Polishing the diamond Featured

9:54am EDT July 22, 2002

For Lou Joseph, owner of Brewer-Garrett Co., these are the salad days. Business, he says, is fun.

“This isn’t a job; this is a sport,” he says. “Work is play.”

And if Joseph — a former college wrestler — is the proverbial ace pitcher who controls the pace of the game from atop the pitcher’s mound, then his 350 employees at the Middleburg Heights-based mechanical engineering firm are the trustworthy teammates who ensure that victory is always within reach.

“Everything in my business is about people,” explains Joseph. “We bring in high quality people and provide them with an environment for success.”

That environment includes a 50,000-square-foot facility tucked neatly away in a four-and-one-half acre wooded lot. The building, designed with interior glass windows instead of walls, includes all the amenities and atmosphere of a posh health club. Joseph says it creates a family atmosphere where employees view the office as a home away from home.

Louis Joseph was named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year in the business services category.

Joseph is modest when discussing Brewer-Garrett’s success under his leadership, crediting his employees for the company’s growth. Last year, Brewer-Garrett’s sales increased 29 percent as profits skyrocketed 40 percent. Over the last six years, since Joseph took the reins, revenues have increased more than 300 percent.

Much of that growth is due to long-term relationships and repeat business, explains Joseph. Some can be attributed to an active sales force that doesn’t wait for the phone to ring. The rest comes from the more than 600 service contracts that provide a constant source of recurring revenue.

It’s a long haul from when Joseph was hired away from Honeywell in 1981. Then, Brewer-Garrett’s mechanical system service maintenance division was not the company’s primary focus, and Joseph peddled $3,000 service contracts out of a dismal basement office while his co-workers chuckled behind his back.

“They did construction contracts for $50,000,” says Joseph. “But what I was doing was building relationships through the service contracts. I was thinking a lot longer term.”

Joseph’s instincts were sharp — he saw where the construction industry was headed and beat his competitors there. By 1987, the perseverance paid off and Joseph was promoted to vice president. He bought a minority stake in the company and began to fervently implement his vision for success into the company’s culture.

Four years later, Joseph was president of Brewer-Garrett. Two years after that, he controlled a majority of the company, founded in 1959, which was now mostly devoted to facilities management. “I saw a diamond in the rough and knew what I wanted to do to polish it up,” he says.

One of factors driving the company’s high profit growth is that Brewer-Garrett doesn’t rely on outside help on its projects. “We’re an inverted company,” Joseph says. “We’re a mechanical contractor, but we don’t subcontract anything out. We do the sheet metal work, the planning, the service and the applications all in-house.” All of which lowers overhead.

Another factor is the expanding demand for construction projects. Joseph was ahead of the curve there as well. Two years ago, Brewer-Garrett opened offices in Akron, Columbus and Cincinnati. Joseph’s goal at the time was to put key people in place and establish a market presence. Results have exceeded expectations and Joseph’s expectations have shifted.

“I want to capture all the mechanical systems down there,” he says. “Heating and cooling, electrical, the whole thing.”

At the root of Joseph’s business philosophy is relationship building. It is what he believes Brewer-Garrett is all about. “If we do one job for you, we did something wrong,” Joseph claims. “We want something long term. We want to be part of your budget and part of your process.”

That down-to-the-bones thinking starts at the top, but doesn’t just trickle on its own. Joseph actively instills it within every employee he hires, and has made great efforts to provide his staff with a vision that caters more toward team building with clients than focusing on landing one project at a time.

And rather than espouse the usual catch phrase — if you don’t take care of your customers, someone else will — Joseph subscribes to a different, more practical, credo: “Take care of your people,” he says. “They will take care of your customers.”

So far, the philosophy has paid off.

Judge’s comments: “This was an individual who started as an employee and was able to (show a) vision in a relatively mature industry. He worked with the owners over time to convince them that his vision was the right vision for this company. And they bought into it. And he was able, over time, to buy the company.” Kathryne W. Dindo