In Brooklyn, New York, Gentlemen Sheet Metal Ltd. owner Paul Appel is the “last man standing” of an increasingly rare pedigree of sheet metal shops and owners. His father, Dennis, a Local 28 foreman, opened Gentlemen with a partner in 1979. Appel came on in 1987 at his parents’ request and put his accounting background to use managing the shop’s books.
“That’s where I found they needed the most help,” says Appel, a graduate of Hofstra University in Long Island. His younger brother, Dennis Jr., was already working as a tin knocker out of high school and soon moved over to the family business as an installer. “Originally when I came, I didn’t even know what I was going to do. I didn’t know where I fit in.”
With his brother now retired, Appel is ushering the company into its 40th year of business as a small shop that has built a name for itself on renovations. Gentlemen is an approved contractor for the Trump Organization, Rudin Management, the New Water Street Corp, CBRE, and Verizon. The shop’s notable projects include the JFK International Arrivals Building, NYC Department of Transportation Headquarters, the FDNY New Training Center (Randall’s Island) and commercial retail spaces for Polo Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, and numerous Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy stores.
By staying small and focusing on renovations, Gentlemen has largely avoided the labor shortage issues and rising material costs that plague big, new construction projects. But now, Appel finds, even the smallest shops aren’t immune to feeling the labor pinch.
“If I got two or three big jobs, I could need manpower like that,” he snaps.
Gentlemen operates with about 20 employees (14-15 unionized) and big jobs for the shop can range from $300-400,000, Appel explains.
“Last year, I had a tremendous amount of work, and I had to turn down work because there weren’t men available. They were begging me to take a job,” he says. “It hurts because you go through so many bad years that when the year is good you don’t want to be turning down a $300,000 job. So I was a little disappointed in how things went that it took a long time for the union to make some changes that we can get more manpower.”
Then there is the more immediate issue of cash flow.
“Basically the expense of the guys is so high now, even with 20 people we are out around $45,000 a week. Cash flow wise, this industry is terrible,” says Appel. “I used to tell people if I didn’t have cash flow problems, I wouldn’t have any problems. The work is the easy part. Getting paid is where it’s tough.”
He continues, “Meanwhile we are turning down work and if Local 28 isn’t taking it the non-union guys are getting the work, which hurts us even more because we have a big non-union issue here. Years ago, you couldn’t do work in Manhattan unless you were union in probably 80 percent of the buildings. Today, it’s probably 20 percent.”
On the subject of rising material costs driven by steel tariffs, Gentlemen’s size has worked in its favor. “Steel prices went up a lot,” he says. “But you know one of the benefits of being small is that bigger companies, they take $10-$20 million dollar jobs that are going to take 2 or 3 years to do. When they bid the job, they might not have known about those tariffs. So they have a rough time with that. Where with me, I might have gotten a little beat up on a smaller job or two but nothing that’s really going to affect me long-term.”
But a shortage of labor is putting Gentlemen in a tough spot — needing more labor to take on more jobs to increase cash flow to pay for labor.
“Back in the ’80s there was a lot of work. Then they had the Savings and Loans scandal and everything fell,” Appel explains. “Things got really bad and we had to cut back like crazy in order to survive.”
He adds, “And luckily we did survive,” which is a feat Appel attributes to his father. “He would sacrifice profits to treat his men properly. He didn’t make a lot of money in his life, but he’s got a lot of friends.”
The atmosphere in the Gentlemen shop today is a continuation of that camaraderie with a few differences.
“I’m probably a lot closer to doing things the way my father did. I am just a little more conscious of,” he pauses, “I don’t like to take work knowing I am going to lose money on it. Other than I still treat people fairly.”
And it shows in the dedication of shop’s employees.
“First of all, I think we have a lot of loyal employees. Most of the people served their apprenticeships here and stayed on and they’ve been with us since they’ve started,” says Appel. “When I get a new person in, I tell them: ‘Listen, we are a small company, nobody here is a millionaire that owns the company. We are just regular people. Anytime you need something from me, you can just walk in the office and talk to me.’”
Above all else, Appel strives to be a gentleman for his team and his customers, he explains. “We don’t stand on people’s backs to push and push and push for profits. We are decent people.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of SNIPS magazine.