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Gary T. Smith: A driving force for the benefit of metal building assemblers

2016 Metal Construction Hall of Fame

Smith  Gary Lores

Once Gary T. Smith starts something, he likes to finish it. In 1976, as part of the celebration of the Montreal Olympics, the Canadian Olympic Committee staged numerous events surrounding the Olympics. One was a 400-mile canoe race from Toronto to Montreal. Smith and his partner came in first place. In fact, of the 23 canoes that put in the water, theirs was the only one to complete the journey, and in the process they set a time record for the distance and raised $10,000 for charity.

"I was a pretty determined guy," Smith says.

A History of Construction

Smith has been heavily involved in the Metal Building Contractors & Erectors Association (MBCEA). He started the Mid-Atlantic Chapter and recently completed two terms as national president. Through his efforts and determination, Smith has established a national apprenticeship program for metal building construction and the AC478 accreditation program for metal building assemblers. Speaking for the MBCEA, Jacqueline Meiluta says, "It is my opinion the strength of the association will ebb and flow over the years but the apprenticeship program and the AC478 will stand the test of time and truly be a lasting legacy to Gary."

Determination helped raise Smith out of a circumstance that could have been difficult to escape. "I was born in Cabbagetown in Toronto," he says. The name derives from Irish settlers who were said to be so poor that they grew cabbage in their front yards. He was raised by a single mother, and found his way eventually to the Cabbagetown boxing club. When he was 18, he was offered a professional boxing contract. It was a career past that he chose not to pursue.

"It's about credibility. You have to have performance and credibility. If you don't have that, your business will close up."

Gary T. Smith

"I floated around from job to job," Smith says, "and ended up putting up steel buildings in 1966. Quonset huts. I found a real interest in construction."

From the interest, Smith built a career that included working in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. In 1999, he founded Thomas Phoenix International (TPI) with two partners, Eric T. Kay and his son Sean. All three share the same middle name, "Thomas," which became part of the business name. Through the years at this company and previous ones, Smith had identified a huge issue among his workers. There was no structured training program.

"After 25 years in the business," Smith says, "I always felt I was just another guy. I was good at what I did. I took in an interest in my guys and their training, and I tried to pass along that this was not just another job. It was a career. We offered health benefits and a 401(k). I talked about setting up an apprentice program as soon as we got to six employees."

The Apprentice Program

In 2005, Smith began the process of creating an apprentice program, but he faced several obstacles. "I was told in no uncertain terms that I'd never be able to do it," he says. "Especially in New Jersey and especially with an open shop." After two years, he had established an apprenticeship program that was not only recognized by the New Jersey Department of Labor, but also by the U.S. Department of Labor.

And then, Smith did something really remarkable. Instead of keeping it for himself and establishing a competitive advantage for Thomas Phoenix International, he gave it to the Metal Building Institute (MBI). In 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor recognized MBI's national guidelines, which assemblers can now implement.

"I gave the whole thing to MBI," he says. "I wanted to legitimize our trade. I wanted young people to be proud to be a steel erector. In the last 30 years, we've dropped the ball in putting our kids through technical college. We don't have any tradesmen. The day of the tradesman is going to come back. Tech colleges are getting lots of grants, and will bend over backwards, especially for adult education."

What the apprentice program does for workers in the field, the AC478 accreditation program does for their companies. It establishes clear processes and procedures for metal building assembly that can be implemented throughout a company. "Steel builders who already have an apprentice program," Smith says, "have what the AC478 requires."

AC478

The MBCEA partnered with the International Accreditation Service (IAS) to develop the AC478, which works in conjunction with AC472 accreditation for metal building manufacturers.

"We wanted to level the playing field," Smith says. When buildings are put out to bid, the bid entries often will have a price that is half of the others. "Someone's made a mistake. Lots of general contractors will take the low bid and the erector can't handle it. Someone has to come in and finish the project. We want to make the whole business a little more consistent."

According to the MBCEA, widespread implementation of AC478 can lead to additional benefits for others in the industry. Architects may begin specifying that the building must be erected by an AC478 accredited company. Also, it can streamline the building inspection process.

"It's about credibility," says Smith. "You have to have performance and credibility. If you don't have that, your business will close up."

Meiluta says, "Gary believes strongly in the fellowship of metal building contractors and erectors coming together for joint training, for networking, for real discussions of issues affecting the industry, and of course for fellowship. He's not afraid to put his thoughts into real action."

"I'm told I'm a stubborn, overbearing son-of-abitch," Smith says. "Everyone knows my heart is in the right place. I came along at the right time with the right group of people. We managed to stumble through this to come out the other end as legitimate. The word that's used a lot but not performed on is 'passion.'"

"It's about credibility. You have to have performance and credibility. If you don't have that, your business will close up."