George Smeja: 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

By Christopher Brinckerhoff

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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.”

Family Ties

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, fabricate things.”

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 that.”

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.

Achieving Expansion

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 Roofmaster

Sharing Knowledge

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.”