When you and I stop taking risks, we start dying,” he said. “The worst thing you can do with your life is waste it.”

It’s unclear how many of Lady Gaga’s fans - “little monsters” as the theatrical pop star calls them - are SMACNA members, but Marty Stanley said the association could learn a lot from Gaga.

“I think Lady Gaga is a great example of the ‘new normal,’” Stanley told attendees of her Sept. 27 session, “What’s Age Got to Do With It?”

Stanley counts herself among Gaga’s “monsters,” and said she has seen her in concert multiple times. With her outrageous costumes and message to embrace the unusual, Gaga has changed the idea of what a pop star is, she said.

Gaga has changed “the conversation” and “It’s all about shifting conversations,” Stanley said. “We’re going to have to change our conversations on how we operate.”

As a music artist, she has also changed the way recorded music is distributed, Stanley said.

Sheet metal contractors also have to change, she added.

“We can’t do business as usual,” she said. “Business as usual is not going to work anymore.” 

Former human resources executive Marty Stanley explains what sheet metal contractors may need to change about their businesses to attract younger workers to the industry.

Generational divide

And that applies to hiring or working with different generations. Stanley is a former human resources executive who has decades of experience with workers of all ages. She divides working-age adults into four demographic groups: veterans/traditionalists; baby boomers; generation X; and generation Y, aka millennials. Each has had distinct life experiences that have shaped who they are and how they approach employment.

The oldest group, the traditionalists, were born between 1922 and 1945. Many of them served in World War II or the Korean War. The 52 million people in this group make up 10 percent of the current work force. Raised to respect authority and value conformity, they see work as an obligation and prefer formal communication.

The next group, baby boomers, were born between 1946 and 1964. This 76 million-strong group represents 45 percent of U.S. employees. Shaped by the John F. Kennedy assassination and Vietnam, many in this age group believed they could change the world.

Then came Generation X. They youngest members were born in 1980, Stanley said. Events that shaped their lives included the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986, the removal of the Berlin Wall and operation Desert Storm in 1991. Members of this diverse age bracket like to ask why and are skeptical of authority.

Finally, Generation Y was born between 1981 and 2000. They make up 15 percent of working adults. The O.J. Simpson murder trial, the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton sex scandal and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are their cultural touchstones. These young people have been raised to believe they are “special” and have always known a world where people are continuously connected through the Internet.

Although every demographic has its unique characteristics, the millennials now entering the sheet metal industry may have very different characteristics from what many employers are used to, Stanley said.

“The millennials who are going to be coming into your workplace have been pretty dependant,” she said. They may even want their parents to check out potential employers for them.

Stanley asked the audience how many people work 40-, 50- or 60- hours a week. Many raised their hands.

“Your millennials aren’t going to want to do that,” she said. “Young people... are looking at their lives. They want balance.”

According to Stanley, company policies have to meet the needs of all four generations.

“Your apprenticeship programs may not work for hiring and retaining people,” she said. “Don’t ever think it’s all about the money. Generation Xers and millennials want to feel like they are part of something.”

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or email devriesj@bnpmedia.com. 

Matthew Cramer

Association gives executive, contractor awards

A contractor from Michigan and a staff member from Missouri were named SMACNA’s contractor and Chapter Executive of the Year, respectively.

Matthew Cramer, president of Holly, Mich.-based Dee Cramer Inc., was named the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association’s Contractor of the Year at its Sept. 26-28, 2011, annual convention.

The award is presented each year in memory of Snips founder Ed Carter and his son Nick Carter, the magazine’s longtime editor and publisher.

“Matthew has been an outstanding leader in assisting SMACNA’s introduction of the concept of building information modeling to the SMACNA membership,” said Jim Boone, the association’s 2010-2011 president. “Matt has unselfishly shared his company’s experiences and expertise in BIM to assist the membership in increasing its competitive advantage in the construction industry. He personally took time away from his business and conducted a SMACNA webinar and convention session, plus he developed a chapter education program on BIM - all of which have been met with exceptional reviews by the membership.”

Stacey Smyly

The Chapter Executive of the Year Award was given to Stacey Smyly, executive director of the association’s Kansas City, Mo., chapter.

“We are pleased to recognize Stacey Smyly today for her work in helping establish, nurture, and grow an active and successful Young Executives Committee in the Kansas City, Mo., chapter of SMACNA,” Boone said. “She has encouraged contractors ages 27 to 42 to network, exchange ideas and enhance their professional development and leadership skills while becoming involved in SMACNA, both locally and nationally.”

Smyly has been SMACNA-Kansas City’s executive director since 2009.

Richard Rivera of Key Air Conditioning Contractors Inc. is serving as SMACNA’s 2011-2012 president.

Southern Calif. contractor is new president

Richard Rivera has changed cars, homes and construction projects in his 36-year sheet metal career.

The things that haven’t changed, however, are his employer’s name, office phone number and address. He’s experienced three different area codes - 213, 310 and 562 - but the business, Key Air Conditioning, the number, and the Laurel Avenue address in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., have remained.

It’s the kind of stability that is rare in sheet metal and HVAC work today. But the president of Key Air will be making one major change in the next year: he will take on the duties of SMACNA president. Rivera will be spending the next year visiting association members and trying to help them survive and thrive in what has been an unstable industry in recent years.

“This is a very trying time for contractors,” Rivera said. “There is no question about it: The amount of work for contractors has subsided.”

That includes Key Air, which at its peak had $35 million in annual revenue and 120 sheet metal workers. Major projects that bear its mark include the Tom Bradley International Terminal renovation located at the Los Angeles International Airport and NBC’s Burbank, Calif., studios.

Today, revenue is around $20 million, and Rivera said he employs about 40 sheet metal workers.

Still, Rivera said his company is doing OK, thanks to the ability to stay away from the “reckless bidding” and unprofitable projects.

“There is actually quite a bit of work in Southern California,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is also quite a bit of competition.”

Key Air’s offices are located just outside Los Angeles.

Even with the current recession, the company is still substantially larger than when Rivera acquired it in 1993. When the current Key Air was incorporated, annual revenue was about $5 million and the company only had nine sheet metal workers on staff.

Rivera’s history with the company goes much farther back than just the early 1990s, however. He interviewed at what was then called Key Air Conditioning Co. Inc., a mechanical contractor dating to 1944, after earning an associate degree in HVAC and refrigeration from an Orange County area community college, working his way through school delivering flowers.

Rivera was 19 years old.

He was hired June 16, 1975, and like now, the country was in a tough recession. He earned $600 a month.

He started in what he called a “grunt” position, eventually working in estimating, engineering, purchasing, project management, and in time became a vice president.

Rivera said he especially enjoyed sales.

“I think the one thing that is my strongest asset is sales, to secure work,” he said.

But after eight years as vice president, Key Air’s current owners decided to sell the company. And Jan. 21, 1993, the assets of Key Air Conditioning Co. were added to Key Air Conditioning Contractors, with Rivera as owner.

It was around this time that Rivera became more active in SMACNA, working as president of the Los Angeles chapter and eventually serving as a national director and joining the group’s executive committee.

The next year will see him traveling more than ever visiting chapters throughout North America, but Rivera, who has lived in the Orange County area since his parents emigrated from the Philippines in the late 1940s, said he is looking forward to it.

“Being born and raised in Southern California, you don’t get to see too much of the country,” he said. “It’s exciting to see other parts of the country and how our sheet metal industry is very similar coast to coast.”

Rivera said he is hoping to boost the profile of SMACNA contractors. His goals for the coming year are: More members and more engaged members.

“Hopefully, SMACNA’s recent introduction on Facebook and other social media will boost our level of engagement, particularly among younger members so they appreciate the services a large association such as SMACNA can provide,” he said.