Basim M. Mansour, owner of Michael & Son Services, based in Arlington, Virginia, was at a company retreat a couple of years ago, and one of the agenda items was no surprise.
“If I wanted to hire an IT guy,” Mansour says, “I would have 1,000 resumes in 10 minutes. But try to find a plumber? Or an HVAC tech? They are few and far between.”
It’s the same problem for everyone else in the industry. Nobody’s getting into the trades. And no service business can ever prosper without techs in the field.
All the managers at the retreat were of the same opinion: We’re not getting enough people to fill our needs.
With that in mind, Mansour figured he had to take an unconventional step.
“If we can’t find them,” he says, “let’s make them.”
The result is the Michael & Son Technical Academy, now in its third year, an 18,000-square-foot plumbing and HVAC training center inside the company’s Richmond, Virginia, regional office.
The 12-week plumbing course and the eight-week HVAC course combine classroom instruction and hands-on lab.
“Everything works,” Mansour says. “The plumbing lab features eight stations that include a full-scale bathroom with functioning plumbing. Another station has pipes under the floor so students can learn how to snake a drain. We have everything on water heaters, waste disposals. You name it. It’s a huge help for the students.”
There are also three months of ride-alongs with experienced techs for one-on-mentoring after classwork is over. But to Mansour, the working labs are key.
“Ride-alongs are great,” he adds, “but the nature of the work is somewhat random. It’s only in the lab that we can get the students into repetitive situations to master the craft of servicing and repairing all types of plumbing and heating equipment that ride-alongs can’t always provide.”
The instructors are full-time experienced teachers, too. Plumbing instructor Jeff Onofrio, for example, is a master plumber who has spent many years teaching plumbing courses at local trade schools and community colleges. Bernie Sisson teaches HVAC and originally taught at Carrier.
“They love teaching and love their students,” Mansour says. “When we have instructors like this who know how to teach and want to make the students awesome, and they have the best facility to do that, it’s a great formula for success.”
Classes run from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on weekdays, and most students spend their evenings on homework and preparation for the next day. Since many come from outside the Richmond area, Mansour is currently turning space at his Richmond campus into a 64-bed dormitory. All for free.
As an added bonus, students get a stipend. It’s not much; just the minimum wage. But at the end of the coursework, graduates have the opportunity to pursue a career at Michael & Son.
Sounds like easy street? And it is easy street just as long as the students follow directions, keep up with traffic and stay on the street.
“Survivor Island” might be a better description.
“We are pushing all the students along the way to become journeymen plumbers,” Mansour adds. “But this is a gift.”
Those who can’t keep up with the pace of the training are left out of the program. Mansour says that around 40 percent of the students enrolled in the academy haven’t made it to graduation. A total of about 70 people have gone through the program to date.
“I’m not looking to pass 100 percent of the students,” Mansour says. “But I am looking for the best people who want a great career in the trades.”
The students comes from all walks of life with some as young as 18 and others in their 40s. And Mansour is in the process of getting his program the approval it needs to enroll military personnel leaving the armed services and looking for new job opportunity.
If that last part sounds familiar, it’s because Mansour got his inspiration for his academy after visiting his friend Jimmy Hiller, Hiller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electrical, based in Nashville, Tennessee. Last year, we wrote about Hiller and how his Total Tech training program was tapping into local military bases for future tech talent. (See, “Transition to Trades Offers a Solution to Labor Shortage,” September 2017.)
Who makes the best student?
“Do they have a good face,” Mansour says. “That has nothing to do with whether they are good-looking. What I mean is, are they smiling? Are they polite? Do they have great attitudes? You could be a super model, but still be a person no one wants to be around you. At the end of the day, I can teach someone with a great attitude the trades, but I can’t teach a great attitude.”
A tuition-free trade school that offers free housing and offers a chance at a job upon graduation makes for a great story. But the building that houses Mansour’s academy only adds to it.
The Michael & Son Center is in the former headquarters of a pharmaceutical maker – all 273,000 square feet of it on almost eight acres. The site is also highly visible, right next to an interstate, which gives the company added marketing visibility.
“It’s always a big deal to me,” Mansour says. “I love having a visible location. I’m a big marketing guy, and any time you can get that many eyeballs for free, that’s a huge advantage.”
Mansour bought the site in 2012 since the company was outgrowing its former office in nearby Midlothian, Virginia. Besides the academy, the site houses a 15,000-square-feet central warehouse and distribution facility and a 10,000-square-foot call center that provides service for all Michael & Son’s 10 offices in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland.
The rest of the space is leased to other businesses.
Meanwhile, the academy dormitory will be housed in part of a six-story office tower. The dorm will also serve as temporary housing for employees who have to work during inclement weather.
The price tag for all this is well into the seven figures, but Mansour thinks it’s a great investment.
“I feel very comfortable in the future of the company because of what we have created with the academy,” Mansour says.
Michael & Son Services has been serving the Washington, D.C. metro area, from Baltimore to Charlotte, North Carolina, for more than 40 years.
Mousa “Mike” Mansour started the business in 1976 with the help of his wife, Siham “Suzi” Mansour.
“My father was a very good man and a very hard-working man, and he always wanted to be a great business man,” Basim M. Mansour says. “But he was just too nice to be a good business man. My mom, on the other hand, was a bit tougher in that respect so I got the best of both worlds.”
Basim’s father grew up in Palestine and left school at 12 to work and help support his family. By the time, Mousa immigrated to the United States in 1968, he had learned the electrical trade and worked for others before starting his own business.
“Since the age of 6, I tagged along with my father on any Saturday, school holidays and summers,” Basim adds. “While my father wasn’t a wealthy man, he gave me a wealth of experiences and a great foundation for both the technical skills and values that would define the man that I am. He taught me the value of being an honorable man of your word. I owe all that I have to what my parents gave me.”
In 1990, his father died at 47. Basim was only 19, barely in college, and like his father before him, Basim left school to provide for his mother and younger sister.
That year, one of the worst recessions gripped the Northeast. Horrible time to run a business? Think again.
“It was the best time,” Basim says. He uses the analogy of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Get a plate. Pile on the food. Eat everything. Throw the plate away. Get a new plate. Repeat until stuffed.
“But if you go a restaurant and all you can afford is a chicken wing,” he adds, “you’re going to make that chicken wing last for a week.”
In other words, if you become successful when times are good, it doesn’t mean you know how to run a business when times are bad. But if you become successful when times are bad, you learn what it takes to run a business regardless of the ups and downs of the economy.
Basim also credits the support of his mother during these initial tough times. By 1998, Basim’s sister, Joanna, left a financial services business to join the family business, who brought some needed order and structure to the office.
A year later, Basim decided his business would only do service-and-repair work and eventually expanded his offerings beyond electrical to include plumbing and heating, handyman services, remodeling, and fire, water and mold restoration.
“Name it,” Basim says. “We do it.”
From three trucks in 1999, Basim now employees 700 and runs techs out of 400 trucks on the road. Besides its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, Michael & Son also has offices in Baltimore, Hyattsville and Frederick, Maryland; Norfolk, Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia; and Wilmington and Charlotte, North Carolina.
“We have grown because I have been very lucky to surround myself with good managers and a staff of team players,” Basim says. “We all believe in what my father taught me as a kid, which was to serve the customer first and have pride in your work.