BY ROBERT P. MADER
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
ATLANTA — Tom Williams always wanted to be a contractor from the time he was studying engineering at Georgia Tech. Contracting provides real results that you can see and touch, he said. The incoming president of Mechanical Contractors Association of America and a fraternity brother planned to go into business right after graduation.
“You can actually build stuff and can go see your projects,” Williams said. “That’s always been a part of our family history. The kids still say, ‘Dad built that building.’ It’s a very tangible effort, not like shuffling stocks and bonds or working for a communications company. The industry attracts people who are builders because they enjoy the process itself.”
Williams went into the business after graduating with a BSME degree in 1967. When the partnership dissolved in the early 1970s, Williams got a job as a project manager at McKenney’s Inc. in 1974.
Williams is now president of the Construction Division of McKenney’s, a 51-year-old mechanical contracting and engineering company with offices in Atlanta; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Charlotte, N.C. Williams was promoted to vice president/operations manager of McKenney’s in 1977, to executive vice president in 1979 and to president of the Construction Division in 1997.
Williams will take over the helm of MCAA at the association’s convention in early March in Palm Springs, Calif.
Elected to MCAA’s Board of Directors in 1996, Williams served on the Project Managers Education Committee. In addition to his activities on the national level, Williams is on the Board of Trustees for the Mechanical Industries Council of Georgia and is the chairman of the Labor Negotiating Committee of the MCA of Georgia.
MCAA’s strength is education, Williams said, and the association will continue to focus on it, especially on the mold issue that will be covered in detail at the group’s mid-year meeting this coming summer.
The construction industry will feel increased pressure to raise productivity, Williams said, and productivity improvements come through education and training. The association’s Advanced Leadership Institute is doing well, he said.
“The students are already sharing with each other, building support groups across the country and recommending the experience to their peers,” he said.
MCAA will roll out an advanced project management course, building upon its Institute for Project Management in Austin, Texas, sometime in 2004. “It’s still being discussed,” he noted.
The association will also train its members on topics such as change orders and design-build.
Education has been important at McKenney’s, which was started by John McKenney as a tire recapping store right after World War II. Tires were scarce after the war and were usually recapped. McKenney then got into the appliance business and eventually into heating systems for tract houses.
David McKenney, who was a classmate of Williams’ at Georgia Tech, went to work as a salesman for the Trane Co. and then back into his family business. David McKenney had called on Williams when Williams was in business for himself. He subsequently invited Williams to join the firm.
Williams still counts David McKenney as his biggest influence. McKenney was a physics major who also has a degree in business, and he taught Williams the business side of contracting.
McKenney is also a believer in corporate responsibility. The company, Williams noted, has always been a big supporter of improvements to Atlanta such as converting an old prison into mixed income housing, serving meals to the poor and supporting ministries to the homeless. Its employees are active in Boy Scouts, churches, food pantries and Habitat for Humanity.
The company is now in its third generation with David McKenney’s son John back in the company after working for Trane for 10 years.
When Williams joined the company, it was billing around $3.5 million to $4 million; it’s now at $120 million. Most of its work is commercial/industrial, especially hospital and laboratory work, plus it does some high-rise residential.
The company has looked for a way to keep its operations under control as it grew through the years and has organized itself into 11 different profit centers in its three locations. Williams believes the most successful business model is the medium-sized mechanical contracting firm that bills from $10 million to $20 million. The operations are comprised of a profit center manager, a couple administrative people, and a staff of five to 15 people, including project managers, project engineers and drafters. Accounting and marketing are centralized.
The company started the profit center system years ago with its service department and now has profit centers that handle just hospital and laboratory work or high-rise work or quick-turnaround, 60- to 90-day jobs.
The profit centers share leads and people so as to not create competition inside the company. The profit centers also take advantage of centralized fabrication shops for plumbing, piping and sheet metal.
“We prefab whatever is possible,” Williams said, noting that McKenney’s has prefabbed since the 1970s.
Prefabbing is important, he said, not only for the productivity gains but because it fosters planning and organization. As drawings and specifications become more conceptual, it doesn’t bother McKenney’s, which has become accustomed to doing its own drawings. Prefabbing also increases speed.
“Since 1995 until last year, our company tripled in size and it’s all about speed,” Williams said. “I think it will continue to be all about speed. The rate of change in society will translate to the construction industry.”
Speed was important during the dot-com era, but the demand continues. Williams noted that a project that would have taken six months in 1980 is now routinely done in 45 days.
“Almost every schedule these days is shorter,” he said.
Williams said he is certain that McKenney’s will be able to handle whatever the market demands because of its reputation for quality, competitive pricing, on-time production and “systems that work.”