The secret to Kevin Gill Sr.’s near 30-year success at the helm of McCusker-Gill Inc. is to leave absolutely nothing to chance. Incorporated in 1991 after purchasing the remnants of the McCusker sheet metal fabrication company, Gill added his name to the business and quickly went to work creating a company that he could call home.
By 1995, McCusker-Gill is the largest sheet metal contracting firm in the Boston area according to working hours logged. And it’s no dumb luck that the company has earned that designation year after year since. Over periods of growth and gridlock, Gill has stacked the deck in his favor with the people he trusts the most: family.
“We surround ourselves with the best possible people,” he says. In his McCusker-Gill family of around 225 employees, that includes more than 200 union sheet metal workers, a department of drafters, support staff, and a few of Gill’s adult children. “Our employees are absolutely top-notch. They are the reason for our success, and we are insistent on having good morale around the company.”
From family business to Sheet Metal Fabrication Contractor of the Year
Good morale has been good for growth. Gill recently moved the company’s operations from a 25,000-square-foot space to its current 60,000-square-foot headquarters in Hingham, Massachusetts. But before doing so, he sought out SMACNA’s help to see how other sheet metal fabrication shops were innovating.
“We took many ideas from these visits and then went through many iterations of designing our own shop layout to try to come up with the scheme that would allow us to manufacture and prefabricate ductwork as efficiently as possible,” he says. “We believe that prefabrication allows us to manufacture and install duct not only more efficiently but also more safely, and we have leveraged (recent) equipment purchases with that goal in mind.” It’s all part of the company’s next phase of growth.
What did you learn from touring other SMACNA sheet metal fabrication contractors?
Part of our reasoning for going around visiting other sheet metal contractors is our business model had really changed significantly over the half a dozen years. We put an awful lot of focus in bringing a lot of the fieldwork back in the shop via manifolding or pre-fab, however you want to call it. It’s basically putting sections of duct together in the shop, and we transfer them over in 15 or 20-foot sections.
The whole industry was going in that direction but we wanted to be the leaders. So the criteria that we asked SMACNA for is whose doing this throughout the country and who has the most efficient operations throughout the country. So it was our goal to go out there and exchange ideas with these other large contractors to see what they were doing, what they had tried, what they didn’t have success with, just a lot of informational sharing and it was extremely helpful to us.
How did you go from being an automotive mechanic to the sheet metal industry?
Kevin Gill Sr.’s family of 225 employees includes his children Patrick (left), Kevin Jr. (center) and Stephanie (right).
I am the youngest of five children. I graduated high school but college was never an option for me and I was extremely anxious to get out into the working world.
In the 9th grade, I started pumping gas at a local gas station and working there weekends through high school. Learned how to change oil, do a tune up on a car so as soon as I graduated high school, I became a full-time automotive mechanic.
After my wife suggested I think of another career that had better health benefits, pension, I decided to leave the job as an automotive mechanic and become a laborer for a company called Carts Engineering. The arrangement then was you would take a job as a laborer and you would hopefully get accepted to the apprentice program. So I started working for them in July of 1980. The class was chosen in August of 1980 and unfortunately, I wasn’t selected to join the apprentice class.
Why McCusker-Gill is Contractor of the Year according to our judges …
“The range, scope, size and time frame of large, high-profile projects in a difficult urban area to work. The expansion of their shop and investment in people/equipment to be able to grow their business.” — Scott Witherow, Vice President of Design Polymerics
It was a little bittersweet because in that same period the company was starting to get a little more busy and they offered me a job working on the management side of things. So, I went into the office. My first position there was a purchasing agent, and I did estimating and eventually project management and sales engineer. After five years, I was running their bigger work and I had my own book of business, so to speak. I had my own clients established at that point.
Explain the circumstances around the beginnings of McCusker-Gill. Why was then a good time to start a business?
The McCusker company was owned by another mechanical contractor, the Fred Williams company. So they were somewhat tied where they would do the majority of their work for the Fred Williams company. Occasionally, they would do work for other companies but unfortunately they would probably only get that work because they were extremely low. They had about 8 or 10 employees. So I entered into an arrangement with them that I would clean up the work that they had, and we would be off and running procuring our new work. We incorporated February 19, 1991, and I purchase the assets of the McCusker company in March 1 of 1991.
McCusker-Gill does does around $75,000,000 a year in business. Where is the bulk of that business located?
We operate solely as a sheet metal subcontractor. The vast majority of our work comes as plan and spec bids through the HVAC contractor.
Biggest change you’ve noticed in the industry?
“Wide range of projects. They’ve come a long way in a generation and have a plan in place for addressing their future needs.” — Bob Reid, Business Development and Engineering for Spiral Pipe of Texas | Eco Support Products
The technology is getting better and better, and it’s important to for us to remain the leaders of that. We’ve done a good job of that, and we will continue to do that. It’s so important. You have to embrace this technology if you want to dig your feet in and say the later, you’re not going to be successful in the long-term. We were the ones that started in the Boston area installing high rises using the tower cranes in 20 to 30-foot sections. We are putting the product together in a controlled environment, and it’s a much safe operation for us through a lot of pre-planning coordination with both our mechanical contractor and the general contractor.
How do you remain competitive in this market as such a large operation?
You have to understand, we are preparing an estimate like our mechanical contractors are preparing an estimate. In our industry, we are 70 percent labor, with both the shop and the field, so there’s an awful lot of risk.
We track our estimating system based on actual performance so we have a very good handle on what our actual costs are. Now, if we run across a situation where somebody is 15 to 20 percent below what are pricing level is, we just have to walk away from the project.
In the sheet metal fabrication business, that can’t be easy.
“Family comes first. The guys realize that, and they appreciate that — from up in the office to the guys driving the trucks and everything else. They realize, if something comes up, don’t worry about it. Take care of your family first, and that makes the morale very high.” — Tom Hall, shop foreman at McCusker-Gill.
The hardest thing in this business is to say no to a job. Because you can sometimes try to convince yourself that you can do the project for that lower price, and it just doesn’t work out. It never works out. Ultimately, the general contractor and the developer and our mechanical contractor want the project done on schedule but they also want it done competitively. So we have to be competitive in our pricing, and we are day in and day out because that’s how we continue to get work.
Where did you get your family-focused business philosophy?
I had 10 or 11 years of experience before I started my own company. Both of the companies that I worked for were very good companies. But, you know, I’ve learned a few things in regards to what not to do, things that would bother or upset our clients. Some of those things are lack of service and trouble with schedules.
I was determined in the beginning to come across as a more cooperative option for people out there; that if they had me on the project, I wasn’t going to be arguing with them on every little detail on a job. We were going to work together to successfully complete the project. That’s something we continue to instill today. We want our clients to be happy. We want our clients to come back to us. We want them to come to us with their good projects, and we want them to come to us with their more difficult projects because we want to be the remedy to their problems. That has worked out extremely well for us over the years.
What was the company’s first sheet metal fabrication job?
The first job McCusker-Gill was awarded, we were only in business a couple of weeks. It was probably mid-March of 1991, and we were awarded the FAO Schwarz toy store on Newbury Street. For us, it was a big deal. It was probably a $40-50,000 project, but it was our first one. That first year in business, I think we did 1.2 million. Granted it was a stub year from March until October, but it was a much smaller operation than it was today. So, that was a very sizable project for us. It was a good project. When we first started out, we did a lot of tenant work relocations. We did very little new construction.
What would you say was the job that put McCusker-Gill on the map?
Our first significant project was the Boston Public Library, which was a file sub-bid worth about $450,000. Again, we were awarded that late in 1991. So that would probably be like a $2.5 million job. It was significant at that point and time because it was kind a statement to the industry that we were here. At that point, there were three or four larger companies and because we were awarded the job, it was kind of a statement for the industry.
Do you remember why you won the bid?
We were lower. [He laughs]. That was the only reason. It was a public file sub-bid job, and we were the low bidder. But it ended up that it was actually a very difficult project. It lasted 2 to 3 years, which is a long time for a construction project, especially of that size.
What advice would you give to sheet metal fabrication contractors looking to grow their company?
The first key is surround yourself with good people because they will make you successful. I have been very fortunate over the years to surround myself with good people. We have by far and large the best management team in place, certainly in the Boston industry. We have, I feel, the best foremen and journeymen working for us. All of our employees are longtime employees. I have people retiring from me now that have been with us right from the beginning.
We have a very low turnover, and you know what it is with people that work for you?
Just treat them the way you want to be treated. It’s that simple. If people come to work and they enjoy the environment that they work in, they are going to be far more productive for you. I have so many of my employees who would take a bullet for me, and what a great feeling that is.
Three projects near and dear to McCusker-Gill.
Encore Boston Harbor (Wynn) Casino in Everett, Massachusetts
Photo by Parkerjh
At the time of its completion, this project was the largest sheet metal contract ever completed in the City of Boston. The project had over 1 million pounds of sheet metal and an extremely aggressive schedule. “We relied on extensive planning, pre-construction and throughout the project, to identify bottlenecks, maximize prefabrication opportunities, and utilize innovative methods for material handling to complete the project ahead of schedule and under budget.”
Moderna Therapeutics in Cambridge, Massachusetts
This project reworked an existing facility to create a 200,000-square-foot clinical development manufacturing plant. “Just prior to mechanical rough in, the design team issued a complete redesign due to owner driven changes. Our team leveraged our extensive Revit capabilities and hosted colocation at our facility for the whole project team to expeditiously accommodate the design changes en route to a successfully completed project.”
Bulfinch Residential Tower in Boston, Massachusetts
Photo by Bulfinch Crossing
“This ongoing project is the construction of a 45-story, luxury residential high-rise in the heart of Boston’s Government Center neighborhood. The project has required extensive pre-planning with HVAC contractor to coordinate the timely delivery and installation of mechanical equipment. The project has benefited from lean construction principles to minimize lost time, which can be difficult in high-rise construction.”
This story originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of SNIPS magazine. Visit more information about the SNIPS Sheet Metal Fabrication Contractor of the Year contest, visit snipsmag.com/contractor-of-the-the-year.