Unlike some people who grew up in the sheet metal industry, HVAC was not a familiar subject to Guy Gast.
“Growing up in a small town in north-central Iowa, I had no idea what this industry was about,” he said.
Gast said he wasn’t sure what he would eventually do for a living.
“I always admired people who had clearly defined goals — even from age 10 on. In my case, I had opportunities to do so many things that I didn’t fix myself on any one target,” he said.
So it might surprise some people that today Gast is Iowa division president of the Waldinger Corp., one of the nation’s largest sheet metal contractors. And following a Sept. 30 ceremony at the end of the association’s convention, the 61-year-old is now SMACNA’s 2015-2016 president.
Although Gast acknowledged that he didn’t know much about sheet metal, the construction industry was a major part of his life growing up: His father and both grandfathers were small-town home builders.
“I had always been around the tools and mentality of the construction business,” Gast said.
He enrolled at Iowa State University to study nuclear engineering. Those studies eventually transitioned to construction and a degree in construction engineering. It was then that he had his first exposure to the world of heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration.
“Like anybody getting out of school, you’ve got to put bread on the table and pay bills,” he said. “I went to work for an HVAC-sheet metal contractor in Des Moines, Iowa.”
Three years later, he left to take a job at a design-build contractor.
By this point, the previously foreign world of HVAC construction was starting to grow on Gast.
“I liked the concept of tangible evidence of the work you’d done,” he said, “the ability to see what you had built or contributed to the building of.”
In 1980, Gast started working at Waldinger. At the time, the contractor was working on five nuclear power plants, several U.S. Army hospitals and plenty of commercial and institutional ductwork projects nationwide.
Gast joined the company just as the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, 15 percent interest rates and a deep recession, which cut the number federal contracts, were affecting the company. Waldinger decided to restructure.
“We moved away from dependence on the very profitable nuclear industry and we moved away from the traveling mentality of government contracting,” Gast said. “That’s when my first class in leadership began. No matter how tough things got, you never saw leadership walking the halls with their heads down. And they didn’t wait for things to change; they made the changes that needed to happen. We were reinvented.
“It’s what we learned then that was important to our success through the recent recession,” he added.
Gast stayed at Waldinger. He has been an employee for 35 years. Today, the company has 1,800 workers and operations in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and in St. Louis, St. Joseph, and Kansas City, Missouri; Omaha, Nebraska; and Wichita, Kansas.
Staying put was an easy decision, he said.
“The company has enjoyed fabulous growth, which has created lots of opportunity for many people, myself included,” Gast said. “The most important things we have and promote are relationships — with our customers and our employees. They are what have carried us through both good times and bad.”
The industry offers a lot of chances for growth, personally and professionally, he added.
“I enjoy the comradery and people in the industry and the opportunity to learn from other people,” Gast said.
That extends to his work at the local, state and national level with SMACNA. Gast is chairman of the New Horizons Foundation and has served on several committees, including the HVAC Contractors Council Steering Committee, and task forces dealing with green HVAC and high-performing contractors.
“I enjoy the opportunity to get together with people who spend their time thinking about the future of our business, our industry and how they might help other people be more successful,” he said. “Even among competitors, there’s an open respect and willingness to share information and talk about the business.”
That focus on sharing is a big reason Gast said he’s excited about serving as SMACNA’s president.
“I really look forward to the opportunity to serve and to exchange thoughts with my fellow contractors and the chapter executives that work with them,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate in my life; I owe a debt of service to those who got me here and I’m happy to have a chance to chip away at that debt.”