With the support of his family, Smeja grew his company with hard work, expert craftsmanship and great passion for the metal building industry.
2015 Metal Construction Hall of Fame
George Smeja, co-founder of McHenry, Ill.-based Metalmaster
Roofmaster Inc., was always building. Building a family, business,
expertise, professional partnerships and mentorships, thousands of
metal building components and projects and a reputation as someone
who knew how to get things done.
John Geary, director of education and industry relations at
Indianapolis-based Firestone Building Products Co. LLC, started
working with Smeja and his family in the late 1980s and early 1990s
when he worked at Huntley, Ill.-based Northern Illinois Roofing and
subcontracted Metalmaster Sheet Metal. Geary says Smeja had the
ability to conceptualize, draw, fabricate and install complicated
metal projects. "A lot with George is, he just knew it," Geary
says. "If you had a question, you could always go to him, and he
always knew how to make things. I know there were many times when
designers or general contractors would say, 'This is what we need
to have done; how do we do that? What do the details look like? How
do we draw that so that it's watertight and gets the job done?' And
George and the people that were around him could come up with those
ideas and drawings and concepts and deliver it. And that's how a
guy gets into the hall of fame."
Working from their house in Crystal Lake, Ill., Smeja and Gloria
Smeja, his wife, founded Metalmaster Sheet Metal in 1977; it was
incorporated in 1985. Gloria Smeja managed the administrative
aspects of the business including overseeing contracts and
employees, says Rock Smeja, the Smejas' grandson and vice president
of marketing at Metalmaster Roofmaster and McHenrybased Sno Gem
Inc. "They would work together all the time," he says. "She was
more of the people person there, my grandfather was more of the
manual laborer, the hard worker, who would install and manufacture,
Smeja graduated from Lane Technical College Prep High School in
Chicago, went onto work as an HVAC sheet metal fabricator and
joined a labor union. He completed small metal projects including
canopies for his house and neighbors' houses on nights and
weekends. The amount of ornate sheet metal work increased and the
business grew out of the basement into the garage. Subsequently, it
moved to an old blacksmith's shop, less than 1,000 square feet, in
Crystal Lake, to a rented building in McHenry and finally to the
company's first custom-built, 100,000-square-foot facility in
McHenry in 2004. Gloria Smeja passed away in 2011 and Smeja passed
away in 2013.
Geary says the Smejas were inspirational. "Between Gloria
Smeja's business and organizational acumen and his understanding of
the craft and the trade, it was a fantastic combination," he says.
"Together, they really grew a business on solid principles of
quality workmanship, providing a value and being able to sell
Today, Metalmaster Roofmaster employs more than 150 people and
second- and third-generation family members. Michael Smeja and
Daniel Smeja, the Smejas' sons and principals at Metalmaster
Roofmaster, participated in the business at young ages. "Everyone
was involved from day one," Rock Smeja says.
Commercial roofing was added to the company's sheet metal work
and Metalmaster Roofmaster was formed in 1995. "If you want the
whole building package, the scope of work for bidding, you need to
do roofing and sheet metal," Rock Smeja says. "So that's when we
expanded, and that's when our company really took off."
Smeja and Michael Smeja co-founded Sno Gem to complement the
business in 1994. Sno Gem now offers more than 150 snow retention
and solar attachment products. "It just made sense; being in
roofing and knowing the ins and outs and intricacies, why not get
into an accessory product?," Rock Smeja says.
"My father could do
steeples and beautiful, elaborate-type work. He had great talent at
taking a flat piece of sheet metal and transforming it into a work
of art. He was very good at his trade, and it's this idea of
craftsmanship that Metalmaster Roofmaster was founded
on." - Michael Smeja, principal at Metalmaster
Rock Smeja says his grandfather mentored many employees
throughout his career, including two still at Metalmaster
Roofmaster that he met at a lumber yard and another
construction-related business. "He thought they were really smart
and good with numbers, so he'd hire them, get them in the union,"
he says. Now, after 15 or 20 years, they have very successful
careers, Rock Smeja says. "That's just one little example of how
he'd see the talent in people from a distance, whether it's at a
lumber place or just somebody he knew, an old friend's son. He
would really take a liking to certain people and train them the way
he was trained."
J. Grant Gillum, executive vice president at San Antonio- based
Berridge Manufacturing Co., began working with the Smejas as a
salesman at Berridge Manufacturing in the late 1980s and early
1990s. Gillum says Smeja exuded a positive attitude and passion for
the business. "And being proud of sharing his knowledge and skill
with others, I think that's very important to the industry," he
says. "I can't imagine how many sheet metal craftsmen he trained
over the years."
Old World Craftsman
Rock Smeja says his grandfather worked in an Old World craftsman
style and made ornate copper projects including steeples and
cornices. "Things that nowadays we have machines that can do, but
in the 60s, 70s, 80s, it wasn't as popular; you had to do it by
hand in a true coppersmith style," he says.
Gillum says Smeja was able to taper and conform sheet metal
panels to difficult curved and compound surfaces. He remembers
creative metal work in Smeja's office including tables and desks
clad with shiny copper material. The first time Gillum visited
Metalmaster Sheet Metal's facility with Jack Berridge, founder of
Berridge Manufacturing, Smeja showed them a large, multicolored,
fan-shaped arc on the wall he built with pie-shaped pieces of
Berridge Manufacturing's sheet metal products. "He fabricated it
into tapered panels on the wall, and it exhibited our whole color
range," Gillum says. "It was fascinating. I haven't seen anybody do
a representation of our sheet metal and our colors in that way
before or after."