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May 2010
Going The Extra Degree
By Zenda Douglas

     Bill Miller Jr. has been walking around with a number in his head for over a year now. His employees have been seeing it, too—on walls, hardhats, even in their paychecks.

     212: the number that makes the difference. “I read this little book,” says Miller, “and it made so much sense, I thought it could make the difference here.”

     The book is 212 Degrees, The Extra Degree, written by Mac Anderson and Sam Parker. The book’s premise is that water at 211 degrees is hot; water at 212 degrees boils. Boiling water produces steam and steam can power a locomotive. The book likens this “extra degree” to making all the difference in business pursuits, athletics and life.

     Miller is a firm believer. As president and CEO and now owner of Tri/Meck Mechanical, Inc., Miller encourages each of his employees to go the extra degree.

     Like most businesses, Tri/Meck, an HVAC and plumbing company whose mainstay is building schools, has had to employ innovative tools in order to survive the economic downturn that has hit the construction industry hard.

     The company, which had averaged $10 million in revenue in the past three to four years, is experiencing a decline in revenue and profits.“Revenue-wise we had a pretty good year last year,” says Miller, whose firm completed two of it’s largest projects—Cuthbertson High School and Cuthbertson Middle School located in Waxhaw, N.C., worth $6.7 million. “Revenue was good but profits were down; this year revenue will go down,” he added with stoic acceptance.

     “Construction industry unemployment is 27 percent!” Miller exclaims. “I don’t think the majority of people know this. We’ve been hit very, very hard by this economy.” Miller says he continues to hear that things are improving but that he doesn’t see those signs as of yet. “We’ve gone from 75 employees to 23.”

     Nevertheless, Tri/Meck is stable, has several projects underway and is planning for the future, not only in broadening the types and locations of projects it takes on, but also in education and training to be competitive and prepared for new opportunities.

     Current contracts include HVAC and plumbing work for an educational building and residence hall at  Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. ($3.5 million); an elementary school in Blythewood, S.C. ($750,000); a middle school in Fort Mill, S.C. ($650,000); the Jail Annex in Cleveland County, N.C. ($560,000); and a medical office building for Piedmont Behavior Health in Kannapolis, N.C. ($220,000).

 

Taking the LEED

     Though rooted in Charlotte, one of the ways Tri/Meck is weathering the economic downturn is by sending its 17 field employees on the road.

     “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of work going on in the Charlotte metro region right now; so we had to go out of town,” explains Miller. “If someone asked me two years ago where we worked, I would have said within a 50 to75 mile radius from Charlotte; now we’re going where we need to go.” In addition to current projects,  Tri/Meck is bidding on work in Pinehurst, Raleigh and Camp Lejeune.

     Tri/Meck has submitted a bid for the HVAC and plumbing work for the renovation of the Charlotte Area Transit System administration building. If approved by the Charlotte City Council, it will be the first time Tri/Meck feels impact from the federal stimulus package. “There’s lots of money going to roads but that’s not what we do,” says Miller. “It’s good for the construction industry as a whole but it doesn’t impact us so much.”

     Still, Miller, who has been president of the company since 2008, looks to the future with great interest and excitement. “The biggest thing that I want to be a part of in this area is a LEED program for retrofits.” He explains that while new construction will continue to be depressed for a while, renovation of existing buildings is where the industry is headed.

     Miller is one of only a handful of subcontractors in the Charlotte area that has become a LEED Accredited Professional. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a program administered by the U. S. Green Building Council. Its certification is the recognized standard for a sustainable or “green” building.  Miller expects that within five years, virtually all building will be LEED-certified.

     Though he expects that the construction industry will never return to what it was economically two years ago, Miller plans to be ready to partake of the new construction economy. “We’ve got an objective for members of our executive team to become Green Associates and to spend time working on LEED projects, the first steps in becoming a LEED AP. All three of Tri/Meck’s current school projects are seeking LEED (Silver) certification.

     “It’s a big deal to us,” says Miller. Because LEED projects are seeking energy savings, HVAC plays a large role. Tri/Meck is also planning to include its field staff in lunch-n-learns and other training settings. As LEED criteria have developed, more emphasis is being placed on water conservation, which is another of Miller’s chief interests. Tri/Meck plans to venture into energy and water audits and members have taken a number of educational courses to learn about water conservation.

     “We want to conduct audits and then look at fixtures and see if improvements in choices can be made—and, we want to promote water conservation,” Miller explains. He cautions, “When water starts getting priced like gasoline, people will start paying attention.”

     Miller was annoyed during the Charlotte region’s last drought when the City first asked residents to conserve and then, when reduced usage lowered revenues, raised the water rates. Miller believes a better perspective is to conserve water so you can satisfy more customers—and maintain or increase revenue—without having to build more infrastructure.

 

Designing and Building

     “There are always new technologies coming at us,” says Miller, who adds that he is looking forward to working with the new Building Information Modeling (BIM) which allows contractors to develop a set of 3-D drawings.

     “When they have inserted the planned structure, pipes, conduit and ductwork, they can see if there are any conflicts,” explains Miller. “This will save money down the road by discovering any problems before the building is built.” For large projects, such as hospitals, BIM is the way to go, according to Miller.

     For design/build projects, Tri/Meck maintains relationships with outside engineers, especially a close friendship with Professional Engineering Associates. Inviting different perspectives, Miller prefers not to have a professional engineer on staff. “We like how we do things; we think it’s the best but maybe something’s (technology) changed and a new set of eyes will be good.”

     Components of design may include LEED criteria, different kinds of systems (chiller and boiler or rooftops systems, for example) and will be contingent upon the construction envelope and budgetary considerations.

     Tri/Meck’s most unique project to date was part of the renovation of The Grove Arcade in Asheville, N.C.  With a $4.5 million contract, Tri/Meck completed all of the HVAC and plumbing work. The Arcade was started by E. W. Grove of Grove Park Inn fame around the early 1920s. Four stories were built before the Great  Depression hit. It represented the first indoor mall in the United States and took up an entire city block. The renovated complex has retail on the first floor, business and office space on the second, and condominiums on the upper floors (the towers).

     “We had never done a mixed-used project until then; it was a great project,” relishes Miller.

     Tri/Meck’s 212 degrees ethic is witnessed in the community. “I think a business needs to give back to the community, particularly today,” shares Miller. “There are a lot of people having a tough time out there including some of our former employees.”

     Tri/Meck’s staff, clients and vendors all donated toys for Toys for Tots last holiday season and teamed with Ferguson Enterprises to provide material and labor to the Salkehatchie Summer Service Project in conjunction with the Huntersville United Methodist Church. This project renovated five homes in Huntersville.

 

A Good Fit

     A native of Hickory, N.C., Miller was well-prepared to become the president and owner of Tri/Meck. After graduating in 1985 from N.C. State with a degree in mechanical engineering, Miller went to work as a project engineer for John J. Kirlin, Inc., a mechanical contracting firm in Rockville, Md. Eight and a half years later, the Millers moved from suburban Maryland, deciding that they wanted to raise their one daughter in the Charlotte region.

     Miller speaks fondly of his previous employer: “I like to say that in eight years I got 15 years of experience. They were very good at making your job seem like running your own little company—monitoring payments to come in, bidding jobs and managing them.”

     It was once he came to Charlotte that Miller became vice president in charge of plumbing at Tri/Meck Mechanical, in operation since 1983 by Pat and Brenda Garrison. “We were very fortunate. A month after selling the house and quitting our jobs, I was working here as an estimator and my wife was working uptown,” says Miller.

     In 1999, Miller purchased a minority interest in Tri/Meck from the Garrisons. Pat passed away in 2005, and a few years later Miller bought out his wife’s shares to become the sole owner of the company. Coming full circle, now—17 years later—his first boss, whose advice he sought when buying Tri/Meck, is one whom he occasionally bids against for projects.

     While most of Tri/Meck’s employees are too new to have known Garrison, he still influences the company’s work and is memorialized in the logo. Tri/Meck prides itself on being a “Professional Accountable Team” (PAT) with “Productive Able Tradesmen” (PAT).

     “The acronyms were serendipity at first,” confesses Miller. “Now we try to come up with little PATs.” The latest PAT: “Planning Ahead Together”. Miller enjoys giving the recognition. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. It means a lot to me.”

     Incorporated in North Carolina, Tri/Meck holds a number of licenses including general contractor in both North and South Carolina.

     Miller attributes Tri/Meck’s success and endurance through tough economic times to its very good relationships with general contractors and architects. According to Miller, Tri/Meck clients include 15 of the top 20 general contractors and 8 of the top 10 architects in the Charlotte metro region.

     For an upcoming project in Avery County, four of the bidding general contractors asked Tri/Meck to participate. “We generally do very well when pre-qualification is required,” says Miller.

     Miller also believes that the 212 degrees philosophy that the company has embraced has had a lot to do with the company’s stability. Referencing the book, Miller maintains that very small margins win races and tournaments and achieve high goals.

     “Now Tri/Meck Mechanical uses the 212 degrees concept as a goal and measure to identify not only the employee of the month but to evaluate all of the company’s endeavors.”

     “We’re all doing better when the water is boiling and the steam is rising,” concludes Miller.

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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