Members of MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions’ senior management team pose at the wall honoring the company’s owners and employees. Pictured are (from left) Mark Webster, Tyler Kopet, Doug Turley, Jack Cheetham, Dave Gough, Steve Lovely, Fred Sigmund, Steve Nicholes, Steve Johnson, Gary Kuhlman, and Gus Simonds.(Photos by Chris Jacobson.)
SEATTLE - There are many things that are associated with the word "wall." The Great Wall of China, the former Berlin Wall, "The Wall" album by Pink Floyd, and the MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions wall.

What? You haven't heard of the last item? It's the cornerstone of the relationship between employees and owners of the large Seattle-based commercial contractor, and it symbolizes one of the reasons the company was chosen the winner of The News' 2004 "Best Contractor To Work For" contest for the Northwest region.

The remarkable story surrounding the wall began long before employees chipped in to purchase bricks engraved with all of the employees' names and constructed the fixture near the entrance of the company's operations building.

Owners Fred Sigmund and Steve Lovely had purchased the company back from national consolidator Encompass in 2002, shortly before Encompass declared bankruptcy, averting a scenario that may have resulted in the loss of almost 500 jobs.

The employees showed their gratitude by turning a plain parking lot retaining wall into an honorarium to Sigmund and Lovely - an effort coordinated by Sandie Walsh, manager of service coordination. The wall also includes a copper dedication plaque and memorial bricks bearing the names of deceased employees. The employees kept it under wraps and arranged for an afternoon ceremony with Sigmund and Lovely and their families.

"It was a total shock - I didn't know what the employees were doing," said Sigmund.

"It was a covert operation," joked Dave Gough, vice president of service operations, as he spoke of the weekend construction.

The wall honors the owners' decision to buy back the company, which relieved a lot of anxious employees. Jim Elmore was one of them. The technical account representative said that Sigmund and Lovely could have walked away from the company. They had everything they needed. But they wanted to make sure 500 people still had a job.

"We left work on one Friday and didn't know if we'd have a job the following Monday," Elmore said. "Fred and Steve were in negotiations all weekend."

He added that when startup consolidator GroupMAC bought up the former MacDonald-Miller in 1998, he was comfortable with the decision.

However, when GroupMAC merged with Building One Services in 2000, forming Encompass, Elmore began to feel uncomfortable. "Encompass was too bottom-line oriented," Elmore said. "They got too big too fast. That didn't fit here."

Sigmund realized this soon after the original acquisition, noting that the intentions to make GroupMAC a nationwide service company never panned out. But he said his decision to sell to GroupMAC was made in part because he felt it was difficult for a local contractor to get into the boardroom of a national business in order to establish a relationship; therefore, it was important to have the "muscle" of a national consolidator.

"Our decision to join GroupMAC was because of the service division," he said. "We wanted to gain a national footprint.

"They kept buying too many companies, some that were very heavy into new construction. The last year with Encompass was stressful, especially for our new construction business."

Service techs Todd Zeller (left) and Scott Gideon check out parts in the well-stocked service van.

Demonstrating Commitment

Sigmund said that the window of opportunity was very brief to buy back the company from Encompass - and few people had the resources.

He said there were three scenarios: close up shop, sell the company to someone else, or buy it back. The deal to buy back the company from Encompass was done in 40 days. "Others probably could have bought it but not in this short period of time," Sigmund said. "Steve and I had the resources to make the deal."

The deal showed how much the two men cared for their employees. "Management has always looked after the employees," stated Elmore. "They have helped people through the rough times and stuck with them. On the other hand, people have the responsibility of looking after the company."

MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions shows its strong commitment to its employees by securing a lot of business for the 500-person company.

"We lost all of our construction backlog when Encompass lost its bonding," said Gough. "We have had to build that back up again and should have a backlog of $60 million in 2005."

The company may have lost some of its business, but the employees kept the faith.

"We never lost the core of the people - the essence of the company - and we stayed together," said Sigmund. "There was an excitement when we were back together again.

"We lost very few employees during the troubling time with Encompass because they believed everything would be OK."

A small, yet shining example of the company's caring attitude can be seen sitting on a desk chair in Lovely's office. TJ the cat has become a permanent fixture in the building. "I don't know why the cat came to my office, but it spends half of the time here," joked Lovely.

Dave Gough (left) and Steve Lovely pose with the “Mighty Mac” promotional materials, which depict company techs and installers as superheroes.

Keeping Everyone Happy

Now that the company is on the road to success again, it is the goal of management to keep employees happy and thinking about the future.

Sigmund said his company is driven by the old cliché, "People are your most valuable asset." He added that he always has a plan for the company. He noted that there are two planning sessions a year, stating, "We involve a lot of people in the planning process."

Just as Sigmund likes to share the planning, Gus Simonds likes to share the company's vision with people in the sales meetings. Simonds is executive vice president of business development.

Simonds started a program called "Gus Bucks," which rewards techs who have "fertilized the ground for bringing the salespeople in to talk with the customer."

Simonds noted that 70 service techs interface with customers each day, and the staff of 20 salespeople can't always be there to meet face-to-face with customers.

Simonds said he also likes to talk about the "buns in the oven," noting that he makes it a point to share information about potential service and maintenance business and recently closed sales so technicians know how the company is doing.

Gough said, "The techs can see the future and know that we have a lot more business for them."

Seventy-year-old Art Dobson, educational coordinator, said he appreciates the company's commitment to training because things have changed "a bit" since he began in the business. He started in 1947 "with a lot of belt-driven equipment," he said. "Now we have guys who only do controls, and they need up-to-date training. They need to know if a problem is in the controls or in the equipment."

Dobson said the company's backbone is the relationship it has with building owners and managers. He said it is important to communicate all of the problems and causes of equipment failure. "We sell customer satisfaction, not just service," he said.

Elmore said MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions offers opportunities for employees to be whatever they want to be - thanks to the training. "The company always has a need for highly qualified people," he said. "If you get in the door with a company like ours, you are exposed to literally everything. If you keep your skills and your reputation intact, you can go anywhere."

He said several employees have left to work for other companies, , only to return again. "There is no other company in this region that is as ‘family' as this is," Elmore said.

The size of the company's staff can be daunting, but the family atmosphere helps everyone feel more comfortable. "Most techs I have interviewed had little contact with their previous company's management," said Simonds. "Some would be intimidated by the size of our company. I always make it a point to stop new hires and ask them how they are doing."

Dobson said that other employees benefit from the wealth of knowledge in the workplace. He said that there are a lot of people who have been around for a long time in the business - and they share their knowledge with the other employees.

Although a senior member of the staff, Dobson hopes to stay around - for a while. "I'm here because of the good attitude," he said. "I can work with everyone in the company. They make me feel that what I do is worthwhile. I'll keep working until I stop enjoying what I am doing."

Sigmund looks to keep his company growing into the future. He wants to get into the boardrooms of larger local-based companies that want quality control on a national scale. He feels that "in the end we may need to join with some other service companies to have a national presence."

"I want our customers to feel that we are a one-man shop from a touch point of view and that they can benefit from all of the advantages we have as a large shop. We should strive to be high tech - high touch."

The plan is for seven members of the senior management team to eventually buy out the shares of Sigmund and Lovely and turn the company into an employee-owned business within 5 or 10 years.

Sigmund said that when he retires, he will miss the place. "I feel it will be in good hands," he said. "I feel comfortable with this."

But for now, he and Lovely will continue to lead by example - and bring their employees along for the ride. "If I was starting a new business I wouldn't have a problem starting it with any of these people," Sigmund said.

Sidebar: Just The Facts

Winning contractor:MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions Inc.

Owner: Fredric J. Sigmund and Steven C. Lovely

Locations: Seattle, Redmond, and Tacoma, Wash., and Portland, Ore.

Years in business: 3

Bulk of market: Primarily commercial and industrial

Total sales for 2004: $70 million

Total employees: 508

Total service technicians and installers: 70

Average hours employees spend in training: The company provides up to 228 hours per year. Apprentices have an additional 200 hours of mandatory training.

Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Flexible Spending Account (FSA) and 401(k)

Industry associations and contractor group members: American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), National Environmental Balancing Bureau (NEBB), Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association (SMACNA), Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA), Contractors Business Development Association (CBDA) and National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA).

The News selected this contractor because: The owners showed a huge commitment to the employees when they bought the company back from the former owners, securing a future for employees and their families.

Publication date: 02/07/2005