This month, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America will name Michael A. Brandt as its new president at its convention in San Antonio. Brandt is president and CEO of Walton Hills, Ohio-based Smith & Oby Co., a 120-year-old mechanical contractor.
Brandt started at Smith & Oby as a first-year apprentice in 1983 and has spent his entire career at the company, an unusual feat these days. He bought into the company when he was 29 years old and kept moving up the corporate ladder.
In addition to overseeing the day-to-day operations of the company, Brandt is president of the Cleveland Welding Bureau and chairman of the Local 120 Joint Apprenticeship Committee. He sits on the boards of the MCA of America, MCA of Cleveland and Pipe Fitters Local 120 Apprenticeship Program.
We talked with Brandt about his passion for the industry, his outlook for MCAA and his desire to see more contractor involvement in the association.
CONTRACTOR: How did you get started in mechanical contracting?
Michael Brandt: I went to community college for about a year and a half — first in accounting and then criminal law — before deciding to make a career path change. I decided to follow in the footsteps of my father, who was a pipefitter and a member of the local union. An opportunity opened up to get into the apprenticeship program, so I decided to put my name on the list and take the test. I was accepted about six months after I applied.
C: How did you know you wanted to be part of the mechanical contracting industry?
MB: When I was in high school, I used to work with my father in the summer. At first, I would go because he would take me for lunch. The more I started to help him, I really enjoyed the work and being a part of a team environment. I like to work with my hands, learn different piping systems.
'Never settle for mediocrity, utilize your talents, shoot for the stars and aim big.'
My father was very passionate about the pipefitting trade and I saw how well he provided for our family. It’s what I wanted for myself and my family. I made the change in college and went into the trades because I saw firsthand what the career entailed from working with my father all those summers. I really liked it.
C: What do you love about your job? What do you hate about your job?
MB: I love the opportunity to build relationships. I’m involved in a lot of committees and boards, both locally and nationally. I stay involved. I help mentor. I help teach in the apprenticeship program. I love the opportunity in our industry to learn something new. Every day I come to work and I’m always learning something I didn’t know the day before.
I love watching a project start from a hole in the ground to an operational facility, knowing my company was an integral part of it. I also value the people within my company. I enjoy mentoring them. I love seeing how excited they get when we get a big project or we engage in our team-building events. They appreciate how we all get together.
I don’t like it when I lose business opportunities. I’m very competitive. When we lose a project, I get a little discouraged and disappointed. But other than that, I love what I do. I’ve always loved my industry. My kids think I’m nuts because I love Sunday nights; I’m actually excited to go back to work on Monday morning!
C: What piece of advice helped you in your career?
MB: Never settle for mediocrity, utilize your talents, shoot for the stars and aim big. Always be ambitious and set goals for yourself. I’m a big goal setter. I believe it’s what helped get me from a pipefitter apprentice to the CEO of a company. I was taught early on to always set a goal and work hard to reach it. Stay motivated and engaged. And don’t be complacent; you’re only as good as your last job.
C: What’s the biggest problem facing mechanical contractors today? And what is MCAA doing about it?
MB: Staying up with the technology change curve. Building information modeling has increasingly become a project requirement in many markets and it is requiring contractors to adapt. It isn’t something that can be done overnight. It takes years and an investment in hardware, training and manpower to become good at it. The good news is that once your company integrates BIM into its processes, it opens up a lot of opportunities to increase productivity.
If you want to get into BIM or other construction technology, there’s nothing holding you back. MCAA has been leading the industry for several years now with its Construction Technology Initiative. We have training programs and we are conducting ongoing research to help our members understand technology challenges and opportunities.
C: What are you most passionate about in the industry? How do you hope to work on this issue while MCAA president?
MB: I’m most passionate about the need for involvement in our industry. By that I mean this isn’t an industry you just work in; it’s an industry whose strength and progress depends on the contributions of everyone who is privileged to be part of it.
Involvement starts in your local chapter. At Smith & Oby, we try to get as many of our executives on at least one local committee. I sit down with them and explain what the opportunities are, how it’s going to help them and the company. I want them to participate in our industry because it’s been so good to me. MCAA has helped me so much; I want it to grow them as well. Once they participate on the local level, I like to see them move to a national MCAA committee.
You can’t contribute if you’re not involved. That’s the beauty of MCAA; it is the perfect vehicle through which to get involved and contribute to your industry’s strength and progress. That is the message I will convey throughout my presidency.
C: How do mechanical contractors use technology today? What about the future?
MB: When it comes to technology, the future is now! For example, we have been hearing a lot about the future of augmented and virtual reality. They are, in fact, already part of our industry. We can use a 3D laser scanner to pull full representations of the real world into a BIM model. Our BIM technicians review drawings in virtual reality today. We fabricate as much of our work as possible ahead of time to make jobsite installation faster and safer. We use robotic total stations on almost every project to accurately measure and place.
'This is an industry of relationships. Working with an MCAA contractor gives you a wealth of networking opportunities that enable you to build relationships and create life-long friendships.'
MCAA’s members are even using the Microsoft HoloLens to provide augmented reality on the jobsite — today. Many things we thought were science fiction just a few years ago are now part of how we work every day.
At my company, we’re always investing in technology. We try to equip all our people — field personnel and office staff — with whatever new technology there is. If it’s going to help with productivity and the job, that’s what we want.
C: How can mechanical contractors and mechanical engineers collaborate better to ensure the best possible outcome for a client’s project?
MB: You need to start communicating early in the design process, which helps the project overall. Many times a mechanical contractor gets engaged too late, and then the owner sometimes loses the opportunity to change things because it’s already designed. Any changes after the design cost money for the owner.
We’ve had a lot of success in Cleveland with design-assist projects, which gives the contractor the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with the engineer early on during the design process. We share ideas on what would be the most cost-effective solution, as well as providing sustainability ideas to help the end user. It has led to a reduction in change orders and a reduced number of requests for information. It’s also increased BIM efficiency since we’re working together with the engineer to complete the final documents. It just helps the overall project schedule.
C: When speaking to young people in the industry, how do you describe the benefits of MCAA membership?
MB: One thing I tell them is this is an industry of relationships. Working with an MCAA contractor gives you a wealth of networking opportunities that enable you to build relationships and create life-long friendships.
Involvement in the industry starts from the top down. Most of my people have been to MCAA’s service sales meetings, the Institute for Project Management and advanced leadership workshops. We pick our leaders and we know how to tailor their experience, know what they should attend. This gets them to network with other people in the industry; you can learn a lot from sitting around a table talking, exchanging ideas problem-solving.
C: What is MCAA doing to recruit people into the industry?
MB: MCAA leads the industry when it comes to career development. This month we will be chartering four more student chapters, bringing to 57 the number of MCAA student chapters at colleges and universities across North America. Hundreds of our member companies hire college students as interns every year, many with financial grants from our foundation. Our annual student chapter competition is the most challenging and thought-provoking in construction.
C: Are there initiatives to bring in more veterans and more women into the mechanical contracting trades?
MB: Our labor partner, the United Association, established the VIP Program, an award-winning program that provides active-duty military members a career pathway in civilian life through the piping trades. MCAA's Women in the Mechanical Industry program, which will be unveiled at the convention, is empowering women to further enrich and enhance their careers through networking, education, mentoring and career development opportunities beyond those already offered through membership in MCAA.
C: If you only had one message to give to your fellow contractors, what would it be?
MB: Getting back to my message of involvement, I tell every contractor I meet to get involved in MCAA. I can speak from personal experience; it is an investment in their time that will bring a tremendous return in knowledge and friendships gained. And the icing on the cake is their company will be more competitive and profitable, too!
Also, go out of your way to show your employees how much you appreciate them because you’re only as good as the people who surround you. That’s what makes your company strong and successful; not just one person but a whole team. Make your company more than just a place to work.