Executive Q&A with Gus Simonds: Building Resilience

The president and CEO of MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions likes adventure. His background in selling (and sailing) has helped him steer a confident course.
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Gus Simonds and his management team took the helm at MacDonald-Miller in 2006. The Great Recession hit two years later. By focusing on services and increasingly complex projects, the mechanical contractor survived, then thrived, doubling business since 2012. 

The company now has 1,000 employees and boasts $260 million in annual revenue.

EARLY YEARS: I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago. My father worked as an insurance executive. He’s a natural leader and taught me to sail. Mom was an award-winning botanical artist. She grew up in Chelan, and visiting Washington state got me hooked on the adventure the wilderness offers. I often went bird watching with Mom. I was a bit of a science nerd and would devour nature books and field guides and collect small creatures as pets. 

EDUCATION: Lured by the West, I went to Washington State University to study environmental science. I drove my 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass back and forth from Pullman to Chicago many times. The WSU experience taught me self-reliance and the power of perseverance. I was 2,000 miles from home, and there was no electronic banking or texting. When your car broke, you fixed it.  

CAREER: After college, I tried finding a job in hazardous-waste management — sexy stuff! — but ended up with a sales job at Honeywell selling building mechanical systems, service and retrofits. Other people hated cold calling; I thought it was fun. You get paid to make friends — sweet!

MACDONALD-MILLER: Five years later, in 1989, I wanted to get back to the Northwest and took the first job I could get in Seattle doing service and special projects sales at MacDonald-Miller. I hadn’t planned to stay, but once I started at the company, I could tell MacDonald-Miller was a special place with great opportunities.

THE BUSINESS: We make buildings work better by designing and installing or retrofitting HVAC systems [for heating and cooling], plumbing systems and control systems so that buildings can keep operating at peak performance. We are also doing a lot more building efficiency analysis to help owners evaluate the cost and benefit of improving their systems to save on energy bills while also increasing tenant comfort. 

CHANGE: When the recession hit, for five years it was the school of hard knocks. With a diverse range of clientele, we began focusing on services. Since 2012, we have grown by about 20 percent a year. This year, with more than 1,000 employees, we will be twice the size we were in 2012.

CULTURE: Our company culture is our internal brand — it’s what makes you want to come to work at MacDonald-Miller. You look for ways to put a smile on the faces of your customers and colleagues. We have 40 shareholders who all work at the company and are required to sell their stock if they leave. We preach silo busting and collaboration daily. The goal is having long-term employees who can see how what they do can make a difference to the company and to our customers. 

TECHNOLOGY: There are huge IT opportunities like finding new uses for 3D modeling and better managing our mobile workforce of several hundred. Putting new systems in place is a challenge, so we hired a CIO last year to take that on. We now see IT not as a cost but as a way to provide a competitive advantage.

FUTURE: We are now in the early stages of involvement in two of the largest projects Seattle has seen in its history — the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center and the transformation of Swedish Medical Center First Hill. Both projects will be completed in the next four years. Our strengthened “big project” reputation hopefully will help us win other signature projects. We are also putting a renewed emphasis on energy efficiency and building performance. That work has taken us to other regions, like Canada and the Caribbean. I think we could do well in San Francisco. 

COMPETITION: I have great respect for McKinstry and some of my other competitors. We all run on thin margins, especially compared to the risks we take around the accountability of system design, long-term performance and cost. In some projects, we may have 10,000 water-pipe connections. It’s a big problem if there is even one leak. One thing McDonald-Miller has become known for doing right is having teams from across all trades that can execute on the most complex systems. It goes back to culture and attracting and keeping the best talent. 

MANAGEMENT: My worst mistakes came from thinking that people could evolve into a new role because I wanted them to rather than really testing their ability and vision first. Those mistakes are always messy for both parties.  My proudest achievement was staying financially healthy through a very long recession. We learned a lot and became a better company through that experience. 

EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.

TAKE 5: Get to Know Gus Simonds
1. GO-TO GETAWAY:
The Lake Chelan area. “It’s my launch pad for adventure. Nothing beats a glass of wine at a winery while you plan your next adventure.” 

2. FAVORITE BOOK: Lake Chelan: The Greatest Lake In The World by John Fahey.

3. MOST ADMIRED PERSON: Richard Branson. “He puts his culture and employees up front as part of his brand. He bucks tradition. He’s an adventurer. He sucks the marrow out of life!”

4. I LOVE: Mountain biking, golfing, fly fishing, backpacking, snowboarding, collecting antique beer cans, playing guitar. 

5. CURRENT WHEELS: A Chevy Volt, a Toyota pickup and a 1973 455 “big block” Hurst/Olds. “I’ve had an Oldsmobile since high school, including several Cutlass 442s, and it’s a bit of my personal brand now. There’s no substitute for cubic inches.” 

 

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

A chat with the celebrated Seattle architect.
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Tom Kundig is a principal and owner at Olson Kundig, the Seattle architecture firm and design practice founded on the idea that “buildings can serve as a bridge between nature, culture and people.”
 
Nancy: What does an architect do? 
Tom: An architect solves problems. We observe what’s going on culturally, both historically and currently, and try to make buildings that resolve a situation, whatever it might be. 
 
Did you always want to be an architect? 
Oh, no. My dad’s an architect, I grew up with architects around me and there was a certain culture about architecture that I didn’t particularly appreciate, but what I did appreciate were the artists in that environment. Eventually, against all sanity, I wound up in architecture and couldn’t be happier. 
 
How important is the budget when you take on a project? 
It’s critical because a budget gives context and, from my perspective, the tighter the budget (within reason), the better the building because it makes you edit. When the budget is loose, the building can become overindulged. 
 
Are you a different designer now than you were when you started out? 
Oh, yes. I understand a lot more about the human condition and I understand the technical drivers much more completely. Architecture is a profession of wisdom, and it’s rare when you see that wisdom in a young architect.
 
Do you have a favorite building in Seattle? 
It’s a toss-up between the Pike & Virginia Building, designed by Olson Walker in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and St. Ignatius Chapel on the Seattle University campus. 
 
Is there a building you wish you had designed? 
Nope. There are so many conspiring forces to make mediocre buildings that when a good building happens, no matter who did it, we should just stand back and applaud! 
 
 
Tom Kundig says his main driver is "to make as much as I can out of life."
 
Are there signature elements of a Tom Kundig design? 
My desire is for an authenticity, both in cultural function and in the way that the natural materials — whether brick, steel or wood — age and get better with time. 
 
In every project you’ve done, is there always at least one thing that you hate? 
Uh, yeah, on virtually every project, but I never admit it! (Laughs) 
 
What gets you excited about a project? 
A client who’s curious about the world because that person is going to engage and ask questions in a way that may take me out of the way I typically answer.
 
What has to be there in order for you to take on a client?  
Trust. If you hire me, then I’ve got to trust you as a client and you’ve got to trust me as your architect, that I’m going to be doing my best work working for you.
 
Have you ever had to walk away from a project? 
Yeah. It’s difficult but it’s not about me. It’s about the situation. I’m not the right architect for you, you’re not the right client for me and we are wasting our time.
 
When do you know if something you’ve made is good? 
When I’m drawing and things are happening and fitting together, it’s like listening to music inside my head. It flows.
 
Is there a Tom Kundig Life Statement? 
I put a quote in my first book: “Only common things happen when common sense prevails.” I don’t know who came up with it, but it always makes me smile and it’s kind of true. If you’re looking for adventure, or something new or something worth living for, you’re looking for the edge, whatever that might be. 
 
How do you balance your creative mind with your business mind? 
I think a creative mind is a business mind because business is creative. You’re dealing with a set of issues and you’re trying to find a pathway, trying to resolve the issues, into a success. 
 
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self, when you were just starting out?  
Be more secure about your abilities and less insecure about your existence so that you can do things with a well-placed confidence. 
 
What song would you like played at your funeral? 
(Laughs) I don’t know! I won’t be hearing it so I don’t really care. 
 
You’re stuck on a desert island and can have one book, one record, one food and one person
My wife, Jeannie. Beethoven’s Ninth. A hamburger. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
 
Who or what is your worst enemy? 
Noncritical thinking. People who don’t think about what they’re saying. 
 
Beatles or Rolling Stones?  
Beatles. I share a birthday with John Lennon and sympathy with his larger musical and political agendas.
 
What four guests would make for the perfect dinner party?
Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Feynman, Indira Gandhi, Muhammad Ali. 
 
Do you have a spiritual practice and if yes, how does that practice manifest? 
I was raised a Unitarian, so it is a very personal spiritual practice and certainly influenced by both Buddhist teachings and Jesuit friends. 
 
› For more on artists, entertainers and entrepreneurs, tune in Art Aone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle Channel (seattlechannel.org/artzone).