Unconventional wisdom

Christopher Howald knew just how he would run the company.

Posted on Nov 1, 2017 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Christopher Howald knew just how he would run the company.

In 2012, he joined Tweet/Garot Mechanical, the company his family helped build, as vice president of administration.

Fresh off a job as corporate counsel for a Silicon Valley company, Howald entered the role with an assumption he’d somehow need to learn the mechanical and technical parts of the business. He was determined to solve every problem with his outsider’s perspective.

He eventually learned he was wrong on both counts. Named CEO in 2015, and now in his fifth year at the mechanical contracting company, Howald has realized if the company’s goal is to develop leaders, he can’t be involved in every decision.

He’s abandoned his need to have his hands in everything and embraced the fine art of delegating.

“We’ve now grown to a size where really I view my job pretty simply,” Howald says. “I focus on strategy and vision alignment and then culture, and getting everybody culturally aligned. If I can be successful in helping guide those two things, we have a really great team of people who have a lot of technical expertise that can make sure the strategy we have in place really aligns with our best capabilities.”

These days, when people come to him with a problem they want him to solve, Howald says he’ll serve as a resource, but he won’t come up with the solution for them.

Mu1117_Cover_story_2ch about this model is antithetical to the construction industry, where decision-making tends to be hierarchical. Indeed, even in his own company, Howald says his fervor for “radical candor” draws skepticism from some. Still, he’s beginning to win people over with his efforts to address conflicts rather than let them fester.

“It makes us a better team,” says Hope Voigt, the company’s chief operating officer. “There’s not a lot of hidden stuff going on. It’s safe. I think it also empowers people at the same time to understand what’s going on in the organization.”

More likely to sport a pair of khakis and a half-zip pullover than a suit in the office, Howald, 38, conveys a unfussy, down-to-earth vibe.

Stephen Utech, CEO and founder of illumyx and principal at Utech Group, knows Howald on both a professional and personal level. He’s always concerned about other people and tends to think and plan 50 steps ahead, Utech says.

“He’s got this really cool balance — he’s data-driven, analytical,” Utech says. “He’s also got this great compassion for people.”

Renaissance Man

Howald didn’t see himself entering the family business, choosing instead to study government and philosophy at the University of Notre      Dame, ultimately earning his law degree at     Santa Clara University.

He clerked for the Wisconsin Supreme Court — the problem-solving and research writing aspects of the law appeal to him — before going to work in Silicon Valley. He served as associate attorney for a firm that represents clients such as Google, Hewlett-Packard and Netflix, before becoming corporate counsel for software company Autodesk.

His work at Autodesk sparked him to begin to think he might just be interested in working for Tweet/Garot after all.

“For the first time, I was really working in a business, and I just loved the collaborative environment,” he says. “I loved people working together cross-functionally to solve problems.”

At the same time, Tweet/Garot began to face succession challenges, with his father, Timothy Howald, the company’s CEO at the time, wanting to retire but feeling uncertain about what to do with the company. Howald and his father began to have conversations about the company, and Howald remembers beginning to feel energized.

Howald says his Silicon Valley background informs his approach to technology at Tweet/Garot. The company applies technology at every level, from business development to tracking opportunities and sales.

Whereas the construction industry used to be “a relationship business with handshakes,” Tweet/Garot now uses technology to track opportunities years in advance, Howald says. The company aims to establish itself as to be an industry leader when it comes to using new technology and staying on top of the impact that has on new building processes and construction delivery methods.

In the past, the company has attended fabrication conventions. Howald has set a goal for it to host those conventions.

“That’s unique for a small family business to say, ‘Hey, we’ll go compete with anybody,’” he says. “I think people rally around that.”

Family Roots

Tweet/Garot grew from Tweet Brothers Plumbing, a company started by Howald’s great-grandfather, Andrew Tweet Sr., and great-uncle, Pat Tweet, in 1924. Tweet/Garot formed in 1979, when Tweet Brothers Plumbing merged with Edward Garot & Son Plumbing and Heating and Withbroe Sheet Metal.

In 1984, Timothy Howald became CEO of t1117_Cover_story_3he organization after the untimely death of Andrew Tweet Jr., Timothy’s father-in-law and Christopher’s grandfather. Taking the helm unexpectedly at the age of 33, Timothy Howald oversaw a period of tremendous growth in the company.

By the end of his 31-year tenure as CEO in 2015, Timothy Howald, now the company’s chairman, had grown an $8 million company employing 50 people to one with annual revenue of $80 million and 500 employees — nearly a 1,000 percent increase on both fronts.

During that timeframe, Tweet/Garot opened an office and fabrication facility in Wisconsin Rapids, enhanced its mechanical capabilities, and made huge investments in technology such as CAD drafting, computerized estimating, 3D modeling and virtual design.

The company also completed projects for high-profile sporting facilities, including a field heating system for Target Field in Minnesota and HVAC work for the University of Notre Dame.

The Green Bay Packers organization has looked to Tweet/Garot for piping, ductwork, HVAC and plumbing work, earning it the designation of Official Mechanical Contractor of Lambeau Field.

Taking over in 2015, Christopher Howald continued that trend. In 2016, the company, which specializes in mechanical engineering and design, manufacturing,

and building and energy services, grew sales by 30 percent, added another 100 employees and exceeded $100 million in revenue.

Utech sees Howald following in his father’s footsteps. He describes Timothy Howald as someone who’s always had deep compassion for the blue-collar worker.

“I think his dad (Timothy) is an amazing person. He’s always had this drive to give back to the community,” Utech says. “I just see how that’s transitioned to Chris.

Form Follows Function

In growth mode and bursting at the seams, Tweet/Garot began to plan for a new headquarters in 2015. The company had originally envisioned a new office connected to its shop and manufacturing facility in Green Bay.

That changed when Howald decided to check the availability of the former Humana Dental building in downtown De Pere. He quickly learned the site had sat vacant for years. The 60,000-square-foot structure presented itself as an ideal canvas for the company’s vision as well as a draw for attracting talent.

“The urban campus is really appealing,” Howald says. “We are getting younger as a company, and construction industry numbers are shrinking, so we wanted to offer younger employees something that was more appealing than an industrial park. There aren’t a lot of contractors where you can walk to lunch, walk to get a cup of coffee, ride your bike to work.”

Howald saw the new headquarters as an opportunity to design something that reflected its culture of openness and lean processes. Some of the design features are inspired by Silicon Valley. The modern, industrial vibe includes décor elements such as pieces and parts bearing weld marks, created by Tweet/Garot employees in the company’s shops.

“We’re trying to drive continuous improvement into our culture, so we said, ‘OK, let’s look at this and set up our workstations not how we are in our current state but how we’re going to be working in the future.’”

That vision included creating open, collaborative spaces and forgoing offices for the leadership team. Priding himself on approachability, Howald, along with Voigt and Ray Withbroe, the company’s president, all work in cubicles.

“I didn’t want to be in the ivory tower of the building,” Howald says. “It gives me more visibility. There’s transparency.”

Howald and his team chose to set up the building to mirror the stages of construction and how a project would run through the office. People don’t occupy offices; projects do. Project management offices allow team members to meet and collaborate on jobs.

Problem resolution boards dot the landscape of the building. Each day, groups meet around the boards, log problems they encounter, trend them and identify serious issues. If trends rise to a certain level, teams apply an A3 process, a lean manufacturing problem-solving technique.

Howald says people often just accept recurrent difficulties as “just the way it is.” Through these processes, he wants them to understand there are tools that can remedy everyday frustrations.

In July, Tweet/Garot purchased a 42-acre site in Wrightstown and announced plans to consolidate its existing fabrication shops in Green Bay. The 90,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, located on Interstate 41 at the County U interchange, will break ground this month and is expected to be operational in late summer 2018, employing approximately 50.

“It’s been fun because the building is being designed by the guys who are doing the work,” Howald says. “There’s a lot of positive energy around the new facility because people can already see improvement. They see an opportunity with where we’re going as a company from a future-state perspective, and they’re merging those things in the new design.”

Future Focused

Moving forward, Howald has his sights set on addressing two issues that continually dog the construction industry: inefficiency and workforce.

Howald describes the construction industry as fragmented. Other industries have consolidated and become national players, leading to greater buying power and creation of processes deployable to satellite offices, he says, but that hasn’t happened in construction. To address the situation, he’s looking to adopt principles from the manufacturing sector.1117_Cover_Story_4

“If you look at national historical numbers, on every construction job site, 50 percent is waste,” Howald says. “Whereas in manufacturing, for example, closer to 10 percent of time spent in a manufacturing environment is waste.”

In a 2015 article, global consulting company McKinsey & Co. found between 1994 and 2012, productivity in manufacturing had nearly doubled, while in construction, it remained flat.

Much of the waste, Howald says, stems from the assumption that everything in construction needs to be custom, an idea he challenges. Each job site has variability, he says, but he also sees a lot of opportunity to standardize. He’d like to see a shift to standardizing as much as possible and then, as in manufacturing, doing custom work where necessary.

The company’s efforts stand out to John Koga, vice president of performance and innovation resources for Boldt Co. He worked with Tweet/Garot as a project manager for construction work and as a lean process observer.

“Compared to the industry as a whole, they’re definitely unique,” he says. “They’re advanced in their thinking, they’re innovative, they take action.”

Gary Kusnierz, senior director of performance excellence for Ascension Health, says Tweet/Garot has served as the organization’s subcontractor of choice for years and completed many projects for the company. Kusnierz says he appreciates working with a company that shares his organization’s continuous improvement objectives.

“We could learn collectively together how we could take waste out of the building process to provide value to the owners,” Kusnierz says.

As for talent, Howald says the company recognized the problem of impending retirements early and trended it against national construction averages. He aims to ensure that workers in the field don’t want to work anyplace else, providing them the tools, information, support and resources they need.

In his role as president, Withbroe oversees people issues and development. He sees the company’s strategy working. A lot of businesses have the same trucks and equipment as Tweet/Garot, he says, but the company has managed to differentiate itself, and its workforce is getting younger.

“I don’t know that we’re winning the battle, but we are definitely in the fight for everybody, and I can see we have good people, so it is working,” Withbroe says. “You can’t just go by money. It’s got to be about work atmosphere. It’s got to be about giving people autonomy, letting them make decisions.”

Howald takes pride in the company’s projects: its work at Lambeau Field, where it ran more than 30 miles of tubing under the field responsible for snow melt and field heat, or the ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center, which trusted the company to ensure just-right HVAC and humidity. His greatest sense of accomplishment, however, is his people and the strides they’ve made toward continuous improvement.

“Walking around a completed job is a really proud moment, but when I see that shift culturally, it equals it.”