Servant leadership lies at the heart of our choice for this year’s Contractor of the Year. TDIndustries’ management philosophy can best be summed up as focusing on the needs of others. Most businesses naturally tune into their customers’ needs. But a servant leader also extends that attention to the staff, going so far as to flip the typical organizational chart 180 degrees.
Being a servant leader, however, and making money in the process aren’t mutually exclusive.
TDIndustries, based in Dallas and with operations throughout Texas, Arizona and Colorado, has done just that – and done it for 76 years.
Since 1946, TDIndustries has provided MEP construction and engineering services on a host of projects from healthcare to stadiums. Although known principally as a mechanical contractor that operates the largest pipe fabrication facility in the Lone Star State, TDIndustries also provides facilities management services for the full life cycle of a building.
Founded by Jack Lowe Sr., the company started out as Texas Distributors Inc. Lowe, however, had a difficult time at first finding anything to distribute.
Eventually, the company began wholesaling General Electric HVAC equipment. The company wouldn’t segue into plumbing and mechanical construction until the early-1960s. The business had long since stopped stocking HVAC equipment and moved full tilt into commercial construction and engineering services by the time it changed its name to TDIndustries in the late-1980s.
Let’s take a further look at a few reasons we chose TDIndustries as our 2022 Contractor of the Year:
Sometime in the late-1960s, Jack Lowe Sr. discovered a pamphlet entitled “The Servant as Leaders,” written by Robert Greenleaf. The publication changed the way Lowe saw himself. As he began sharing the principles of the essay with his leadership team, it began to change his company, too.
Lowe Sr. was already making strides toward servant-leadership whether he knew it or not. In 1952, just six years after the company was founded, the company began offering its partners (the company’s preferred term for its employees) the opportunity to buy stock in the company through a payroll deduction. At first it was just a stock savings plan, but eventually was converted to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan.
Greenleaf’s 35-page essay proposes that the best leaders were servants first, and that the key tools for a servant-leader included listening, persuasion, access to intuition and foresight, use of language and pragmatic measurements of outcomes.
Greenleaf spent four decades in leadership development at AT&T honing his concepts. Instead of focusing on short-term goals, Greenleaf concentrated on the long-term development of his colleagues. Rather than issuing top-down orders, he sought to develop judgment and decision-making capabilities for everyone.
As the story goes, Greenleaf became aware of a small air conditioning company in Dallas that had ordered hundreds of copies of his essay. Curious to find out more, a phone call to Lowe Sr. cemented a lifelong friendship.
“What dad decided to do was to have a series of meetings at his and mother’s home with groups of 15 or so people at a time,” says Jack Lowe Jr., who joined the company in 1964 and became CEO and chairman of the board in 1980 until he retired in 2004. “Whenever you got your invitation, the servant leadership pamphlet was in there.”
Servant leadership wasn’t the only thing on the agenda. But as these initial meetings progressed, Lowe Jr. says the company liked the idea.
“The company was doing lots of technical training for plumbing or accounting or engineering or whatever it was, and no training on leadership,” Lowe Jr. adds. “And as complicated as plumbing and accounting are, they’re not nearly as complicated as people.”
In 1972, the company formally adopted the concepts into its company mission. To be a servant-leader at TDIndustries means its partners must make sure those they work with have what they need to be successful in their roles – clear expectations of their duties, constructive feedback and all the training, tools and processes they need to do their jobs well.
Today, TDIndustries relies on Greenleaf’s principles for every aspect of its corporate culture, and regular meetings continue to instill the right mindset for how its 2,900 partners relate to customers and each other.
Lauren Turner, executive vice president of Dallas Service, leads the company’s largest service department, which provides maintenance and life cycle support for HVAC, plumbing, electrical and additional core services.
She first had a college internship at TDIndustries while studying mechanical engineering at Texas A&M before spending a decade at Lockheed Martin after graduation. She returned to TDIndustries in 2014 as a process improvement specialist using Lean methodology to improve delivery methods.
While Turner considered the role as a lateral move at first, she adds that she remembered and was reassured by the feeling from her college intern days that TDIndustries is “who they say they are.”
“I think at a certain point when you’re starting your career,” Turner says, “you want solid experience and, often, a large corporation is the way to go. But after a certain point, I started to recognize it mattered more that I’m in a place I can really connect with.”
From the start, Turner says meetings at TDIndustries were for all.
“Day to day,” she explains, “when in meetings the engagement and the input are across the board. In a larger corporate setting, there was a sense of rank in the room, and you almost had to be called on to talk if you didn’t have a certain title. Here, we don’t believe in that, and everybody knows that their opinions are valued.”
Those opinions are also valued even more so when it comes to partner appraisals. While Turner expectedly evaluates her seven direct reports, those seven also evaluate Turner.
And woe to the partner who may excel at making money for the company, but fail at being a servant-leader.
“I think it’s hard for a business to exit leaders who are performing financially, but not living our kind of core values and growing people,” Turner adds.
This esprit de corps certainly worked out when TDIndustries faced its biggest crisis.
“In 1989,” Lowe Jr. says, “our company lost half its value,” due to a near-fatal economic collapse. Nine out of the 10 largest banks in Texas failed, including TDIndustries’ lender, which was taken over by the federal government.
“So instead of owing millions to a bank, we owed millions to the government,” Lowe Jr. adds. “And they’re not a bank; they’re a collection agency.”
At the time, six of the 10 largest mechanical contractors, TDIndustries included, were headquartered in Texas.
“We’re the only one that survived intact,” Lowe Jr. says. “All the rest failed. So it was really, really tough.”
Lowe Jr. persuaded his partners to end a defined benefit pension plan that at the time was overfunded to the tune of $1 million. The company could distribute about $4 million to its partners in order to use the $1 million in reserve. Since he had little recourse to get outside companies to invest in the company, Lowe Jr. also raised even more through voluntary investments into TDIndustries through its partners.
“That saved the company,” Lowe Jr. says.
We don’t have time to go over every aspect of what being a servant-leader means. However, we should quickly note that these concepts extend to society at large.
Lowe Sr., for example, was instrumental in desegregating the Dallas public school system as chairman of the Dallas Alliance Education Task Force. For his work, Lowe Sr. received the Linz Award, the city’s high community service honor. Lowe Sr. kept active in community affairs all his life and, in fact, collapsed on his way to a Dallas Citizens Council luncheon and died a week later on Thanksgiving Day in 1980.
Later, the Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School in Dallas was opened in recognition of his successful efforts at school desegregation.
This past summer, the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leaders gave TDIndustries double honors by inducting the company as well as Jack Lowe Jr. to its inaugural Servant Leader Hall of Fame.
Looking for a bright spot amid the industry’s well-known labor shortage challenges? Well, let us introduce you to Kaitlyn Cavallin, a fifth-time intern at TDIndustries.
That’s right, a fifth time for Cavallin, who wrapped up her latest assignment with TDIndustries this past summer after finishing her junior year at Kansas State University studying construction science with a minor in leadership.
Cavallin first got involved with TDIndustries during her junior year of high school.
“We were doing a mock interview project in front of industry recruiters to evaluate our skill sets,” she says. “The next day I got a call from the TD recruiter. She said, ‘Hey, so I know this was a mock interview, but …’ so then I went through a couple more interviews and I was in.”
That first summer internship, Cavallin primarily worked at a San Antonio hospital project.
“I really could not have asked for a better summer,” she says. “I got to try a little bit of everything: I started out with plumbing and moved along to mechanical/HVAC, and then I also did a little bit of welding, which is super cool. I was a 16-year-old girl out there learning how to weld, literally on the fly.”
Cavallin’s multiple internships aren’t common, according to Meagan Bubela, people program manager at TDIndustries. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened before.
“She’s got a couple of trade roles under her belt,” Bubela adds, “and she will be joining us again next year. After that, we hope to hire her full-time.”
Each year, TDIndustries hires high school and college summer interns and provides industry experience in a fast-paced construction atmosphere. In 2022, the company hired 51 college and 39 high school summer interns across many business units, which Bubela adds was its biggest group of interns since the program started in earnest some 20 years ago. Several received full-time employment or return internship offers by the end of August.
Whether it’s paid high school or college internships – or in the case of Cavallin, both – TDIndustries offers invaluable experience in understanding the mechanical contracting industry.
College interns spend 10 weeks working directly in TDIndustries’ core areas of construction; facilities management or engineering and support roles. High school students spend eight to 10 weeks obtaining hands-on training in plumbing, sheet metal and welding, to name just a few skills.
Generally speaking, this summer’s college interns learned practical skills in project management, construction management, estimating, construction technology, manufacturing, business development, engineering, facilities management, human resources, marketing and more.
As part of their internships, the students worked on group research projects to better understand the company’s business and recruiting processes. The presentations focused on industry and customer analysis, field communication, thoughtful planning and prefabrication benefits. In their final week, the groups presented their research to company leaders.
For high school students looking for a skilled trades career, TDIndustries also offers an established trades internship program that provides future tradespeople an early hands-on understanding of TD, its culture and opportunities for young adults interested in the skilled trades. Starting with the foundation of work-based learning programs, TDIndustries is refining its training to meet the latest labor regulations, safety protocols, educational requirements and the next generation’s expectations.
Bubela adds that while TDIndustries actively promotes its internship opportunities to local schools and colleges, plenty of referrals come in internally through its partners’ recommendations. The company has also implemented a “TD Ambassadors” program that relies on interns, themselves, to help spread the word and identify fellow students as candidates for the next round.
Bubela has been working with the company for eight years and recently transitioned to her current hybrid roles.
“We are focused on recruiting and talent acquisition, but this also includes the intricacies of how we’re supporting our diversity and inclusion efforts within the organization,” she adds. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s an exciting space. I know that we are making a difference.”
Bubela describes the overall process as being “mindful” when identifying growth and development opportunities for individuals within “no matter their rank, gender, race or ethnicity.”
For its work, TDIndustries has received several national diversity-in-excellence awards through the Associated Builders and Contractors. TDIndustries also has a partnership with Paradigm for Parity to address gender parity in corporate leadership and in the field.
Bubela adds that the company routinely reaches out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and student organizations to make sure they know about upcoming career fairs or other recruiting events.
Bubela also told us about a “second-chance program.”
“These are individuals who’ve had a rough time, perhaps through homelessness or have experienced imprisonment at one time,” she explains. “We have definitely hired individuals through those programs, and they are amazing partners.”
Jamie Dabbs, vice president, safety, health and environmental at TDIndustries, oversees a team of more than 25 safety professionals located across several business units.
“We have many safety, health and environmental subject matter experts on our team made up of roughly half college-educated safety and health experts and others who worked their way into safety and health via skilled trades,” Dabbs says. “This diverse group is formidable and takes on significant work to improve our safety, health and environmental processes and shape the next level of safety performance at TD.”
The team is also backed by a recent partnership with Medcor Onsite Health Services, a third-party provider and wellness advocate that stations two full-time mobile medics in north and central Texas.
“Our Medcor mobile medics have been an awesome addition to our safety efforts, and we were so fortunate to have them onboarded prior to the pandemic,” Dabbs explains. “As a result, we were able to set up drive-through testing centers in our office parking lot early on when demand was high, which allowed us to be very agile and prepared to protect our partners and support our customers.”
Dabbs began his career with TDIndustries in 2008, and under his leadership, the company’s safety results have continuously improved to an industry-leading OSHA recordable incident rate. The safety efforts have led to national recognition for the eighth straight year, including AGC Construction Safety Excellence and ABC National Safety Excellence awards.
“Leveraging safety technology is one of the most active areas that TD’s safety team has worked to improve over the past few years,” he adds.
These efforts include installing Samara camera/GPS units on the contractor’s fleet of more than 800 vehicles; using an online HIS chemical inventory system; and implementing the SmartTagIt safety app for observations, video-based pre-task safety plan and more.
Let’s take a further look at other recent safety enhancements:
Safety Helmets: It’s easy to think there’s nothing new about head protection. After all, a hard hat’s a hard hat, isn’t it?
“Traditional construction hard hats are antiquated technology,” Dabbs says. “Safety helmets offer much better protection than the traditional hard hat.”
The safety helmets provide better protection through high-density foam, something not standard on the traditional hard hat. A chinstrap offers better protection during falls and slips when the standard hard hat is prone to fall off a worker’s head just when it’s needed the most.
In January, TDIndustries’ safety, health and environmental department, plus a few key leaders, began wearing the new safety helmets to set the example and promote the use of the new gear.
“We utilized a QR code to track interest at job sites,” Dabbs adds, “and began tracking a list of field partners who were early adopters.”
SmartTagIt: SmartTagIt uses a real-time safety app, developed by a third party, that offers field leaders and workers easy access to pre-task safety plans and information regarding common functions, such as inspection and safety observations.
“SmartTagIt has been an excellent partnership for TD and our safety efforts,” Dabbs explains “It allows us to use a social media-style feed to collect safety processes in the simplest form and share them across teams or projects instantly.”
TDIndustries collected 12,000 safety observations with its former safety software annually, but with SmartTagIt, Dabbs says that will exceed 225,000 electronically captured safety processes in 2022.
“We’ve added many more processes and made them fun, engaging and simple to navigate,” he adds.
Overall, much of Dabbs’ work focuses on TDIndustries’ safety vision it refers to as “2025 Vision: Zero Harm.”
“This vision is to perform work that results in zero serious injuries or fatalities,” Dabbs explains. “Our SIF prevention journey is well known internally and is the crucial first focus of our safety objective work. We are focusing on what matters most first, which is reducing SIF potential.”
Finally, TDIndustries’ work to keep its partners safe also extends to its customers.
“Our team has excellent relationships with other safety professionals, customers and even competitors in our markets,” Dabbs explains. “Safety and health professionals are all trying to solve the same problems and all work together to raise the bar collectively.”
As an example, Dabbs points to his safety team’s response to relatively recent OSHA standards on respirable crystalline silica.
“We designed a pocket guide on water-resistant paper that allowed field partners to easily access via pictograms how to meet and exceed OSHA’s requirements,” he adds. “We then made this available and accessible to our customers, many of whom adopted the guide for their own use too.”
For the new year ahead, Dabbs says his team will organize “safety observation wrap-up videos” to better train new partners on how to effectively find and fix hazards and unsafe behaviors. Further enhancements are also expected to be made to fleet safety operations.
It should be zero surprise that a company as large as TDIndustries knows a thing or two about construction technology.
For one, TDIndustries operates the largest fabrication facility in Texas. The 85,000-square-foot shop in Dallas provides the contractor with the ability to annually churn out more than 10 million pounds of ductwork and sheet metal; 240,000 diameter inches of welds; and more than 2 million feet of fabricated piping.
In addition, the contractor’s Clean 100, a cleanroom fabrication shop in Richardson, Texas, produces stainless steel piping and high purity plastic assemblies.
Its partners have the full collection of VDC and BIM technology as the company has moved to what it terms a “model-based” building process. Using this approach, all stakeholders come together to make shared decisions earlier than usual in the construction process opening the way for much better collaboration to produce a virtual model for the project. This cooperation upfront results in a better outcome at the end of the project.
“As we continue to embrace data-driven construction approaches,” says Harold MacDowell, CEO of TDIndustries, “we are moving forward together in passionate pursuit of efficiency and excellence. Technology – through prefabrication, modular construction, design-build opportunities and our smart analytics offering BrightBlue – opens the door for new possibilities for TD and our customers.”
The company introduced its BrightBlue solution last summer. BrightBlue, an automated fault detection and diagnostics solution, optimizes commercial building systems’ reliability and performance to conserve energy and resources, ensures consistent occupant comfort and extends equipment life.
The system gives building operations teams a way to:
Connect and collect data from a facility’s central plant and HVAC systems, meters, sensors and the Building Automation System.
Model and simulate equipment operations. Real-time performance data is monitored through a customizable dashboard.
Analyze and diagnose continuously to optimize efficiencies and performance.
Prioritize and act to address comfort, energy usage and equipment reliability to best serve organizations’ goals with data-driven decisions
For a higher education customer, BrightBlue detected more than 60 diagnostic faults in the first three months of implementation. With low or no-cost solutions, the system will save the organization an estimated $84,000 per year in energy costs, among other benefits.
Recently, TDIndustries put its construction technology skills to work on another project that is truly out of this world (at least it may be some day).
At the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, four people will experience what it would be like to live for a year on Mars. The crew will spend their days and nights in the Mars Dune Alpha, a 1,700-square-foot habitat, designed to simulate what it feels like to live on the Red Planet.
The habitat will simulate the challenges of a mission on Mars, including resource limitations, equipment failure, communication delays, and other environmental stressors. Crew tasks may include simulated spacewalks, scientific research, use of virtual reality and robotic controls, and exchanging communications. The results will provide important scientific data to validate systems and develop solutions.
The Mars Dune Alpha’s structure is built using a 3D-printing technology developed by ICON, a Texas-based company that specializes in software-aided construction. ICON’s next-generation Vulcan robotic printing system fabricated the Mars Dune Alpha’s structure from Lavacrete, the company’s proprietary Portland Cement mix.
NASA is banking that the manufacturing technique will be a viable construction method for building structures in outer space.
TDIndustries was called in to handle the under-floor air delivery systems.
“It was a really exciting project for us,” says Luke Woods, PE, mechanical estimator for TDIndustries. “We’d already done this type of work before and those qualifications helped us get this project. But, of course, there was nothing else like this project.”
Woods adds that the design and construction of Mars Dune Alpha meant that TDIndustries’ engineers had to rethink their processes.
“The way the 3D building is printed,” Woods explains, “changes all the dynamics of how we are used to constructing mechanical systems.”
Rather than a flat wall, for example, the Mars Dune Alpha is built with beads of proprietary cement mix.
“So any penetrations that we had to make are very tricky,” Woods says. “And then, with an under-floor air delivery system, we were concerned about leakage through the building.”
Each crewmember gets his or her own room, and there are two full bathrooms on opposite ends of the habitat. Additional space incorporates two sections for growing crops in aero gardens; a recreation area for relaxing; a full kitchen, fitness area stocked with exercise equipment; a communal working space; healthcare area; and a robot control station.
Varying ceiling heights created by the curved shell reduce the monotony of extended periods spent indoors. Furthermore, temperature control, lighting customization, and sound control aid in maintaining the crew’s well being and stabilizing circadian rhythms through environmental regulation.
“That was another challenge,” Woods adds. “Due to how tall they can print the structure within the NASA facility, we were limited with how much under floor space we had. So we only had a 12-inch plenum space. And then when you take into effect that they had to raise access flooring, that took about 2 ½ inches out of that. We really didn’t have a lot of space to route duct work and plumbing systems.”
A design-build approach helped “since we were able to model in the exact slope of the plumbing systems with the supports and duct work.” Even the flanges on the ductwork could make a difference.
“We’re talking about only having 9½ inches to work with,” Woods explains. “Those are the things I feel like we did successfully.”
NASA Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) mission is scheduled to start next summer.