SMACNA contractors learn about sheet metal forming, ductwork fabrication at Hawaii convention
The Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, however, is well-versed in mixing business and pleasure in such idyllic climates. It brought hundreds of members here Oct. 19-23, 2013, to celebrate the group’s 70th convention and learn a few things between time at the beach or on the golf course.
Many of the association’s members have had a rough time in recent years, with the recession battering the construction industry. New association President Randy Novak of Iowa-based Novak Heating and Air Conditioning acknowledged the difficulties experienced by many members in his Oct. 23 address to members.
“Our company has faced many of the same challenges that yours have,” he said. “In addition, we had a serious flood in 2008 that left our offices and shop in disarray after 10 feet of water covered the entire facility. SMACNA contractors were among the first to call and offer resources, time, and support to allow us to get back in business.”
SMACNA members were a great help as Novak worked to rebuild his family’s business, he said.
“I have learned that SMACNA contractors are always very generous to share ideas, help with problems and very free with information,” Novak said. “The peer group I belong to is comprised of SMACNA contractors and has been instrumental in helping us with best business practices and advice to take our business to the next level. Matter of fact — the entire SMACNA community has been sort of a peer group for me.”
Before Novak’s speech on the convention’s final day, the association packed the schedule with educational seminars and sessions on issues for members involved in architectural, commercial, institutional and other industry segments.
But one session that may have had some relevance for just about all members was Joe Perraton’s Oct. 23 discussion on navigating technology. There are few contractors left who can say they really do things “the old-fashioned way.” Computers, the Internet and “the cloud” have all changed — or will change — the way most businesses operate.
Those are the opinions of Perraton, the president of British Columbia-based PointOne Media Inc., a company with a lot of experience working with sheet metal contractors on technology issues.
“Technology is everywhere in your business,” he told the audience. Contrary to what some might think, sheet metal is a pretty high-tech industry.
Today, “the cloud” — the name for the virtual world of interconnected computers that allow information to be accessed from anywhere — is where everything is headed. Like with music and movie downloads replacing CDs and DVDs, the same is happening with software. It’s not necessary to physically own it, Perraton said.
“In a few years, you won’t buy Windows,” he predicted.
Too much tech?
Still, Perraton urged the audience to not become overly dependent on technology. Business fundamentals are still important.
“There is no magic bullet for your business,” he said.
When discussing technology, it’s still important to be clear and know that not everyone has the same level of expertise. Many people don’t know what a “URL” stands for in a website address, he said.
Encourage your technicians and other staff to embrace and use technology.
That doesn’t mean you have to buy everyone an Apple iPad 2, however. There are many inexpensive tablets and smartphones available.
“Cheap is good,” Perraton said, adding that you must ensure they will use the device. That’s more important than cost. Some people are not comfortable using devices without physical keyboards.
As business owners, you need to be informed about who handles your technology and online presence. Unfortunately, a lot of people are clueless when it comes to these issues.
“A lot of times when I go into a business, they don’t know who does their website,” he said.
With data storage moving from physical hard drives to the cloud, there is little reason to have physical items such as time cards nowadays.
“Everything is going mobile,” he said. “I would encourage you to take a strategic look at your business. Everybody is in transition right now.”
Perraton said he expects that soon 4G speeds will be available everywhere and it won’t even be necessary to ever be plugged in for an Internet connection.
Tightening the beltway
The end of the U.S. government shutdown was not a distant memory when SMACNA held its annual assessment on the state of affairs in the nation’s capital. For this year’s session, “Policy, Politics and Construction,” the association brought in lobbyists Stan Kolbe and Dana Thompson to give their opinions on where Washington, D.C., is headed in the coming months.
With the first government shutdown since 1996 having ended only a few days before SMACNA’s convention, members in the audience at the Oct. 23 session wanted to know if it would affect the 2014 fall elections.
Don’t bet on it, according to the lobbyists.
“It’s a long way to the election, and the American people are very forgetful,” Thompson said.
Kolbe said the way the shutdown ended was not a surprise.
“The shutdown was doomed from the start,” he said.
And it doesn’t help the approval rating of Congress which Kolbe said, “is lower than cockroaches and ingrown toenails.”
Thompson said she doubts the party in control of the House or Senate will change, but for Democrats, it will be close as the GOP is likely to pick up seats.
Looking for friends
SMACNA is currently working to find Republicans who are friendly to union contractors on some issues. As for President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act — aka Obamacare — it was not the kind health care reform that the association wanted, she said.
“Sometimes, I feel like we don’t have any friends,” she said.
A fix for the association’s biggest concern — pension reform — remains elusive. She added however, that the Sheet Metal Workers union’s pension plan is not considered one of the nation’s “deeply troubled” plans, which means facing insolvency within 20 years.
On other issues such as tax and immigration reform, prospects are mixed.
“We’re trying to get the guest worker program tightened up,” Kolbe said, adding that the shutdown may have doomed the effort anyway. There just isn’t enough time left in the congressional calendar.
As for tax changes, Kolbe said he is a little more hopeful that something can get signed.
“Tax reform is a huge deal to us,” he said.
For reprints of this article, contact Renee Schuett at (248) 786-1661 or email email@example.com.
Next SMACNA president follows others from Iowa
Maybe there is something in the water of the Cedar River that makes the surrounding region well-stocked with recent SMACNA presidents.
John Ilten of Ilten’s Inc., Mark Watson of Climate Engineers Inc., and Robert Lautenbach of Corn States Metal Fabricators Inc., all hailed from the area. And now it has produced another: Randy Novak of Novak Heating and Air Conditioning, who took over as 2013-2014 association president at the close of the 2013 convention.
It’s an opportunity the 47-year-old Novak said he’s really excited about.
“I’m just humbled to be a part of this thing, and I feel like it’s a privilege to be a part of the organization,” he said.
Novak has a long history with SMACNA on the local, state and national level — almost as long as he’s been in the HVAC and sheet metal industry.
But Novak, the third-generation owner of the Hiawatha, Iowa, company that bears his family name, said he initially had little interest in the business started by his grandfather, Godfrey Novak, in 1934.
“After high school, I didn’t really think I wanted to be part of the company,” he recalled.
Instead, Novak enrolled in college, studying business management at the University of Iowa.
But after a couple years, Novak said he wasn’t sure that the college path was right for him. Friends were racking up large amounts of student debt trying to find a career, and he started to think that wasn’t such a good idea. Novak was a stable, profitable family business that could probably use his help.
So after talking to his father, Paul, Novak left college in the mid-1980s to take a position in the family business.
Full of ideas from two years of business classes on how to improve the company, he had visions of starting out in a management position. Novak’s father, however, had other plans: He wanted his son to go through Sheet Metal Workers union apprentice training like anyone new to the industry.
“I did a little bit of everything,” Novak said. “I did a little bit of sheet metal work; I did a little bit of service work. I wasn’t great at any of that stuff, admittedly.”
It wasn’t easy work for the former college student, and he wondered if he’d made a mistake.
“I thought, boy this isn’t as much fun as being in that dorm and going out with your friends and trying to pick what pizza place you’re going to order a pizza from,” he said. “I wasn’t really enjoying it too much. And I think the main reason was I didn’t know anything. You think you’re smart. Got great grades in high school and made a lot of friends, but I really didn’t know anything about sheet metal. I didn’t know anything about heating and air conditioning, and I certainly didn’t know anything about running a business.”
Things started to change after he earned his contractor license. His father let him try residential sales, a job that seemed to suit Novak. He found he was good at it, and worked in that position for almost four years. Eventually, he moved into management, handling the residential sales department and soon the service department as well.
It was during this time that Novak started to find out about SMACNA and what the group offered. His father took him to his first meeting. Novak was impressed with the openness of members, even among those who competed with each other.
“That’s when I really started thinking, ‘Wow. There were a lot of people (in SMACNA) that are way smarter than I am,’ ” he said. “The more I can be around these people, the more it will help my business.”
The help of members have been invaluable, he added.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a residential committee or if it’s a technical committee or a legislative committee — there’s people on there that may not have the same type of business that we do … but I guarantee there are certain aspects of that business that are the same,” he said. “I feel like I had more mentors than anybody in the history of the business.”
It’s certainly helped Novak grow, he pointed out. Although the company is not as large as some SMACNA members — it currently has about 20 employees and does between $3 million and $5 million in revenue, half of it residential — the company demonstrates the variety inherent in the association.
“I think people envision SMACNA as just big, big sheet metal, industrial and commercial work, and boy there are a lot of great contractors that do that, but they’re really versatile,” he said. “There’s something for everybody there.”