Direct Mechanical and Direct Electric, with their recent merger, are a giant step closer to offering a complete mechanical construction program to general contractors for ground-up construction and major renovations…
Even with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Senior Project Manager Zach Pettit of Direct Mechanical, founded by Rich Olson 20 years ago, is optimistic about the future of the evolving company. Direct Mechanical offers professional commercial heating, cooling, refrigeration, building-automation installation, and maintenance services across Chicagoland. The company is presently in the process of merging with Chris Umbach’s Direct Electric, and both companies have been able to continue working through the worst of the pandemic in Chicagoland (the third largest metropolitan area in the U.S.), and did not have to lay off any of their 50 employees.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t slowdowns with some plans and jobs being put on hold.
“When this hit in March, we took precautions in the office and were very conscious to make sure we stayed six feet apart,” Pettit says. “But when COVID-19 cases really kicked up at the end of March, our owner decided to have our sales staff, estimators, and project managers work from home, so I was working from my dining-room table for a month. Near the end of April there were fewer cases and by the first of May we were back working from the office.
“On job sites, our guys continued working because the good thing about construction, like we do on the bigger sites, is that trades are not on top of each other. It’s a matter of scheduling so our installers and technicians can keep their distance from the electricians, plumbers, and carpenters, which has a lot to do with the general contractor being conscious of all this.
“The GCs we work with had safety requirements in place and their superintendents made sure everyone had their temperatures taken every day, and that the crews were separated. Obviously, when doing sheet-metal work like we do, the installers can’t maintain a six-foot distance, because we work in pairs with heavy material, but we were successful while being conscious of safety hazards.”
But while some jobs continued to go ahead during the worst of Chicago’s pandemic, some didn’t, and shut down entirely, so that Direct Mechanical now has five jobs, including one for Lifetime Fitness, on indefinite hold.
“Then we started to see a decrease in invites to bid,” Pettit says, “and by May the invites were very slim, and we were bidding on every job that hit our desk. In June, things started to pick up, slightly, and now in early July more invitations are coming in and we have some jobs lined up. I think that by the end of July we’ll see a big bump in work.”
One thing that has been put on hold, however, is finding a larger space to accommodate staff. Direct Mechanical, which has seen rapid growth since Pettit joined six years ago, has moved three times, and was planning to relocate yet again to a larger facility to accommodate Direct Electric employees and equipment.
However, for now they will stay in their current location, with the conference room doubling as office space since the 12 offices are full, and with both companies sharing the warehouse located in the same building behind the offices.
Although founding Direct Mechanical 20 years ago, Rich Olson has over 35 years’ experience in the field. According to Pettit, “Rich knows every aspect of this industry. He’s loyal to his customers and he works hard. He’s first in the office, here and working at four-thirty or five in the morning, long before anyone else is awake, and he’s here for a full day,” he says.
“He used to be an installer himself and worked for a union company, but I think he was tired of that and wanted to run his own company. A couple of the guys he worked with came with him, and so he started a business with three people in the office and five or six in the field and look where we are now. But Rich is not about self-promotion. He just works hard and sets a high standard for us to get the work done.”
Pettit also points out that Olson is always looking for ways to grow the company. Some years ago, he noticed that another electrical company had started up a small mechanical side, and he realized he could also package his mechanical company with an electrical company in order to be comPettitive.
This led to a partnership with Chris Umbach who runs Direct Electric, and which has increased opportunities for both companies because they can now bid together on jobs.
The company also maintains a full service department for both HVAC and electrical needs, headed by service manager Mike Riley, which provides prompt service 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. “He has hundreds of accounts,” says Pettit, “and they all come from word-of-mouth, one company referring us to another. We have seen fantastic growth on the service side of the business as well.”
Indeed, an excellent reputation among service clients and general contractors is what has promoted Direct Mechanical’s and Direct Electric’s success. “The GCs here are always coming to us,” he says, “because they know us and we have a relationship built on trust, and so that means we don’t have to go seeking work.”
On the job site
An A to Z of the company’s commercial clients begins with airports and ends with warehouses. In between are hospitals, chemical and industrial facilities, office towers, retail, child-care facilities, restaurant and grocery chains, and entertainment complexes.
The size of the facility or the complexity of the application does not stand in the way of Direct Mechanical being able to provide what Pettit describes as “cost-effective, energy-efficient, and streamlined solutions to temperature control,” which include the newest, state-of-the-art, ductless split-system installations which can be installed in a single day in smaller buildings.
Pettit spoke in some detail about two recent, challenging projects. In November 2019, work was completed on the WhirlyBall entertainment complex in Naperville, a Chicago suburb. The two-story, 45,000 square foot facility offers opportunities to play WhirlyBall or laser tag, drive bumper cars, bowl, or watch televised sports in a 75-seat restaurant.
“It was one of my most difficult projects. We had a lot of owner-provided items – everything minus the sheet metal that we had to provide for the ducts and the roof top unit that had diffusers on the inside,” he explains. “It was challenging to keep all of this organized because the owners shipped everything to me at the warehouse for security reasons. I had to transport it to the job site when it was needed, because if pieces went missing while waiting to be installed, it would have meant that our dollar was replacing them.”
He told us that, in addition, for the last two years owners have been giving general contractors shorter lead times and wanting jobs turned over immediately. So the company was presented with an enormous challenge when the owners requested that a month be subtracted from the WhirlyBall schedule.
“We had a meeting with the GC, the project manager, the superintendent, and a project manager from every subcontractor, and we sat around the table for hours trying to subtract a month. We couldn’t give them a month, but we did cut back three weeks, and this tight schedule applied to every subcontractor on that project.
“It was very challenging and stressful. It was one of those jobs I thought about constantly – as soon as I woke up and before I went to sleep. Construction work is just getting faster and faster.”
The irony here, of course, is that even though WhirlyBall in Naperville opened ahead of schedule last November, it, like most entertainment venues, had to close during the lockdown and was still closed at the time of writing.
Design for the times
However, a second major project completed this past March, by the same GC which subcontracted the HVAC work to Direct Mechanical, was tailor-made for pandemic conditions as indoor-dining restaurants closed and take-out delivery restaurants flourished.
Cloud Kitchens in Chicago (for which Direct Mechanical supplied the mechanical work), is a start-up food industry model in which a number of commercial kitchens are housed in a single building and rented to caterers and take-out delivery restaurants.
“There was a huge amount of ductwork required for the 30 kitchens, for all the kitchen hoods and grease ducts. And the building wasn’t all that big, so it required a lot of coordination between the mechanical crew, the electrician, the plumber and the sprinkler fitter,” he says.
When asked to comment on the company philosophy and way of working, Pettit is modest. “We’re a basic simple company intent on getting the job done. We run on relationships and keeping our customers satisfied. People want the work done on time and done well, and that is what we do.”