Smith Mechanical Inc.
In 1968 Stephen Smith Sr. hired three HVAC associates to help him start a small mechanical contracting business in Columbia, Md. More than 45 years later, and now-known as Smith Mechanical Inc. (SMI), the business has grown extensively.
Stephen Sr., now a vice president, is still highly involved in the operation today, working alongside his son and daughter-in-law who took over the business 10 years ago, initiating the name change. Stephen Sr. is proud to work with his family; the husband and wife team of Stephen Jr. and Anita Smith, vice president and president of SMI, respectively, as well as his two daughters Linda Luman and Lisa Smith.
In college, Stephen Sr. majored in economics. “I had a strong understanding of business cycles and I went to work for IBM,” he recounts. “I learned to sell technical products there.” Stephen Sr. is quick to note that he has always been interested in construction and mechanics, so when the opportunity arose with Trane for a dealer development program, he embraced it.
“We went out to Lacrosse, Wis., for two months, where they trained you in all you needed to know,” Stephen Sr. elaborates. “I was the only non-engineer in the class. We came back and Trane assisted us in hiring the first couple of people and developing customers. That’s how we got started.”
It seems that the timing, as well as the location, were just right. “We happen to be in Columbia, Md., at that time, it was a new city growing out in the country between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.,” he continues. “We saw a lot of commercial and industrial growth in that time. Over time, Trane continued to recognize us and give us some exposure.”
SMI operates from a single 27,000-square-foot building in Columbia with in-house sheet metal and piping fabrication shops. The company’s crews work in most of Maryland and occasionally as far south as northern Virginia. Most of the company’s work is in the private sector, although SMI has worked for a number of government agencies over the years.
The team’s distinct in-house capabilities set SMI apart from other mechanical contractors in the region. “We utilize a computer program in our metal shop that runs the cutter,” Stephen Sr. explains. “It’s a very sophisticated system. We design and fabricate our materials then take them out to the field for our mechanics to hang. We do the same with piping. We also have a large service department. It is their responsibility to keep all the equipment running. Once we install, our first year warranty includes checks and filter changes. The owners take over and maintain the systems for the next 10 to 15 years. When it wears out we replace it.”
The SMI crew has been busy in recent years. “We handle a lot of medical work, not big hospitals; they generally have their own, but remote plants, mini surgical centers and large computer rooms,” Stephen Sr. notes. “We have a specified division for medical work, including medical gases such as oxygen, CO2, N2O and medical vacuum. The institution will supply us with their connectors and we will go ahead and do the medical gas. We use an engineering company that certifies that everything is installed correctly. We don’t want someone under sedation when a pipe breaks or something comes loose. We are required to keep close tolerance of temperature and humidity, especially in the operating room because of the risk of infection.”
According to Stephen Sr., living in Maryland, there is a lot of security. “Between cyber security, the NSA, military installations and Homeland Security, we handle a lot of their secure satellite locations,” he elaborates. Due to the sensitive nature of SMI’s kind of work, a majority of Stephen Sr.’s employees have security clearance.
Of course, not everything is classified and secretive or highly technical and medical. The crew has worked on a number of commercial projects, including several Marshall’s stores, Walgreen’s and a Harris Teeter grocery store. The crew recently worked for Under Armor at the company’s office, installing the mechanical components for a new cafeteria.
Changing trends, regulations and energy requirements keep SMI’s project managers and mechanics on their toes. Therefore, the company’s employees are consistently trained on new technology and best practices. Safeguarding development, SMI’s headquarters has a training room on the second floor of the building where employees learn to handle controls.
“Often we have them troubleshoot a unit,” he explains. “Usually it’s just the controls, not a whole piece of mechanical equipment. We need to stay cutting-edge because we design our control systems. We tell our team that if they like mechanical and electrical work, they’ll do well here.”
To maintain customers, the crew applies its collective skills toward service, as well. SMI has someone on call at all times, including nights, weekends and holidays. Certain projects require remote monitoring, and SMI often receives a notification of a malfunction even before clients are aware of a problem. If the issue requires immediate response, the team can get there quickly to resolve the issue before it becomes a larger problem.
SMI fosters strong relationships with customers through continued service and support, as well as initial quality work. In recent years, with the harsh fluctuation of the national economy, these relationships have carried the team through. “We have seen the same problems as everyone else in the last few years,” Stephen Sr. elaborates. “It was brutal. Generally, we have always been able to pick and choose jobs. Then the market got very tight, so we really had to find a way to give a better job at the same or a lower price. There was lot of competition.”
Stephen Sr. admits times were tough. “For the most part, it seemed to be getting worse every month,” he continues. “About a year and a half ago, it stopped getting worse. The market has improved a bit, but a lot of our competitors are no longer in business. Our customers are concerned that if they give the job to wrong person, they won’t finish it. From that standpoint, we are pretty busy now.”
A strong team
Stephen Sr. chalks much of the company’s success to his team. The family business boasts a low turnover rate, with many associates retiring after working their entire professional lives at SMI. “We don’t have the kind of competitive atmosphere here where we want our team to be cutting corners to beat time on the job,” he explains. “We try to support our team through different means. Around Thanksgiving, we give turkeys away. Several times every year, everyone gets together outside the office. Everyone might leave early on a Friday for a cookout and spend the afternoon together.”
In return, Stephen Sr. has relegated a dedicated staff; his team members are as committed to the success and safety of the company as he is. Recently, the business has kick-started a new safety incentive program. In a high risk business, the company often has employees climbing ladders, driving vehicles and standing on high roofs. With proper training and an established culture of safety, SMI is a low-incident business.
All of these factors combine to make SMI a leading choice for clients in the Maryland and D.C. region. Stephen Sr. strives for customer satisfaction and takes the greatest sense of pride in working with long-term customers. “We deal with mechanical equipment, which, by definition, breaks,” he explains. “We are able to fix it, put it back together and keep the customer.” With a growing following of loyal customers, Smith Mechanical Inc. is positioned for continued growth in the coming years as the market favors the team’s high performance and reliability.
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