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HammerTech Talks

HammerTech Talks with Angie Simon, CEO Western Allied Mechanical

By Georgia Bergers on September, 29 2020
Angie Simon, Western Allied Mechanical and HammerTech, women in construction
In this episode:

 

  • How to balance you software investment needs with demands of bigger GC's
  • Empowering your teams when they feel unsafe on a job-site
  • Protecting your team culture in the world of remote working
  • How Western Allied Mechanical have lead the bid to improve gender diversity - and succeeded

 

Angie - FULL-adapt-med-v01


Georgia:

So Angie you've you've led growth. I believe you're now 250 and going strong. We've gone through economic downturns as well as a number of operational and digital transformation initiatives. Angie is also the president of the national trade association SMACNA. So for those who didn't know the acronym, it's the sheet metal and air conditioning national association. And so this rounded experience of leading a general contractor and an intimate understanding of material and labor suppliers and subcontractors is a point of view. That's not often given a significant voice at the table when it comes to technology and safety operations. And so that's what we're going to explore a little bit more about today because the impact we found of these decisions relating to technology and safety does acutely affect the people and businesses at this scale. And so we at hammer tech are increasingly working with the mid major and subcontractors who are looking for means to modernize their businesses and in turn create a competitive advantage.

And so their point of view, we found is unique and it's a minefield of opportunity when it comes to learning from their business models and innovating with them. So, Angie, I'm really excited to explore some of these things with you today.

 

Angie Simon: 

Yes. Really excited to be here. Thank you for having me.

 

Georgia:

No worries. And so you're dialing in from what we often up in the San Francisco Bay area.

 

Angie Simon:

Yes. We're in Menlo park, California. Over the past couple of decades, we have grown, we were, we're a mechanical contractor and we started out as someone who at the time, I think I started here. We probably had about 70 people that worked for us total, including our union trades people. And now we're up to 250, actually closer to 300, 300 people right now. So we have grown and we know what we have experienced the small to the larger size.

 

Georgia:

That's fantastic. So the first piece I'd love to touch on is something I think that's really pertinent, particularly over the last six months where many businesses are looking to invest in digital technology and soft software is, is as, as a sort of a smaller business. How do you balance your business's needs sort of now, and in the long term with the demands of bigger general contractors and owners that you work with?

 

Angie Simon:

You know, there's a balance there. I think about that, for example, BIM implementation, which in BIM is now is kind of an expected thing. It's not no longer special. It's more of a requirement of most projects, but for a long time, the bigger GCs and the bigger mechanicals were doing them, everything was coordinated in BIM and we as a middle road, it was a big cost step to, to take the jump from, from the way that you would detailing before to, to do it digitally. And I know we pushed back a little bit, we pushed back a little bit. We finally got one person on and we started having them do it. And, but there was a point where you're going to have to, if you do not take the next step that the industry is going to leave you behind. And so we finally got to a point where we were ready to say, okay, we really do need to embrace this.

And once we've embraced it and we've gotten so good at it, I've kind of wonder why it took us so long to get there. That kind of feels like that happens a lot with technology, but by the time you start using it, you realize, wow, I wish I would have done this 10 years ago, but the GCs were pushing us to that point.

And the owners are pushing us to that point. And I think there's always that fine line. And that's where I think a smaller contractor has a little bit of a challenge because you don't always know where, you know, they're, they're expensive. A lot of these things and a lot of our GCs are using things we've worked with 30 GCs, 40 GCs and of all different sizes. So some are going to push one platform plumber. We're going to push another. Sometimes I think you just need to pick what's right for your company and go that route.

 

Georgia:

Hmm. And how did you seek advice to determine what, what was right, what changed? Cause I think that taking the step to adopt BIM would have been a really big shift for the business back then.

 

Angie Simon:

Yeah. You know, the best step for us was at one point we, we finally hired an operations manager who had some pretty good of contraction experience. And we sat down with them and said, okay, listen, you know, your pocket, my, our pocket book is open. It's not open a hundred percent. You can't have everything, but where do we need to go? What is our next step? And ha, and bringing somebody in that has that idea of technology and where we need to go with technology helps or somebody that's seen it on the larger side and say, okay, well, this worked well, but it's really expensive. So maybe we should take you to this platform, but it is a challenge. I mean, I, I will say that one of the things with all my national SMACNA hat, we have set up a technology committee just recently, because we do feel that it's really a challenge for a small contractor to vet through all the different type of technologies that you have from safety technology, to productivity technology, to your shop of what you should be using in your shop and how, and even, and even a video video technology and Windows 365, you know, any of that type.

So we're the technology committee is trying to give our contractors a leg up on the middle sized, lower sized contractors, like up on the pros and cons of the different software and technologies. But it definitely, you know, you need to find what works for you and, and then you need to not be afraid to keep trying something new though. That's the one thing that's important, I think.

 

Georgia:

Awesome. And so when you've been implementing new technology, what was your strategy to help the adoption? And, and I guess there's that seamless transition. Could you tell us maybe about one or two hurdles and how you overcame them?

 

Angie Simon:

Sure, sure, sure. You know, I think we've learned, so now we, what we say is if we want to look at, so for example, we recently did look at project management software. Okay. We want to find a good platform to do project manager software. We had thought maybe our accounting software could have a module, but we finally just, it never was working for us. So we've said, we've got to go look. So we put a team together with my operations manager, but a group of my 30 somethings, 20 to 30 somethings and my operations manager, so that we had the younger, next generation there too. And that team was, are our focused team. And they went out and looked at the different types of products that were available and they bedded it to the point where they came up with three recommendations, one they're number one, but they never looked at costs that they rated them for what they'd like.

And then they put cost next to them. And so then we met as a management group and said, okay, let's discuss this. So then once we pick the platform that I think the number one key is it's got us gotta be supported at the top. The management has to not just say go, they have to walk the walk and, and they need to be behind that product. And, and they need to push it out and agree with it. So then at that point we also need champions. And so my operations manager is my champion. He's got a team of that. He has to get some implementers that are behind it as well. So he has to roll out the why to my field folks, for example, to say, this is why we're using it, show them that. And generally we try to find five or 10 of people that we find are early implementers and they, and we have them out like particularly out in the field, go help other people in the field.

And then you start to see that otherwise, if you don't have that champion, you're not gonna have anybody it's gonna fall on the wayside. And then the last one would be, we really do celebrate the successes. I mean, we try to say, okay, let's take the little steps. And when we make, we accomplished that everybody, you know, everybody posted, everybody checked in. We, we currently are using our project manager software to also do our screening and check-ins for Kobe. So now we've celebrated when everybody used that platform, that one day to check in, Hey, okay, at least we're using the platform. So those are kind of my keys as a management champion and then celebrate when you've made some steps.

 

Georgia:

That's fantastic. And I'm, so you started touching on some of your new safety protocols that you've, you've got in place at the moment. I I'm imagining as, as a, as a contractor going and working on larger contractor sites, sometimes there, there would be a difference in the way that you practice safety. I think a lot of the time you'd expect the larger contractor to have more robust safety standards that, you know, that align with industry best practices, but what happens when there's a misalignment and, and how do you go about creating that alignment to keep your teams safe and protect your business reputation?

 

Angie Simon:

Well, we definitely see that a lot. Like I said, we worked for 20 or 30 general contractors of all sizes and, and it's interesting cause you would think it's going to be, the big ones are always going to have the best safety and the small ones won't and sometimes it's not that way. There's some bigger, bigger contractors that aren't focusing on safety. So we kind of ignore what our general say initially and say, we Westcott, I have to set our own safety priorities into us. And it starts again at the top safety is number one for us priority. And so we set our priorities. We basically make it clear what we expect as a safety rules. Everybody's OSHA 30 train. We basically set our rules and we have our practices. And we also have, for example, cards, we have cards. We've given all of our guys to say, you know, this is your, you have every right, here's your card.

You can hand it to a general contractor. If you don't feel safe on that job site, you're going to hand it to them and you can leave the job site and you, and that they're in your call, your safety director. And we'll go out and talk to the general contractor. But if they're not doing what we think is safe, then immediately my employees with no doubt at all, we'll back them a hundred percent have every right to walk off. So I do think a lot of focus on safety and making sure that it's right now, different generals have different safety protocols as well and some different safety programs. So there is always a challenge of, okay, it's this, one's using that program and this one's using that program. But again, it's really the culture that you really need to have out there. And I think we've done a good job.

For example, in the COVID situation, we were very, very early adopters. We had a protocol set in place very early about all of, all the rules that we wanted to have on the job site with to keep our employees safe. And so the general contractors, a lot of them were not that ahead of it that much. So a couple of times we said, would you like our written protocol? You could have that and we'll give it to you in word, if you'd like to modify it and put your name on it, that's fine too. But this is our written protocol. And for example, we said, we wanted to screen all of our employees with temperature and fill out the form. And then we gave them bands that we basically said, if you've been screened, you were in a band so that when you might on the job site, we know that you've been screened and in the office and thing and some of our general contractors. So that was a neat idea. So now all of a sudden, the general contractor, all using bands as well, which I think is great. Cause at least you can tell they've been screened and they should be on the job site. So we're happy to share.

 

Georgia:

Fantastic. I think that that generosity and the approach of not needing to reinvent the wheel, particularly when it comes to safety is a really valuable approach. And we're really hoping to see a lot, a lot more of that moving forward. I think some people see safety as it as a sort of competitive advantage and you know, really it's, it's, it's not about that. It's it's, you know, for us anyway, it's really about a core sort of a core value. It's just like, this is just the way that we operate. So yeah, your efforts to sort of bring everyone up with you is really commendable.

 

Angie Simon:

It's about everybody getting home safe at night. That's what it's about. And I know I've had an experience early on in my career where one of our subcontractors had a, an accident and, and he fell from, he was insulating a duck, duck, riser, he fell and he was killed. And I went to the funeral and I, and I came back from that and I said to my guys, I never, ever, ever want to go to, if you know, you'd need to go home at night and be safe. I don't care what it takes if you have to slow down. And if you don't have to, I don't care, but this is not, you know, you need to be able to come home at night. So that is it's really is our number one. I mean, we, we do, we do great work, but the key is I want everybody to be able to be go home at night. So important.

 

Georgia:

Something else we touched on when we caught up before the recording of this episode is, is one of the initiatives that SMACNA is starting to look at, which aligns with a major issue in our industry around mental health and the tragic suicide rate that we have in construction. And I wondered, I always like to sort of, when we talk about an issue, I always like to bring solutions to the table and sort of like how, how can we as an industry work on this. So I'd love for you to share a little bit about how SMACNA is hoping to help the industry in this, in this space.

 

Angie Simon:

Yeah, it is. It's a huge part of our safety program too, because mental health and substance abuse are both very, very common on in construction. I think they had said that out of all, the industries, construction is a leader and that's not where you want to be a leader in mental health problems and suicides. And, and the problem is it's, it's a, it's a subject that people don't necessarily want to talk about. It's hard. Mental health is very uncomfortable to talk about. And also a lot of us don't know how to have the education on how to deal with it. So I think that's one of the things that, so our sheet metal union, it's been extremely active in that. And they also have started, they've started a program where they have like three day seminars and they are they're teaching their business agents and their business managers and anybody else and their, and their apprentice teachers, how to recognize and what the signs of somebody who might need some mental health or, or, or substance abuse.

And so they started that. So then they said, well, we want, we, we actually early, early on joined in 2018, joined the construction industry Alliance for suicide prevention. We were one of the first ones to join that. And our safety director is as a member of that board. And, but now we are developing a suicide addiction and mental health chapter education program based on the topics that our union is also working on. So trying to understand what the issues are, recognizing the signs, what you do when you recognize the signs and how you can help those people that are having that. And I think the reason we brought it up is because I have a deep concern that I think it's going to be even worse with. You know, I was saying here in our office, we're just starting to come back slowly from COVID.

We're bringing people back in groups, but we've asked our field technicians and our field workers to go back to the job sites since the 1st of May. And they've been working in the job sites fully covered with PPE PPE, and worried about getting, getting exposed to COVID. And so besides just worrying about safety period, they need to worry about that as well. So I do worry, and of the, of the fact that this, you know, this is not a good time right now, we need to be aware of this and we need to figure out ways to help people out.

 

Georgia:

Yeah, absolutely. I think, I think I had from reading or listening to another interview that where we're huggers and not being able to do that and say hello to people is just, you know, obviously construction safety is a very different part of it, but it's that contact in that isolation at the moment is really having a major impact on people's ability to do their best, to do their best work. And I did want to ask you, there was something really interesting that you mentioned before, which is about the, sort of the, the, the drop-off that happens in productivity after a period of time of working remotely and what you're looking to do to overcome that from an office point of view.

 

Angie Simon:

Well, so in our office and our company, we have worked so hard the last five years on culture. And you know, what is our company culture? We, we really do a lot to try to appreciate employees. We have, we have three DNA standards, we call it and they are driven by innovation because we are very excited about that grounded in care and dedicated the teamwork, but grounded than care. I mean, that's important to us. That's one of our DNA that we have, but how do you do that? How do you, how do you just share this when you can't be together? And I'm starting, starting to struggle with the fact, how am I going to get my culture back when everybody's working remotely? So that's part of the reason we were trying to push, to have people start to come back. I am very a fan of being flexible and allowing flexibility, but there is a lot of, we was talking about in New York and it was a wall street journal article recently that was read about how they track productivity.

When somebody went to go work remotely a hundred percent and how in the beginning, the productivity actually increases. I mean, because of the fact that for one, I think they work more hours. They're probably working at nights and on the some, because work in home, I kind of get mixed together. So their productivity increases, but there's a point about nine, eight to nine months in where you start to see a real dip, because I think they start to see the isolation side of that and the less people less drive for the productivity. So, I mean, I think there's gotta be a fine, there's gotta be a mix that can work with most. And I think I had a hard time saying I'm asking my field to go out in the field and work every day in the field. And then, but not, not saying that we need to be in the office once in a while.

So plus we have a lot of young people and I really think, how do you teach people to be supervisors? How do you teach young people if you don't have the people there every day? So it's a fine line. I, we need to be careful take it slow, but we also need to realize that people, everybody has their own situation right now. So we're being very open if somebody has got a health issue or a family issue, I think we're okay with that. But I think those that have kids at home that they're having to homeschool, I think they want to come back to work.

 

Georgia:

I have a few of those and I definitely think there's a few people that are looking to either that offer some free babysitting or something like that. Exactly. And so one of the questions that I always love to ask our guests is, so we're doing, we're doing our part to try and debunk stereotypes around people that work in construction and, you know, the types of roles open up people's minds to the types of roles that are available. So I wondered what's a piece of advice that you would give to someone or give to future leaders of, of construction businesses?

 

Angie Simon:

Well, I, I'm really excited for a few things for one. I love our industry. I think it's a fun dynamic industry. We build things. You actually get to see what we build and there is not one day that's the same as another within this industry. So we constantly have some cha it's fun. I mean, I see that, but I also am excited about our next 10 years from now, because I will say our millennials who my kids are. I think one of my kids is millennial the other, one's the one after that, but they're very, they're very inclusive. They're way more inclusive than us baby boomers ever work. And that, that generation means that I don't think they're going to see that it's, you're white or you're black or you're Hispanic, or you're a woman or you're gay. They're not going to see that it's not going to matter because they're inclusive and they accept everybody.

And I really do once. I mean, I'm a baby boomer, I'm on the edge of the baby boomers, but I'm a baby boomer. But once we start to retire because we don't accept change as well, I think we're going to see a lot of change within our industry. And I think it's going to be good for our industry. Our industry construction industry is looking for people right now. We, we have, we're probably 30% short of workers. And in the next five to 10 years, we're going to retire 60% of the people in the industry. We're already 30% short and we're going to retire 60% of the industry and the industry is supposed to grow. So there's a lot of opportunity for people out there and we need to tap some unreal, untapped resources. There's not very many women in the industry.

There's not a, it's a very white industry. We need to be more diverse. So I'm excited about that and I hope that that's going to happen. And I think sometimes if you're a company that is interested in making some changes and seeing that, then you need to focus on that. For example, find a woman in your industry. Then fast-track give her the help and the support and give her some extra training so that she can move up because she's going to be capable of doing it too. But for a woman to want to advance, they kind of need to see other women in those positions. And it really helps in our company because we had a woman president. Now a woman CEO; we're about 35% women in our technical position. So it's way higher than most. And it could be even higher than that right now...

 

 

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