We sat down with Angie Simon, P.E., president of Western Allied Mechanical in Menlo Park, Calif. and president of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). Simon discussed starting in the industry, working her way up in the company and leading by example.
1. What’s your background?
I’m a mechanical engineer out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I was very involved in sports in high school and enjoyed science and math. My dad’s an electrical engineer who worked for the Navy. I remember the time when I was in high school, during the energy crisis, where we were waiting in line at gas stations in the late ‘70s for gas. I remember thinking solar energy sounded interesting, and Cal Poly had an HVAC Solar Option, which I thought sounded good.
2. Is that all you wanted to do?
I also thought it sounded good to be a forest ranger — that would be great. But I also thought I could be a PE teacher because I love sports. I remember my dad telling me, “Why don’t you start with the engineering? And you can always go back to the forest ranger or the PE.”
3. So, he helped you decide?
I ended up going into the HVAC Solar Option of Environmental Engineering at Cal Poly, which during my course of time there, they transferred to Mechanical Engineering. I played softball there and was a mechanical engineer when I graduated. That’s how I got into the industry.
4. What did you want to do with your degree?
I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but I didn’t want to sit behind a desk. The idea of working for a contractor sounded interesting to me because I’d get to get out in the field and see what happens. My first job, I worked for a small contractor, and then one year later, went to Western Allied. This is my 34th year here.
5. Wow! So, you’ve seen a lot of changes?
When we started, they were so proud that we had a fax machine. So that was a big thing, we have a fax machine. So that’s how much I’ve seen the changes. And we’ve grown a lot in the years.
6. What is the company’s history?
We were one company with Southern California Western Allied Corporation. And in 2003, I’ll say that we went through a friendly divorce. Maybe at the time it didn’t feel as friendly, but we went through a divorce. And it was probably a great move for both of us because they separated and said they’re going to do their work down in Southern California and we said we’ll stay in Northern California. So, we became Western Allied Mechanical. We share the history, we’re a 60-year-old company, because our history is with them, but we had to start our own company.
7. What did you do when you first started?
When I first started, I was a young project manager. We didn’t have project engineer and junior project managers. Everybody was a project manager. I ran a bunch of small jobs.
8. How did you learn the business side?
I remember early on, there was another young project manager. He was a business major, and I was a mechanical. I didn’t even know what a P&L was when I got here. I’d never heard of that because I didn’t have business classes at Cal Poly. And he didn’t really know what an HVAC load was. We worked together.
9. Did you get to go out in the field?
As a project manager, I was out in the field all the time. I think one of the things I learned quickly was that my field personnel, both sheet metal and pipe fitters, were such good craftspeople and I needed to learn from them. If a job was going to make money, it was because the foreman did a great job. And if I could give the foremen what they needed, then I had a good chance of my job being successful.
10. When did you become more of a leader?
I ran projects for many years and then there was a point where the partnership at Western Allied asked me if I’d be interested in being a partner. I had just gotten married. My husband was in the hotel business, and he thought he wanted to be a general manager. At the time I said, “I’m not positive. We’re going to have kids and I want to have my first child first before I commit.”
11. What made you commit?
After my first child was born, my husband decided he’d rather stay a controller in a hotel business and not move. He said, “If they offer you that again, why don’t you step up?” Early in my career, I became a partner.
12. How did you grow from there?
I continued to sell and manage my projects, and then grow a team. In 2008, when our president at the time was working his way out to retiring, they named me president of the company, right when the recession started.
13. What was that like?
We have a lot of long-term employees. And so, when we hit a recession, my field personnel particularly came to me and said, “Tell me what I need to do to stay with Western Allied. I’ll work three days a week. I’ll job trade. Tell me what I do.” And it really made it easy. It was always hard to lay people off or to say, “Hey, you need to have a light week.” But when your field crew really wants to stay with your company and they don’t want to go anywhere else, it makes it a lot easier.
14. How rough was that year?
We had probably one of our worst years after that. We didn’t make much money, but we didn’t lose money. But we have a great group of people, and we really value our relationship with our clients, so we seemed to come out of 2008 pretty well.
15. How much has the company grown?
When I took over in 2008 as president, we were doing about $40 million, and this past year, we did $108 million. So, in 12, 13 years, we’ve grown quite a bit and we’ve handled it really, well. I think if anything, we’re better now in the way we run our work and everything as we’ve grown bigger.
16. Have you ever wanted to leave?
I grew up in the company and I love the company. I love what we do. The people are amazing. I never really had a desire to leave, and it’s been a great company.
17. What’s your plan now?
At the end of 2019, I switched over from president to CEO because I was planning to retire at the end of 2020. Then when the pandemic hit, I agreed that I would stay maybe another year, because I also was asked to stay another year as SMACNA president.
18. What’s your leadership style?
We’re all part of the same team and we need to work together. I lead by example by saying, “Hey, I’m going to get here early and I’m going to work hard too, but we’re all on the same team.” So sometimes I have to help pull somebody in the field up or one of my project managers up to say, “Hey, you’re okay. We’re going to get through this.” Or sometimes they got to pull me up. But I’m really dedicated to teamwork type of attitudes.
19. What is Allied Mechanical like today?
We’re a mechanical contractor, so we do construction, and we have a service group as well. We have about 35 service technicians. We’re lucky in that probably 98 percent of our projects are design/build. I have an engineering department of 12 who do our design. All our project managers are mechanical engineers or other engineers, typically. And all the partners are engineers.
20. Have you seen more IAQ projects in light of COVID-19?
Definitely. We have done several analyses on buildings to say, how can we increase your amount of outside air to increase the air changes in the offices, particularly? Our lab jobs are typically 100 percent outside air, so they’re already in pretty good shape. We’ve also seen the additions of bipolar ionization and changing filters and upgrading filters to a lot of the systems.