Richard John (left), Tim Russell and John O'Brien own GHC Mechanical Inc. in Elk Grove Village, Ill.
ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. - Richard John says to be a good design-build contractor, you "almost have to have X-ray eyes."

He didn't say how his eyesight was, but the 59-year-old president of GHC Mechanical Inc. did sort of have a vision when he started the company in 1969.

"I just felt I could do better than the people I was working for," John says. He adds that owning your own business was sort of a tradition in the John family, "So I knew sooner or later, it would come to the same thing for myself."

Thirty-four years later, GHC has carved out a successful niche as a mechanical contractor in the HVAC and piping industries. Sales are around $10 million a year, and John, with partners Tim Russell and John O'Brien, says that despite the national economy's woes, business in this western Chicago suburb has held up well for the firm.

"The market is not doing good, but we're holding our own, and doing better than most are as an individual company," John says.

Ken Newell works in GHC's service department.

Specialists

What's kept GHC going recently, company officials say, is specializing in new condominium developments. Condo construction in the Chicago area has been hot, and it typically accounts for 60 percent of GHC's revenues. Most contracts calls for the company to install the building's HVAC and piping systems.

It's not a typical-type installation of (just) a furnace and sheet metal," John says. "We're generally a design-build organization and have been for the last probably 15 or 20 years."

A usual condo contract for GHC today involves installing a central hydronics system with perimeter radiant heat and an air-handling unit that includes a DX cooling coil and remote condenser.

"All the high-end stuff with the latest technology," O'Brien says.

Not everyone would consider a company with $10 million in annual sales "small," but since John, Russell and O'Brien do most of the layout, engineering and design work for such projects themselves, the three men often describe GHC that way.

"Most of us wear many hats," John says. Russell adds such an arrangement helps "keep the overhead reasonable."

GHC hangs its hat in a 12,000-square-foot brick building in a light-industrial park. About 80 percent of the building is used for the sheet metal shop, where workers make most of their own ductwork and fittings, as well as specialty items such as roof curbs. "We buy flat (duct) only," John says.

Roger Dabrowski lays a piece of sheet metal on the plasma cutter.

Shop equipment

Equipment in the shop includes a twin-table Vulcan plasma cutter, a 10-foot shear and a 12-foot hydraulic brake, both made by Wiese.

GHC employs anywhere from 60 to 80 workers, depending on the season. It's front-office staff consists of five workers, including office manager Lynn Haye and service manager Ken Jones. Twelve service technicians are currently on staff. Sheet metal staffers are members of locals 73 and 265 of the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association. Employees in the piping field are members of locals 597 and 501 of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters.

While many GHC employees are often found working on the job site, that's something John hasn't done in decades. It's been 25 years since John did any real installation work, and he's quick to acknowledge that he sometimes misses it.

"I miss the activity, to get out there and do a little exercise and a little work every so often," he says.

Not that it's easier sitting behind the desk.

"Everybody thinks that the installation side is the hard part of the construction (industry). That's absolutely wrong," John says. "It's more strenuous to be under the gun mentally - timetables, dollar constraints, union constraints."

No regrets

But he says he's never regretted going into management. "I never second-guessed myself on that. I always enjoyed it," John says.

Another thing John says he doesn't regret is bringing on Russell and O'Brien as partners four years ago. "It's been a very positive change. It brought new life, new goals and chemistry into the company," he says.

Tim Russell, 41, a licensed professional engineer, says he "took a lap around the industry" before joining GHC in 1999. After working for several area companies following graduation from the University of Illinois, Russell decided he wanted to become an owner. "I wanted the whole ball of wax," he says.

Around the same time, John, then in his mid-50s, was starting to plan for retirement and was looking for new partners. With his background in mechanical engineering, project management and sales, Russell was the right candidate, John says.

"Tim brought a variety of his clientele in," he says. "All of us are hands on, and that made the big difference."

Russell handles most of the estimating work on the firm's commercial and industrial projects. Performing such design-build work means they see a lot of the same architects and developers. He says more than 75 percent of the company's clients are repeat customers.

"It's a real long-term relationship? which is a positive. There's a lot of trust involved," Russell says.

Tim Russell handles most of the estimating work on GHC's commercial and industrial projects.

Relationships

Russell credits that trust for the company's success, despite the recession. "So far, we're riding out the wave in the economy. I think that's because of the relationships we've developed," he says. "We've got a good reputation, and I think that's helped carry us through uncertain times."

In contrast, 48-year-old John O'Brien's road to GHC was a little more direct. His uncles were involved in the pipe-fitting business, and were among the original owners of GHC Mechanical. O'Brien started working in the industry at 17, right after high school. At 22, he was accepted as a union apprentice. Eventually, he worked as a service technician and installer. By the early 1990s, O'Brien was managing GHC's service department. In 1999, he also became part owner of GHC. Except for a brief stint at another area company, O'Brien has spent his entire career with GHC.

He says being an owner has taught him a lot about the sheet metal and piping industries.

"I knew the industry was large as an employee, but when you are an employer, (you discover) it's larger than you think," O'Brien says. "The biggest surprise is everybody has the same problems we do."

In addition to his work at GHC, O'Brien also serves on the Mechanical Contractors Association's service and maintenance and hiring-hall committees and is currently president of the Chicagoland Better Heating and Cooling Council.

Having Russell and O'Brien on staff will make the transition to retirement in a few years easier, John says. Although he's not looking to leave any time soon, he says he would like to be able to spend more time with his grandchildren, and pursing his two hobbies, bowling and golf.

"I'm pretty good at bowling," he says. "I've had several perfect games."

When he's not working, John says he enjoys watching sports, as the many pictures of the Chicago Bears, Blackhawks and White Sox on the walls of his office show.