Doing Whatever It Takes To Get It Right
Stuart Mechanical applies its core values to optimize HVAC solutions for clients
“This all started with just me and a van in 2009,” says Ray Barnowske, COO of Stuart Mechanical in Auburn Hills, Michigan. “I had been let go from a position as an HVAC account manager and I needed a job. So, when Broder & Sachse Real Estate, Inc. offered me a position as their only HVAC tech, I told my wife I was jumping back in a truck and going to work. I’d been a service tech for years before moving into management.”
According to Ray, it wasn’t long before his former clients started calling him.
“I thought, ‘well, I have my mechanical license, so there’s no reason we can’t pull in a little extra revenue while I take care of my old clients,’ “ he says. “I worked as a service technician during the day and focused on building an HVAC business at night. Within a year, I had a couple of guys helping out with providing HVAC repair and maintenance services. Then we added construction services.
I had been subbing these out to Matt Popp and ended up hiring him. He’s now our director of construction.”
Fresh Name, New Company
By 2011, Ray says his HVAC business had grown enough for him to incorporate Stuart Mechanical as an independent entity and begin serving real estate and property management companies, general contractors, individual building owners and facility managers throughout Southeastern Michigan.
“We had a fresh new name for a fresh new company,” he says.
Diverse Projects & Services
Stuart Mechanical’s current staff of more than 30 technicians, installers and support personnel provides analysis and planning, construction and installation, repair and preventative maintenance services for HVAC, controls and building automation systems that serve educational, medical, industrial, automotive, religious, retail, technological and fitness facilities.
“If a client is moving into a new building or renovating an existing facility, it’s critical that the HVAC system is properly planned and laid out to maximize the amount of functional space and to make sure everyone has comfortable working conditions,” Ray says. “We can work with drawings a builder provides or create a custom design. We work with everyone from small mom and pop businesses to major industrial companies and national retailers.”
Although all the firm’s projects are won through bidding, Stuart Mechanical works with numerous clients on a repeat basis. “We’ve done five or six projects for LA Fitness and are installing mechanical and control systems for all The Edge Fitness Clubs that are going up,” Ray says. “We’ve also worked on existing equipment and installed new HVAC systems in several Whole Foods Markets. Right now, we have guys working night shifts to complete renovation work at a Whole Foods store in Rochester so it can stay open during the day.”
Acting on Core Values
It’s easy to see what serves as the foundation for Stuart Mechanical’s ongoing client relationships. Quotes stating the company’s core values are painted in bright green text on the wall of a large open meeting space adjacent to the entrance lobby: “Do whatever it takes. Do the right thing. Have passion and enthusiasm. Pursue excellence by constantly raising the bar.”
“We hire and fire by these core values,” Ray says. “We have very little turnover because everybody here is geared to do whatever it takes to get the job done and to do the right thing for our clients. We teach our employees to look at each project through the owner’s eyes so they can keep equipment running well and prioritize their recommendations for any improvements that should be made over time. We are open and honest with our findings. If we realize clients need a preventative maintenance plan, we will create one that is tailored to meet their specific needs. If we find that it’s better to replace equipment or the entire system right away, we say so.”
This is because Ray and his employees understand what the true costs of deferred maintenance can be.
“A lot of times, we get calls and it’s hotter than all get-out in the building because the owner doesn’t have a maintenance plan in place and the coils on the air conditioning unit are plugged,” he says. “If the compressor overheats and goes out, it could cost eight to 10 grand just to replace it.”
Doing Whatever It Takes
When HVAC systems fail, minutes and hours can make a critical difference for preserving the health and safety of building occupants. Stuart Mechanical provides emergency response services to address these situations.
“During the polar vortex, we were called to help bring the heating system back online for two 20-story apartment buildings that had over 1,300 residents,” Ray says. “After the boilers went down, the place became a giant icicle. The pipes froze and then, within hours, they began bursting. My entire crew at the time—about 25 of us—worked on-site 24/7 to get those buildings back up.”
He continues, “We had to do everything live. We had water going up through the building a floor at a time. As the guys stationed in the building found leaks from broken pipes, they’d bust into the walls and fix the pipes. Although the insurance company put most of the residents up in hotels, some wouldn’t leave and we had to work around them. We weren’t just doing this for the owner; we were doing it for the people who lived there.”
Braving the Heat
Ray says Stuart Mechanical’s employees channel this passion into every project—even when it means taking on additional work in the midst of their busy season.
“During the heat wave in July 2019, we took a job at a tool and die company that had experienced a fire,” he explains. “The company was still running production during the day, so we’d show up at 4 p.m. and work until 9 p.m. each day. Seven service guys and I worked to get this job done within a week. After the restoration company had cleaned everything, we checked all the heating equipment and exhaust fans to make sure nothing was damaged during the event, then made recommendations for repairs.”
Procuring the Proper Equipment
If clients need help procuring equipment to optimize the operation of their building systems, Stuart Mechanical’s staff are happy to assist.
“While Carrier’s i-Vu control systems are good and we are certified to install and service them, our employees have experience with virtually any kind of building automation system,” Ray says. “We base our equipment recommendations on the needs of clients and their specific facilities. We don’t push any particular brand or stock a specific manufacturer’s parts. If a client has a type of equipment or system that they prefer and we’re not familiar with it, we’ll send guys for training to learn about it.”
A Cool Place to Work
Stuart Mechanical also recognizes and celebrates employees’ accomplishments and personal milestones in creative and fun ways.
“We present a game-ball award every quarter,” Ray says. “Depending on the season, we give a baseball, football or a hockey puck signed by our leadership to an employee who has stepped outside of his or her comfort zone and done something significant for the company. The employee also receives a $500 gift card.”
Ray says there are tables and a grill set up in an area behind their building where he hosts barbecues to welcome new hires once they’ve gone through orientation or to celebrate employee birthdays. “We made the 2017 Cool Places to Work list published by Crain’s Detroit Business,” Ray says. “We’ve also been named one of Metro Detroit’s Best and Brightest Companies to Work For in 2014 through 2018. These awards speak for themselves because they are based on anonymous surveys completed by all of our employees.”
Optimizing HVAC System Performance
Just shy of a decade after he jumped back in a truck and started the journey that led to launching and building Stuart Mechanical, Ray attributes the growth and stability he and his staff have achieved to the fact that they continue to stay true to their core values. “We don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions,” he says. “We cater to our clients and are passionate about providing the precise services and equipment they need to optimize the performance of their HVAC systems.”