Relationships, with customers and inside the company, make the difference for Great Lakes Plumbing & Heating.
BY ROBERT P. MADER of CONTRACTOR’s staff
Ben Seno, vice president/special projects group for Great Lakes Plumbing & Heating Co. in Chicago, says, “It’s all about building relationships, both with general contractors and within the company.”
Great Lakes has done that and much more. The 58-year-old full mechanical contractor has become one of the premier contractors in the region, the one that gets the showplace jobs such as the renovation of Soldier Field and the expansion of the McCormick Place convention center.
It’s the contractor for whom commercial landlords make sure Seno’s journeymen stay on their properties. It’s one of the best fire sprinkler contractors in the country. It is focused on being the best mechanical contractor in the Chicago area, with no other geographic ambitions or attempts to get into other lines of work.
For those reasons, Great Lakes Plumbing & Heating Co. is our Mechanical Contractor of the Year.
Founders George J. and Dorothy J. Treutalaar lived over the shop in Chicago’s northwest side when they founded the company in 1946. Today it’s a $50 million-plus company that employs more than 300 people.
While Great Lakes has developed a sterling reputation for its fire sprinkler work, more than half its volume is in plumbing.
The firm is best known, however, for its supremely customer-friendly fire sprinkler work. In fact, when fire gutted the 29th and 30th floors of the LaSalle Bank Building in Chicago’s Loop one night in December 2004, Great Lakes sprinkler fitters were there, preparing the infrastructure for a sprinkler retrofit. The fitters were evacuated without injury. The fire was later blamed on an electrical malfunction in a ceiling cavity.
For the past 20 years, the special retrofit team from Great Lakes has quietly installed fire sprinkler systems late at night in some of Chicago’s most prominent buildings without the tenants ever knowing until they spot the new sprinkler heads above.
The crew, with a core of about 15 fitters, is accustomed to special installation conditions and often strange work schedules.
Many of the guys are older, with 15 to 20 years’ experience, and their children are grown, said Brian Conway, executive vice president who runs the sprinkler division. The odd work schedule isn’t as disruptive as it would be for a fitter with a young family. The crew also tries to work a four-10s schedule and is paid a 15% premium for night work.
It’s not for everybody, Conway notes. Sometimes a fitter will try working nights for a month or so and decide it’s not for him.
It requires a different mindset than new construction sprinkler work. Fitters are brought into the crew and taught Great Lakes’ ways of working. For example, during the construction process for any of its nighttime clients, Great Lakes has drywallers and cleaners come in to keep areas patched and mess-free. Night work also requires better planning because wholesalers aren’t open in the middle of the night.
The schedule can also become periodically frenzied. Great Lakes recently started a retrofit at a high school and quickly mobilized and sprinklered the gymnasium over Christmas break. Then they planned to retrofit three classrooms at a time during the day and work in the hallways at night.
Over spring break they plan an accelerated schedule, then revert to the previous day and evening schedule. The eight-month job will be finished out with a strong final effort over the summer in time for school to start in late August.
When the contractor retrofitted the Palmer House Hilton Hotel, the hotelier shut down entire floors, but restaurants have to be done at night. The fitters might have to work in an 18-in. crawl space above an ornate plaster ceiling.
They’ve had to do that more than once. At the Union League Club, they made molds of all the plasterwork so that it could be patched or replaced exactly as it was. In such cases, the fitters prefer to drill for the drops from the bottom up rather than down from the crawl space — it’s easier to locate the heads properly. Great Lakes has also gotten head cover plates in colors that match the plasterwork so they can barely be seen.
The contractor has always used steel pipe and copper pipe if it’s exposed in public areas. The pipe comes through Great Lakes’ fab shop that is several blocks away from the main office and 90% of the pipe has been cut and threaded to exact lengths.
Recently, Great Lakes retrofitted sprinklers in Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Prentice Pavilion for Women. The job required maneuvering around labor and delivery rooms, operating rooms, inpatient care floors, an ambulatory care clinic, a neonatal intensive care unit and office space, all operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Sometimes we’d go in at 2 a.m. and end at 11 a.m., other days it was 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.,” Conway notes. “It really depended on our client’s preference and what worked the best for them.”
The contractor has retrofitted the coal mine exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and the now 114-year-old social service complex known as Jane Addams Hull House. Great Lakes retrofitted sprinklers at Orchestra Hall for a new stage and underneath the balcony. The walls of Orchestra Hall are 3-ft.-thick masonry, Conway notes.
Great Lakes has been doing sprinkler work for 25 years, but plumbing still is the meat and potatoes of the business, says Fred LaVoie, executive vice president in charge of the plumbing division.
The firm gets many high-profile jobs in Chicago. It’s starting work on McCormick Place West, the sixth McCormick Place building it has done. It installed the plumbing for the 18-month renovation of Soldier Field (September 2003, pg. 41).
For that project, Great Lakes brought in city water through two 12-in. lines through booster pumps with 2,700 gpm capacity controlled with variable frequency drives. The water went through an 8-in. loop around the structure and up through 75 risers that fed toilet rooms, food preparation areas and suites. The contractor hooked up hundreds of wall-hung water closets, lavs and urinals and stainless steel sinks in the suites.
Great Lakes prefers to prefabricate all of its fixture assemblies at its fab shop in three-fixture sets. It is, however, easier to move much bigger assemblies a few hundred feet on a jobsite. In a brilliant move, LaVoie commandeered a freeway overpass near Solider Field, enclosed it with corrugated steel, heated it and fabricated all the assemblies onsite.
The project manager for the Soldier Field job was Jim Barnas, who has now taken the lead on the McCormick Place West job. The McCormick Place team has moved itself out of the main office to Great Lakes’ warehouse/fab shop location. The McCormick Place job is design-assist and is scheduled for completion in May 2007. The structural steel is going up and Barnas hopes to be sleeving for concrete pours, weather permitting.
The plumbing division works on about 12 big jobs a year — condos, office buildings and hospital work. Great Lakes retrofit sprinklers in Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Prentice Pavilion for Women, and it will do the plumbing work when that building will be completely replaced with a new Prentice Women’s Hospital.
The firm worked at Cook County Hospital and helped build its replacement, Stroger Hospital.
Scheduling is the hardest part, LaVoie said, especially now that owners will move people in before the build-out is complete.
HVAC is growing
The HVAC division, run by Vice President John Devine, is Great Lakes smallest, but significant because it gives the company full mechanical capabilities. The division also performs refrigeration and installs piping systems for medical gas, process piping, natural gas and reverse osmosis systems.
The division’s revenues have grown 60% over the last two years, although that’s starting from a small base. Devine’s goal is to build the operation up to $12 million to $15 million.
The HVAC business in Chicago is tough, Devine says, and the main thing he has to sell is the expertise of the fitters who have been with Great Lakes for years.
The one division at Great Lakes that’s not involved in new construction is the special projects division run by Ben Seno. The division was started in the 1980s to perform tenant build-out work and has been busy every since with small projects such as bank buildings, ADA retrofits for toilet rooms and sprinkler retrofit work. Plumbing Vice President John Reidy and sprinkler Vice President Jim Durkin assist Seno.
Great Lakes separates the work on whether it’s an entire building, which goes to LaVoie and Conway, or if it’s a couple floors, which go to Seno. If the job runs more than six months in duration, it goes to the new construction crews. If it’s eight weeks, it’s considered a special project for Seno.
The division has established long-term relationships with commercial landlords to the point that they work to keep Great Lakes’ mechanics in their buildings. The plumbers and fitters drive their own vans. They know where to park, Seno notes, they know the building engineers and they know all the mechanical systems in the buildings.
They work for high-profile clients such as Prudential Plaza, Illinois Center, Deloitte & Touche, and they built out all the space when Boeing moved its world headquarters to Chicago a few years ago.
The one thing all the vice presidents mention is how well all departments within the company operate together and the level of expertise of their plumbers and fitters.
“We’ve developed good expertise and we can meet aggressive schedules and perform,” President Kevin Condon says.
Great Lakes has proven itself to GCs. The contractor can mobilize quickly, man a job quickly, and, when the last fitting is in place, the job is done right, time and again. It’s because of this kind of consistent performance that Great Lakes Plumbing & Heating is our Mechanical Contractor of the Year.
Staying on Top of a Changing Market
Great Lakes Plumbing & Heating was started in 1946 by George J. Treutelaar and his wife, Dorothy. Today son George W. Treutelaar is CEO and Kevin Condon is president. Treutelaar is the majority owner and other key executives also hold equity.
Treutelaar gets business — he’s out front selling and he oversees estimating and bidding. Condon manages the operations after the work is won.
“Relationships are important,” Condon says. “We have a lot of cooperation between divisions, and that runs from the division managers down to the foreman level. We do two or even three trades and we have different unions. We have to break down barriers. We instill that in our foremen.”
CONTRACTOR sat down with Condon to get his take on the big picture of mechanical contracting in Chicago.
Question: What’s the state of the sprinkler market now that Chicago has passed a sprinkler retrofit ordinance?
Kevin Condon: The sprinkler business is positive since the passage of the ordinance, although many building owners previously took steps on their own. That’s why our night crew has been working for so many years. But now some building owners will retrofit their buildings that would not have. Life safety is such a priority that it is viewed as essential, although resident building owners can also do other things such as put in fire-rated doors and hard-wired smoke detectors.
Q: The Chicago Chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association has complained that a lot of the unsprinklered high-rises are Class B and C office space that can’t afford sprinklers.
KC: It is more difficult for Class B and C buildings. That’s why the sprinkler ordinance has a long duration of 12 years. It spreads the financial impact out over a number of years. The eight-year retrofit proposal did not pass.
Q: Can Chicago sprinkler contractors handle the increased volume?
KC: I think the existing sprinkler contractors can handle the work.
Q: Are you seeing alternative methods of getting work such as auctions or partnering?
KC: Ours is mainly bid work. Auctioning, we’ve never been into that. Even in the work where we’ve partnered with the general contractor, it started out as bid work. We’re seeing more construction managers than we used to. The GCs would do their own concrete and carpentry and have their own laborers. The CMs don’t do any of that. We do a lot of work for Bovis Lend Lease and Turner Construction and they do just CM work. That method has increased even in the public sector, like schools, where the CM develops the bid documents and works with the engineer. Commercial office buildings are often done with CMs. A CM is more aligned with the owner, whereas a GC is more impartial and can see both sides. A CM is just the owner’s agent.
Q: What impact did the increased steel and copper prices have on you?
KC: That affected us mainly when the prices spiked and we had long-term contracts of a year or longer. We were surprised because we had not figured that in. We’ve been talking with our suppliers and they see increases two, four and six months from now. The spike hurt us with long-term contracts because there was no escalation clause. Steel prices increased last January and after that in certain product categories like copper, cast iron and ductile. This January, steel will increase another 10%. We see double-digit increases even through next summer.
Q: Have you had any problem with manpower?
KC: The unions we deal with in Chicago do a good job in training, safety training and new technology, and they do a good job getting qualified apprentices in their program. Our relationship is a strong one. We’ve been satisfied with the manpower we’re getting from the unions. There have been some manpower shortages over the last five years, but I don’t know if any severe shortage will occur again.
Q: What’s happened with your insurance costs?
KC: Our health care skyrocketed along with workers’ comp and property and casualty as well. We had to increase our employee contributions and modified benefits such as being less generous with our prescription plan. The deductible increased and the out-of-network cost is up. We’ve really enhanced our safety program, started a safety committee and appointed a safety director, Mike Clifford. We’ve implemented a light-duty return-to-work program. We try to keep our mod rate competitive. Our liability insurance premiums are up some, auto is up some, but our largest cost is workers’ comp.