Our future will not look like our past

outgoing Mechanical Contractors Association of America President Lonnie Coleman offers his thoughts on the future of the industry

Editor's note: This is a portion of outgoing Mechanical Contractors Association of America President Lonnie Coleman's address to his members at MCAA's recent convention in San Francisco.

So here we are in 2010, with 2011 not too far off. There are glimmers of hope, but our industry lags the economic cycle. Credit is still way too tight, and demand way too slack for many owners. Some market segments are holding up better than others and, for many, service contracts are a lifeline.

But, the big questions are, as contractors, what are we to think about the future? What are we to do?

I have been privileged this past year to serve as your president, and have traveled across the country meeting with many of you. I have heard the positive things about our industry that need to be built upon and enhanced. Also, I have heard about the less than positive things that are confronting our industry, more and more, each and every day. These issues will require the joint attention of our labor and management partnership if we are to remain strong and viable in the future.

I can't say that I have all the answers, but I have some thoughts I would like to share with you today. I do believe that a broad upturn is inevitable. Not today, and not even tomorrow, but it will come. That said, however, I am convinced that our future is not going to look anything like our past. Our industry will never again be exactly what it was. If we are to continue to succeed as mechanical contractors, we must leave the past behind and look for that next bridge to success.

Let me offer a few specifics.

Our "market" will come back, but it will consist of new markets. Energy efficiency, energy audits, water conservation, sustainable design, alternative energy, renewable energy recycling, remediation, renovation, retrofit — these will be the catchwords of our future. The contractors who will get this work will be those who have mastered these market opportunities. These "new" markets are markets MCAA members should own.

They are, after all, pretty much what we've been doing all along — what we are the experts at doing — but which we perhaps need to approach and package in a more up-to-date way. If we don’t portray ourselves as the market leaders in this arena, others will step in: General contractors, open shop mechanicals, other specialty trades, entirely new companies.

Which brings me to my next point: In the future, branding will matter more than ever. Branding drives opportunities. We can’t hide our light under a bushel. We have to get out there and let people know what we can do for them.

I know many of you make your presence known in your community. You serve on bank boards, you even volunteer — like Bill Cawley — for "Extreme Makeover Home Edition." You do amazing things, and that's the way to go. Branding matters.

Ours will be a future of integrated and bundled delivery: Design it, build it, maintain it, even manage it. Or re-commission it, redesign it and reconfigure it. After all, only one-fifth of the life cycle cost of many buildings is in initial construction. Owners are increasingly growing wise to this and many are more open than ever to reducing those life cycle costs.

We can use our decades of expertise to offer innovative solutions that others simply can’t imagine. And we can be counted on to deliver. Our future will place an even greater premium on delivering value. And by value, I mean driving wasted costs out of everything.

Our future will also require us to be advocates in Washington, in state capitols and in city halls as never before. This year I have been to the White House, testified before Congress, urged action that would fund building retrofits and provide federal stimulus funding, worked to level the playing field for our unionized sector employers and plans and rationalized procurement policy. I can tell you that MCAA is respected in Washington, and we are being heard, but our ultimate success depends on all of us being engaged in the process.

Yes, the future will not be as simple or as easy as our past now seems. But we have the skills, the determination and the positioning to succeed.

Lonnie Coleman is president of Coleman-Spohn Corp., a full-service mechanical contractor in Cleveland, Ohio.