An industry veteran looks back at his career and looks ahead to the future.

I thought it may be of interest for readers to know a bit more about myself and the changes I have witnessed in our industry during the last 52 years - and what changes may be yet to come.

In 1953, when I began my sheet metal apprenticeship, sheet metal screws were No. 10 slotted pan-head installed, using a prick punch and flat-blade screw driver, not self-tapping drill screws.

Duct hangers were attached overhead to concrete structures using a manual, hand-held "star" drill, tinner's hammer and lead shields, not impact drills or powder-actuated guns. And there were only slip-and-drive, government-lock, and companion angle-iron duct connectors, no TDC/TDF, no Ward connectors. There were no pre-fabricated air-turning vanes, only shop-made vanes attached directly to the "ell" cheeks with cold rivets.

Wages were so low that in sheet metal bids, the galvanized material costs exceeded labor costs. My first paycheck had $42.68 in take-home pay, and at 17 years of age and starting a family, I was elated to get it. My first jobsite experience was a large ranch-style house with tight attic space, built during a Texas summer. That meant ambient temperatures approaching 130°F by midday.

Strong character

That was my first exposure to a prime characteristic of all good sheet metal workers: They don't leave when things get tough and they figure out a way to work their way out of the problem. That served me well during the next 52 years.

The industry exposed me to almost every type of sheet metal work, and I have the scars on my hands and forearms to show it. In 1969 at age 35, I began studying for an associate degree in data processing with the idea of adding computers to sheet metal shops.

At the same time, I was offered the opportunity to be shop manager for one of the largest HVAC sheet metal operations in the Southwestern U.S., which had a data processing department with an IBM computer at my full disposal. The shop was producing more than 3 million pounds of ductwork annually.

I immediately began writing sticky-label programs for the coil-line duct, shearing lists for fitting patterns, vane and connector fabrication lists, and estimating. This was unusual in 1969, and proved a major advantage in the market.

In 1975, the late Victor Ottaviano, who then gave presentations on mechanical estimating work, came to Dallas to see why the productivity of the sheet metal shop I managed greatly exceeded the national average presented in his seminars.


Soon after, he invited me to be a guest speaker at his next mechanical-estimating seminar. After a few traumatic lessons in public speaking, I spent the next 20 years on the seminar circuit. That experience led to my consulting practice. I helped over 500 shops around the world improve their sheet metal efficiency.

What a privilege and honor this has been to work so closely with the wonderful owners, managers, shop supervisors, trade organizations and more recently, Snips magazine.

I have had a long, incredible run for 52 years in this beloved industry, but everything must end. By the time this issue arrives, I will have enjoyed my 70th birthday and will be retired.

Eighteen months ago, I was diagnosed with plural plaque asbestos lung poisoning. It showed up as three 2-inch spots on the exterior membrane of my lungs. It's caused by asbestos fibers penetrating the walls of the lungs and lodging in the external membrane that covers them.

The good news, however, is that this form of asbestos poisoning is ultimately less dangerous than asbestosis, which can develop into mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. If my next two CAT scans continue to show no change in the spots, I will be in good shape.

This is just one more reason why everyone in the sheet metal industry should wear quality dust masks when working with airborne particulates of any kind. It took almost 50 years to develop my asbestos lung poisoning, and there are a lot of unknowns about long-term exposure to many common airborne shop materials.

I am pleased that Snips magazine has invited me to continue writing articles in my retirement. I will be discussing where the industry is headed, such as the increasing shift to spiral ductwork and the soon-to-be-released 2005 duct-construction standards from the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association.

Of course, I will have to squeeze them in between fishing trips to Biloxi, Miss., that are coming with my retirement. See you soon.