Preparing the Industry’s Next Generation

Leslie S. Emery

Leslie Emery is the Communications Manager for NIA. Her responsibilities include marketing and NIA News. She can be reached at 703-464-6422, ext. 112 or

December 1, 2018

In the mechanical insulation industry, the transfer of knowledge to the next generation of leaders is a top-of-mind topic, but these mentoring tactics can be used by engineers and architects as well. To learn what’s happening on the ground in all sectors of the industry, Insulation Outlook interviewed a handful of National Insulation Association (NIA) members to get a first-hand look at how our industry is preparing the next generation—from leadership training programs, to formal and informal mentoring programs, to extensive onboarding processes, to improving corporate culture, to building relationships—and in turn, what the new generation is bringing to the industry.

Providing Perspective

Many insulation industry professionals were first introduced to the business by chance. NIA President Dan Bofinger is based in St. Pete, Florida, and is Regional Vice President, East, of Specialty Products & Insulation, a NIA Distributor member. He shared, “Like many in the mechanical insulation industry, I did not choose a career in mechanical insulation—it was an employment opportunity that was presented to me and I decided to give it a try. And 36 years later, I have no regrets.”

For Dayna Martin, Senior Marketing Specialist with Johns Manville, a NIA Associate (Manufacturer) member in Denver, Colorado, chance was also a factor, “Honestly, I fell into the industry by chance. A good company and good coworkers have been reasons to stay. The industry and products will always be needed, and as new innovations and generations come, there will always be a need understand how to properly select an insulation material.”

When entering the workforce Matt Caldwell, President of Caldwell Insulation, a NIA Union Contractor member in Powder Springs, Georgia knew one thing: “I wanted to be self-employed. I did have family in the construction industry. I worked through college in the industry and took a job out of college with another company. I started my company in my garage over 25 years ago,” Caldwell said.

On the other hand, Laura Dover, President of Dover Insulation, a NIA Merit Contractor member in Marion, North Carolina, never had any intention of entering the family business. “Honestly, I never wanted to be an insulation contractor. I was thrust into the role unexpectedly. Today I can say that I am very glad to have had the opportunity to continue the work of my father and my grandfather. Ours is an industry that makes a difference, both in our own communities and globally, by saving businesses money and conserving energy, and I am proud to be the third generation of mechanical insulators in my family,” Dover said.

John Freeman, Project Manager for Petrin, LLC, a NIA Merit Contractor member in Port Allen, Louisiana, has family ties to the business. He said, “In Louisiana, the petrochemical industry is the driving force of the economy. My entire family has ties to the industry in one way or another. For me, it wasn’t which industry I would go into, but what sector of the construction industry I wanted to pursue a career in.”

Similarly, James K. Low, Business Development Manager of Ideal Products, a NIA Fabricator member in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, said, “My former father-in-law was in the industry and knew people who had a need on the distribution side. I went in 15 years ago, and I’ve never left.” Low, who came from a different sector originally, was also attracted to the industry because of the stability and regular hours.

Mentoring, Formally and Informally

Dover credits her ability to step in and lead her family’s company to the employees that her father hired that ended up becoming her mentors. “I found myself in charge—with very little experience—of an insulation contracting company at the age of 35 when my father died. He built Dover Insulation over the course of 40 plus years and seemed to micromanage all aspects of company operations. It was daunting and scary. I learned very quickly that the most valuable asset he left me was an incredible team of mentors—long-term employees who cared about the company and my family and hung in there with me until I could find my own way. It is not an exaggeration to say that my mentors saved our company by providing me with the support and guidance necessary to transition ownership,” Dover said.

As a small contracting company, Dover Insulation has the luxury of being flexible and treating every mentoring situation individually. Its approach to mentoring is informal and cultivates an environment in which more experienced employees take pride in where they work and what they do, and less experienced employees feel valued and heard. According to Dover, “Whether in the office or in the field, we work to make employees feel connected and focused on the big picture. For us, mentoring and teamwork go hand-in-hand.”

Martin describes a similar situation, saying that she also naturally followed the guidance and teaching from a coworker who has been in the industry for his entire career. This mentor had been in the field applying their product, in sales, and in the office working at a higher level. “I would say the main benefit from this informal mentor was learning the products, understanding the problems end users face, and how our products could solve those problems. Then in my role of marketing, understanding those factors to help create relevant content to the industry to educate them on best practices and make sure they understand the products and selection criteria,” Martin said. In addition, Johns Manville offers multiple development courses offered within what is called JM University, covering topics like Crucial Conversations, Manager as a Coach, the Emerging Leaders Program, How to Sell, and more.

Similar informal mentoring relationships have developed at Specialty Products & Insulation, said Bofinger, “You don’t necessarily get assigned a mentor but you gravitate toward someone who takes you under their wing. I see it a lot in our company where certain people click. They may not be in the same branch, but they reach out to each other and it works.” He added more about his personal experience, saying, “I have been fortunate to have 3 experienced leaders that helped guide me early on in my career. What I have taken away from this experience is that no matter what level you are in a company, you should always take time to discuss your experiences with newer less experienced employees. This is especially true if you can share mistakes of the past and how you managed through them.”

Ideal Products does have a formal program and Low says that trust is a big component. Matchups are critical; in their program, you don’t mentor your own direct reports, but cross-mentor from different departments. The frequency and location are varied according to what best met the needs of the people involved. “One of the biggest things with mentors and mentees is that there is a level of trust and that they are being coached and mentored with an open mind.” Ideal Products’ program grew out of a leadership training program that the whole company participated in and is supported whole-heartedly by the company’s owners.

Low sees value in the blend of coaching and mentoring that aligns everyone with the culture built on the company’s core values. According to Low, “Being a mentor is less about telling and more about listening.” One example Low gave was self-problem-solving techniques that he learned from the executive level. “I learned how to solve my own problems by being asked questions that would lead me to figuring out what I needed to do next. I would then use those techniques for people I was mentoring.” Other topics included self-improvement, time management, communication styles, and more.

Onboarding New Employees

For Caldwell’s contracting company, mentoring is an informal process; however, onboarding new employees is a highly structured and intensive 2-year process. New hires start in an assistant project manager role and then move to an assistant estimator role. Caldwell says this helps him get a better of idea of where their natural talents are. “I find that people who are more extroverted tend to steer more toward project management. They are out in the field and working with crews and customers. And people who may be more introverted are more comfortable in pre-construction and estimating—they excel behind the computer screen and at the drafting table. Identifying where you work best helps push for success for both the person and the company.”

Bofinger shares a similar process, saying, “We are fairly consistent with how we onboard new and inexperienced employees and continue training and mentoring them for an extended period of time. Typically, the new employee is mentored by the local manager who coordinates various training activities with internal and external resources. This process can take months or even a year or more to get the employee up to speed with the required knowledge base.

Freeman describes a very similar process, saying that new hires begin in the estimating department. They work close and train under the company’s Director of Estimating and gain a knowledge of all aspects of a project while putting together an estimate, including materials, logistics, productivity rates, and equipment required to complete the project. Freeman added that he has gained much knowledge from both current and past supervisors, including how to earn the respect of and motivate the team, the importance of being detail and process oriented, how to properly prepare for a meeting or presentation, and how to establish and maintain a business relationship with a client.

Acting Now to Prepare for the Future

Whether it is onboarding, mentoring, or leadership training, the end goal is to have the right people to build your business. For Caldwell, “Our focus is employing the right person for the long-term. The cost we incur to get them up to speed is steep. We don’t want to make that kind of investment in someone who will be moving on in 5 years. Being construction-minded and skills in science and math are good, but the reality is I’m looking for simple but important things: solid work ethic, integrity, dependability. I want someone who is going to come on board and stay for the long haul. There is not a school in America that teaches what we do.”

Dover’s recruitment philosophy is similarly simple, but stable: “We have a pretty basic strategy for attracting new talent: Be a great place to work. Mechanical insulation is not a glamorous field, so it is essential that we offer fair pay and excellent benefits, and genuinely care about employees, their families, and the community where they live. As an established company located in a small, rural North Carolina town, we have found that if you take care of your employees, the word will spread.”

On the topic of attracting women to the mechanical insulation industry, Dover adds, “My advice to contractors is not to underestimate the role women can play in your company, both in the field and in company management. And for business owners thinking about succession planning, the same is true for female family members.”

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Martin sees an improving landscape saying, “While this is a typically male-dominated field, I see more and more women in the industry and the only way to sustain that growth is to continue supporting the women to progress in their roles. Creating a support group for women helps to create a unique support system that address innovative ideas and concerns in the industry. Continue to highlight leading females in the industry and add them to a mentoring program.”

In general, Martin points to the work environment as a way to retain the talent employees, saying, “Create a positive atmosphere, a sense of pride in the work created, and provide rewards and recognition for a job well done. It’s important to keep a team striving to do their best work and being able to recognize mistakes made and how to correct and learn from them. Employees need to trust that they are respected and have opportunities to develop and progress in the company if that’s what they chose. Additionally, a flexible work schedule is becoming a privilege that employees are seeking, if the role allows that.”

Low agrees about creating a fantastic work environment. “What works for us is promoting our work/life blend culture and driving our core values. You can have a million rules, but decisions are far easier if they are in alignment with your values. We let people know what the greater goal that we are trying to achieve is and how we get there is different. We try to create an environment where people feel comfortable to speak their mind.”

Technology Transfer

For Low, he notes that a majority of their team is younger and a lot of the process and systems that are in place today have come up from new ideas. He notes, “We are open to trying things. We can act quickly. It’s never a wrong decision, either it works or you learn from it.”

Martin agrees and has seen success in blending new ideas with experience. “I’ve seen the younger generation’s new ideas to try things a different way or try new tactics. But the younger generations have also taken the time to learn from the more experienced generation and have found more efficient ways to do things.”

Everyone agrees that technology has revolutionized the way the mechanical industry operates. Caldwell said, “For our industry as a whole, technology has changed our business dramatically over the past 25 years. Where we used to walk around with blueprints, we are now walking around with iPads. The driving factor has been large construction firms moving to paper free and requiring higher technological skills.” Bofinger added that technology has certainly changed the industry, moving everything faster. Younger people grow up with and are more comfortable with it they embrace it; they have the ideas to utilize the technology that helps the industry.

Freeman has seen the technological shift, especially advancements in the areas of scheduling, estimating, and cost controls. He added, “If the next generation can show the benefits of improved processes which make things more efficient, consistent, and increase profit margins, companies will buy in.”

Dover added, “While insulation contractors are slow to change their habits, and we proceed with great caution when something new or different is before us, it is important to stay current and to keep looking ahead. Often the next generation is the most well-suited for this role. Some degree of reverse mentoring from the younger generation to the previous generation is appropriate and helpful when tackling new technology.”

Mature Industry with a Secure Future

Looking forward, Dover added, “I recognize that Dover employees are the most valuable part of the company, and making sure we pass on skills and knowledge is essential to our long-term success. We cannot remain in business or remain profitable without constant and consistent mentoring. Over the years we have mentored the children, grandchildren, siblings, spouses, friends, and neighbors of Dover employees. We are a family business.”

Low is optimistic about the future of the mechanical industry. “We are about positives: we are about energy efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, addressing corrosion, lowering the carbon footprint—so many opportunities for growth and development.” Caldwell agreed saying, “Our industry in on the front-end of a long-term investment in energy efficiency for our nation, offering solid returns on investment.”

In regard to the labor shortage, Bofinger pointed out that the mechanical insulation industry is no different than other construction-related businesses. “We are at the early stages of a serious labor shortage. If someone chooses to build a career in the mechanical insulation industry, there is no doubt in my mind they will have a secure future. There will always be a need for our products and services. That demand will attract talent to our space and it is up to us to provide a culture and environment that makes them want to turn a job into a career.”

Motivating Factors

A career is made up of days, weeks, years, and decades in a job. When asked what motivates our interviewees to get up and come to work each morning, each one had a slightly different response that points to a variety of day-to-day and overall career satisfaction.

For Dover it is carrying on the family business and the people who make that possible: “A commitment to my family business, to our customers—some of whom have been with us for decades—and to the many employees who show up and work hard on a daily basis.
Low focuses on what he gets to do each day: “I get to do the things I do, not have to. I’ve gotten to write my own job description several times. What do you think would be a good job description for you to add value to the company? There’s nothing like being able to do that.”

For Martin, variety is a big factor: “I love my role of marketing because it allows me to research how to reach an audience and determine what information they need for product selection. I also manage our events, so it allows me to get in front of customers from the entire supply chain to end users. It’s constantly changing and challenging our team to provide new and better content and products to the industry.”

Freeman mentioned problem solving, competition, and accomplishment, saying, “As a project manager, I enjoy working with my team to solve problems and hopefully identify potential problems and rectify them before they occur. I love the competitive aspect of the business, whether it is the competitive bid process, meeting a difficult project deadline, or a presentation to a new client to try and generate business. There is a start and finish to each project, and when a project is completed safely, on time, and in budget, it creates a sense of accomplishment.”

Bofinger takes an overall positive industry view, saying, “When you enjoy the industry, what you do, and the people you work with, you know you are in a good industry with a good culture.”

And last, Caldwell just can’t wait for the start of the work week: “My favorite time of the week is Sunday night. I love to go to work. Why? The people, the big satisfaction in seeing projects completed, the craftsmanship, the fun we have in the office. We share in the losses and the wins and we are 25 people who love what we do.”



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