With daytime highs around 70°F and nighttime lows a crisp 40°F, late September weather in sunny Colorado Springs, Colorado, is some of the best the city sees all year.

And SMACNA members will have a chance to experience it Sept. 27-30 as the association brings its 72nd annual convention to the historic Broadmoor Hotel.


Association president sees industry improvement

With all his appearances in the last year, SMACNA members had a lot of opportunities to learn how to pronounce outgoing association President Tom Szymczak’s last name — “Sim-check.”

The 60-year-old president of SSM Industries Inc. in Pittsburgh was a roving sheet metal ambassador on behalf of the association, visiting members and shops across the country.

In contrast to recent years, it was largely a good-news tour, Szymczak said.

“The majority of areas across the nation are seeing an uptick in their work,” he said. “It was good to travel to areas where people are a little upbeat, a little bit encouraged about the market and the industry.”

Sheet metal workers are especially busy on the West Coast, with construction in San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles booming, he said. Oregon is also picking up, as have much of the East Coast and Southern U.S. cities such as Atlanta. Even the Midwest, which has lagged the recovery in other parts of the country, is showing improvement. Work in Chicago is approaching 2008 levels, which Szymczak said was “unheard of” for the city in recent years.

“It just seems that things are moving in the right direction,” he said. “It seems like the economy is finally starting to move.”

That doesn’t mean that a lot of SMACNA members don’t have issues, Szymczak added.

Like in many industries, underfunded pensions are always a concern. Fortunately, the Sheet Metal Workers union’s pension fund imbalance has been improving as of late, he said.

And as an association made up of companies that employ unionized workers, competition from nonunion firms can be tough, he pointed out.

 “Some of the areas are still struggling with the work rules that exist within collective bargaining agreements,” he added.

But for many SMACNA members, the work outlook is definitely improving — and that includes at SSM, which Szymczak said is a $70 million sheet metal and mechanical HVAC contractor that specializes in nuclear power plant work, along with spiral duct and other industrial projects. It’s primarily involved in projects in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Ohio and parts of New Jersey.

“We’re actually doing fairly well,” he said, adding that after a few soft years, work is approaching 2010 levels.

The hotel, which is closing in on its first century in business, has hosted the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association before — most recently in 2011.

This time, the HVAC construction group is bringing in former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Jim Breuer to open — and 1980s hit makers REO Speedwagon to close — its event. In between the comedy and rock music, SMACNA has scheduled numerous sessions aimed at helping member companies work smarter. A Sept. 29 trade show is also scheduled. Here are some of the conference’s highlights. More information, including registration and the full agenda, is available at www.smacna.org. 

‘Goat Boy’

If the opening convention session Sept. 27 seems a little “goaty,” it’s OK.

Stand-up comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Jim Breuer will start the conference as 5:30 p.m. “Goat Boy” was one of SNL’s most popular characters from 1995-1998 when Breuer was a cast member of the long-running NBC sketch comedy show, but Breuer’s career goes far beyond that half-human, half-animal character.

He got his start in the local New York City show “Uptown Comedy Club” and also appeared on the situation comedies “Home Improvement” and “Buddies.”

On SNL, he often impersonated movie actor Joe Pesci. In 1998, he hosted the “The Jim Breuer Show” on MTV, which featured stand-up and sketch comedy. On cable’s Comedy Central, he has hosted “Premium Blends” and starred in his own high-rated TV stand-up specials in 2002 and 2009. Breuer has also hosted VH1’s “Web Junk 20” and appeared in a documentary on the heavy metal rock band Metallica.

SMACNA members may have also seen him in Pizza Hut commercials and heard him on the “Opie and Anthony Show” on satellite radio. He currently hosts “Fridays with Breuer” on Sirius satellite radio.

Three days later, SMACNA members will have a chance to return to the era of big hair and power rock ballads with soaring guitar solos at this year’s closing ceremonies. 

REO Speedwagon

The 1980s rock band REO Speedwagon will entertain after dinner. Expect to hear such class rock songs as “Take it on the Run,” “Keep on Loving You” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

If you tuned in to Top 40 or album-oriented rock radio stations between 1980 and 1985, you likely often heard the distinctive vocals of the group’s lead singer, Kevin Cronin. The group has sold an estimated 40 million records and placed 13 songs in the Billboard Top 40.

The group can trace its beginnings to 1967, when founder and organ player Neal Doughty met Alan Gratzer, another student at the University of Illinois. They soon formed a band, learning songs such as the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” 

By 1971, the group had a contract with Epic Records and released its first album, “R.E.O. Speedwagon.” The group took its name from the REO Motor Car Co. of Lansing, Michigan, which eventually become Oldsmobile under General Motors. The REO Speed Wagon was a popular delivery truck in the first half of the 20th century.

Even though the band had not managed more than a few minor hits, Epic agreed to record and release a two-record live album in 1977, “Live: You Get What You Pay For.” It was certified platinum.

The band’s next album, “You Can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Fish,” managed to have two small hit singles, “Roll With the Changes” and “Time for Me to Fly,” but it received heavy play on FM rock stations, boosting the band’s popularity. It eventually sold more than 2 million copies.

After a harder-rocking album, “Nine Lives,” REO Speedwagon released “Hi Infidelity,” the album that would launch the group into stardom. Its four hit singles: “Keep On Loving You,” “Take it on the Run,” “In Your Letter” and “Don’t Let Him Go” helped the album stay on the charts for 65 weeks, 15 of which were at No. 1 and more than half a year in the Top 10. It eventually sold 10 million copies.

Follow-up albums such as “Good Trouble” and “Wheels Are Turning” contained such mid-80s hits as “Can’t Fight This Feeling” (a No. 1 song), “Keep the Fire Burning,” “I Do Wanna Know,” “One Lonely Night,” “Live Every Moment” and “Ain’t That Love.” 

Leaning in

At 7:30 a.m. Sept. 28, lean construction expert Dennis Sowards will lead a panel discussion for the HVAC Contractors Forum. Scheduling and planning methods geared to sheet metal works contractors will be discussed by Sowards and Mike Clark of Matherly Mechanical Contractors Inc., John Koga of the Boldt Co. and Phil Corbin from J.F. Ahern Co.

At 10 a.m. the same day, during the Residential Contractors Forum, Dave Probst of Service Business Evolution will explain how he grew his HVAC market company to $30 million in revenue and 39,000 maintenance agreements in eight years.

Sept. 28’s lunch speaker will be one of the most decorated combat veterans in recent history.

Navy SEAL Robert J. O’Neill has taken part in more than 400 combat missions. He is also known for being one of the men who fired the shots that killed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

O’Neill will share the lessons all those missions taught him. He will explain how the leadership skills that kept him alive can help your business thrive.

He has been decorated more than 50 times with honors, including two Silver Star metals, four Bronze Star metals with valor, a Joint Service Commendation Medal with valor, three presidential unit citations, and two Navy/Marine Corps commendations with valor.

At 2 p.m., metals expert Catherine Houska will give a presentation on sustainable metals used in HVAC construction and architectural projects. Also scheduled is John Lombardo, a regional sales manager from Estimating Edge, who will talk about estimation work.

The next day, as part of the spouse breakfast program, Jessica Buchanan will tell how she and a colleague were abducted at gunpoint and held for ransom.

For 93 days in 2011, Buchanan was held outdoors in deplorable conditions, starved and terrorized by more than two dozen pirates. Her liberation came in January 2012, when the U.S. Navy’s elite SEAL team No. 6 rescued her and her colleague — unharmed.

Business sessions

In recent years, SMACNA has brought in a number of business experts to its conference to discuss how members can better run their companies. Among the business development sessions scheduled are:

  • “How to Win the War for People” at 8 a.m. Sept. 28 and 2 p.m. Sept. 29.  DeWayne Ables, CEO and president of Pioneer iQ, will explain how HVAC construction contractors can find the right talent and why you’re not just competing against other sheet metal firms but many other industries.
  • “Three Routes to Increased Profitability” at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sept. 28. The U.S. economy is growing; is your company? Bob Langdon, author of Managing Your Business for Profit, will explore three ways to increase profitability in your sheet metal works and HVAC market business.

Attendees will learn how to calculate break-even points and the importance of market differentiation.

  • “Threats to You and Your Business in the Digital Age,” at 2 p.m. Sept. 29.  Joanna Pineda, CEO of Matrix Group International, will explore why thieves no longer want your “stuff” — they want data: credit card numbers, bank accounts and more.

Pineda will tell what policies you should have at your company and the practice you should follow personally to protect yourself.

  • Change Orders: They Can Break You.” The updated SMACNA guide to change orders will be the focus of this 1:30 p.m. Sept. 30 session. The problems change orders can cause and how to tackle them will be the focus of a presentation by attorney Steve Yoch of law firm Felhaber Larson in Minneapolis.