Here’s a company that takes employee ideas seriously.

Mike Kotubey, president of Midwest Mechanical Contractors.

Six years ago, if you had asked PresidentMichael Kotubeyif Midwest Mechanical was “The Best Contractor To Work For,” he would have said, “No.” But it just goes to show how quickly things can turn around for the better, since this Kansas City, Mo., company can now call itselfPM’s 2009 contest winner.

What started out as a family-owned small plumbing and heating business 77 years ago has grown into a nationally recognized mechanical contractor that builds landmark high-tech projects nationwide spanning energy, critical environment, health care, sports and entertainment.

Third-generation ownerTom Sanders, who took charge of Midwest Mechanical in the 1960s, is credited as the original “visionary,” Kotubey notes. “He was the one who said, ‘We can be different and better,’ and had the courage to go after larger jobs.” Under Sanders, the company grew, adding affiliate locations in New Jersey, Nevada and Nebraska, while securing a strong reputation for successfully handling complex projects along the way.

“Tom took us from a mom-and-pop shop and turned us into a real player, first in Kansas City and then nationwide,” he says.

Kotubey joined the management team in 2004. During a tough economic time, Midwest Mechanical struggled with unfamiliar issues as it grew in project diversity, geographic reach and size. “We drifted into a management style that was stifling and rules-oriented. For a brief period, we stopped believing in our people and our culture changed - and not for the better,” he says.

Creativity decreased. Results were erratic. The team spirit Midwest Mechanical had been known for was gradually disappearing, company sources say.

To turn things around, Kotubey put the right team in place and did away with the “silly rules.” The management team then began to set high expectations for Midwest Mechanical employees.

“Things changed virtually overnight because people will aspire to greatness if given the opportunity,” Kotubey says.

Midwest Mechanical now has an open-door philosophy that includes monthly town hall forums to discuss various issues such as financial projections, project status and upcoming projects. It also has a lean organization, where each employee is no more than one manager removed from executive management.

The company implemented recognition awards, such as its Innovator of the Year and Innovation of the Year awards, which recognize employees who have generated ideas to significantly improve Midwest Mechanical’s work environment or work practices.

For instance, three senior estimators put their heads together to develop a new industrial piping estimating program. “It was their little ‘Skunk Works’ project, and they did it on their own,” Kotubey says, referring to Lockheed’s program that developed stealth fighters and bombers, among other military aircraft. The efforts of Midwest’s estimators have led to streamlined bidding and helped bring in millions of dollars in new revenue.

The latest Innovators of the Year award went to plumbers in the company’s fabrication shop who came up with a series of improvements to the facility and its processes.

 “One of our company’s core values is ‘entrepreneurial spirit,’ and our innovation awards recognize and celebrate that spirit in a very tangible way,” Kotubey says. “I think what sets us apart from other companies is that our core values - including integrity, teamwork and quality craftsmanship - are inherently a part of our culture. They aren’t just words on a page.”

The Midwest Mechanical Contractors' executive team (left to right): Michael Chick, vice president of services; President Michael Kotubey; Michael Teahan (in back), vice president and treasurer; Keith Flowers, vice president of construction planning and special projects; and Brent Hawley, vice president of construction field operations. Not pictured is Keith Andrews, vice president of business development. (Cover and executive photos by Douglas Whitney; all others courtesy of Midwest Mechanical Contractors.)

New Building Makes A Difference

In 2006, Midwest Mechanical built a new 41,000-square-foot fabrication shop, office and warehouse in south Kansas City. It consolidated all its services, officers and employees under one roof. Midwest Mechanical Service, the company’s service division, is also housed within the new building. Consolidation brought not only financial benefits, but a cultural shift leading to strong teamwork and pride, saysKaren Mills, Midwest Mechanical’s marketing director.

“Now that our fabrication shop, warehouse, service department and offices are combined, we have seen a significant increase in our office employees’ understanding of what the shop employees do and vice-versa,” she explains.

Transition to the new space was “amazingly smooth,” Kotubey says. “I think people felt at home in our new building almost immediately.” While not LEED-certified, every attempt was made to make it LEED-compliant: energy-efficient larger windows, combined with an open floor plan, brings the outside in through an extensive use of daylighting. A dedicated outside air system improves indoor air quality while saving on utility bills.

The building also includes an on-site fitness center that includes two treadmills, an elliptical machine, a recumbent bike, a four-station weight machine and free weights. In February 2008, Project CoordinatorKara Knisleyformed a Wellness Committee (comprised of volunteer employees) to develop a Wellness Program with incentives, free health screenings, health coaching with a personal trainer, monthly chair massages and a discount on fitness equipment.

“Fit for Life,” as the Wellness Program is called, had nearly 80 percent participation in its first six months. The program was honored by the American Heart Association with Start! Fit Friendly Gold Workplace and Start! Fit Friendly Innovative Workplace awards. Every three to six months, the Wellness Committee determines new programs and incentives.

The building features a 1,700-square-foot, multifunctional space deemed the “Gathering Room” to hold meetings and informal functions. The room’s kitchen always has fresh fruit available at no charge to employees. It has company-subsidized juice and soft drinks, low-fat milk and a gourmet coffee bar. Local and national business newspapers, plus two large plasma TVs with cable access, allow workers to catch up on news during their breaks and at lunch.

“It has encouraged more casual communication, collaboration and teamwork between office and field personnel,” Kotubey says. The Gathering Room has become a place for birthday and anniversary celebrations, baby and wedding showers, project award celebrations and company-wide town hall meetings.

Midwest Mechanical treats employees to food and drink before a Kansas City Royals baseball game.

Continuing Education Made Easy

Many workers hold technical licenses for which continued education is required for renewal. “We make it as easy as possible for employees to meet their CEU requirements,” Kotubey says.

Since 2005, Midwest Mechanical has had 27 employees pursue the Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design program through the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED-certified employees include field supervisors, project coordinators, project engineers, estimators, project managers, business developers and even senior management. “We are extremely proud that so many of our employees have embraced this program as a way to keep current on developments within our industry,” Kotubey states.

Field employees receive training through Midwest Mechanical’s union affiliations. A number of Midwest Mechanical employees are engaged as trainers/educators with their union labor partners. Additional skills are achieved by an informal mentor program working alongside master craftsmen in the field.

The company’s service employees are encouraged to seek training in environmentally sound practices. Because of their efforts, the Mechanical Service Contractors of America  named the company a Green Star Service Contractor, one of only 11 such designations in the country. 

Safety is a high priority with Midwest’s management team, which implemented a Safety Incentive Program that has been woven tightly into the corporate culture. At the culmination of each quarter-million hours of work without a lost-time accident, a celebration is held with food, drink and a memento. After reaching 1 million safe-hours in 2006, all qualifying field employees were entered into a drawing for a new Chevy Silverado; all field and office staff were given an inscribed iPod commemorating the milestone. Last year, that milestone was celebrated with vacation giveaways.

All employees are offered the chance to learn first-aid, CPR and automated external defibrillator training on an annual basis.

 “As a result of our focus on safety and well-being, we recently surpassed 1.5 million hours without a lost-time accident,” Mills says proudly.

Midwest Mechanical employees work on one of three Habitat for Humanity homes the company helped with in the Kansas City area.

Other Pay And Benefits

Midwest Mechanical is a tobacco-free/drug-free workplace. Employee benefits include 401(k); paid time off; seven regular holidays; health, vision and dental insurance; disability, life and supplemental term life insurance; flexible spending accounts; health savings accounts; flexible hours; and significant performance-based bonuses to both field and office staff.

One of the biggest benefits to working at Midwest is the opportunity to be part of the company’s employee stock ownership plan. Automatic enrollment in the ESOP is a benefit offered free of charge to all eligible employees.

“When each employee has an ownership stake in the company, it creates a real sense of teamwork,” Kotubey says. “We realize we’re truly all in it together, and we all benefit directly from our success. It makes a huge difference.”

Midwest Mechanical is a civic-minded organization that annually provides financial and in-kind support to a number of charities. It holds a Red Cross Blood Drive in the summer,  Harvesters’ Food Drive in the fall and Toys For Tots collection in the winter. Employees have helped on three Habitat for Humanity homes with Kansas City Power & Light, and they’ve participated in walk/run/marathon events as part of their Wellness Program.

For the past two years, Midwest Mechanical has participated in its local iBuild event that reaches out to inner-city middle and high school students to encourage them to consider a career in construction. The company also sponsors an annual jobsite tour and dinner for college students from across the country who compete in the Mechanical Contractors Association of America annual student competition.

“We build our business, recruit and retain outstanding employees through our belief that relationships are the driving force to growth,” Mills says.

Listening to employees is a big reason for Midwest Mechanical’s success. “We encourage feedback, new ideas and participation,” Kotubey says. “This helps build the team spirit and, when coupled with our ESOP, truly makes this a second home where our associates feel personally and professionally invested. It is their company.”

Kotubey says that the firm’s “Best Contractor To Work For” award stems from implementing many ideas of Midwest Mechanical employees, and their continued involvement will help make them an employer of choice and a great place to work.

“If you respect your associates and create an environment where they are appreciated, professionally challenged, offered an opportunity for advancement, and given access to training and education, then there should be no reason why they cannot and would not want to make Midwest Mechanical their career choice,” he says.