Ricardo Souza EFR Mechanical plubing contractor

Ricardo Souza reinvented himself as a plumbing contractor

Spotlight on EFR Mechanical

In his native Brazil, Ricardo Souza was proficient with boom microphones and video cameras. Construction tools, however? Not so much.

“I didn’t even know how to hold a hammer before I got here,” Souza says. Which is pretty extraordinary, considering that he is now the owner of EFR Mechanical, a growing plumbing and heating contractor. As you might expect, Souza’s success story is one filled with determination and singular focus. “You have to work hard in this life,” he says, sharing the drive that motivates him.

But Souza didn’t go it completely alone. His story also demonstrates how Local 12 can help enterprising plumbers realize their dreams of opening their own shops.

When he was a young teenager, Souza started working as an office boy for an advertising agency. He later held lights during video production shoots, then learned how to operate a camera, and eventually became proficient at editing the commercials and political videos that the agency developed.

After getting married, he decided to venture out on his own and open his own video production company. In order to finance the company, a friend suggested Souza go to the U.S., work for one year, and save the money he would make. 16 years later, he is still here.

“Everybody looks for the American dream,” Souza says, referring to the misconception that the country’s streets are paved with gold, and easy money is readily available. “It’s not as simple as everybody thinks.”

Landing in Boston because he has a friend who lives in the city, Souza did what many locals do: He went to a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. While there, a plumber happened to come in looking for a laborer to help with a job and offered Souza the work. So began his plumbing career.

That plumber, Rick MacKinnon, admired Souza’s work ethic and took him under his wing. Souza began apprenticing with MacKinnon while working at (where else?) Dunkin’ Donuts at night to earn extra dollars. He also began fixing computers on the side in whatever free time he could find.

With the money he was earning, Souza maintained the dream of opening his own television production company and even bought a video camera thinking that he might start his business in Boston. But a funny thing happened.

“I found I really enjoyed plumbing,” Souza says. “I also realized I could make a good living at it.”

So he ditched the extra jobs and focused on plumbing. Souza worked most of the day with MacKinnon. Ever the entrepreneur and hard worker, he also bought a truck and tools and did service work on the side.

The people at his non-union shop didn’t speak well about the union, repeating many of the common myths that paint a false picture about organized labor and often prevent workers from making decisions that are in their own best interest. Since Souza didn’t know anything about unions, he took the misrepresentations at face value and continued working for the open shop.

“Then I made friends with someone who was in Boston Laborers Union Local 223,” says Souza. The friend talked about the health insurance he was getting, the retirement plan the union offered, and other benefits. “I thought I was doing okay, but I didn’t realize what I didn’t have,” Souza added, noting that he always struggled trying to pay for health insurance.

Upon learning about the benefits, Souza’s wife, Fabiane, encouraged him to look into Plumbers Local 12. His mentor, MacKinnon, had joined Local 12 by that time and also encouraged him. The day he got his license, Souza contacted the union and never looked back.

“In addition to the benefits, the money I started making was way better than at my non-union job,” he says. Souza began working for GBPCA contractors CMP Plumbing and Heating and American Plumbing and Heating. Among the projects he worked on for American was a building for MIT in Kendall Square. About a year after he joined Local 12, Souza got his Master Plumber license and began thinking about opening his own shop.

Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, assured Souza that the union would support him if he started a shop. That gave Souza the courage to take the leap and form EFR Mechanical. He started the business in April 2020, just as the pandemic began wreaking havoc, as a one-person shop.

EFR Mechanical trucks

At first, Souza relied on Plumbers 911, Local 12’s marketing service that connects union shops with homeowners and small businesses seeking plumbing services. The referrals kept him busy with service work. He says that after completing the work, the customers would often turn into clients and call him back for additional projects. Word of mouth also led to additional work, as his clients referred EFR.

About a year after he started his shop, Souza now has three plumbers working for him. But he’s only just begun growing the business. He has been bidding construction projects and will be starting work on two apartment buildings in Boston. One is a 210-unit building that will begin in September, and the other is an 88-unit building slated for October.

“When I need help for these bigger jobs, I know I’ll be able to get the manpower from the hall,” Souza says. That kind of backing empowers him to think even bigger. Looking to the future, Souza says he envisions having “at least 100 people work here.”

Fandel is a big cheerleader for EFR and Souza. “He is so motivated,” the Local 12 leader says. “I know he will be successful.”

With a little help, it turns out Souza is living the American dream after all.

Jovai Taylor and Michael Alewxander Local 12 Boston apprentices

2020 will be memorable first year for apprentices

No matter what may be happening outside of the industry, it’s always momentous for apprentices when they join Local 12 and begin their training.

Members likely have vivid memories of their first year in the program as they began to learn the trade and started on their journey in a new career. But for the thirty first-year apprentices who came on board in 2020 amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, their experiences will be especially memorable. The Pipeline caught up with two of them to learn about their path to Local 12.

Michael Alexander

As a third-generation Local 12 member, you might think that it would have been Michael Alexander’s destiny to become a plumber and join the union. But that wasn’t necessarily the case.

While he always liked putting things together and making things work, Alexander chose to study engineering in college. But when he joined the Army National Guard three years ago as a helicopter mechanic, he found his calling working with his hands.

“It was then that I knew the desk thing wasn’t really going to be for me,” says Alexander, noting that he enjoyed being in the field repairing and replacing helicopter parts. “That’s when I decided I wanted to work in the trades.”

As to what trade, his family provided inspiration. Alexander’s grandfather, Ed Farrell, uncle, Brian Farrell, and cousin, Ryan Farrell, all joined Local 12 and pursued plumbing as a career. He sought the advice of his uncle, who helped convince him to follow the family tradition.

“Even though I had grown up hearing about the union, I didn’t know much about it,” Alexander says. “After my uncle told me about the high professional standards, the safety standards, the wages, the benefits, and more, I decided to apply.”

Alexander was accepted into the local in 2019, but duty called when the Army National Guard deployed him to the Middle East. Part of a heavy maintenance team, he serviced Blackhawk helicopters in his home base, Kuwait, as well as in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Over the course of Alexander’s deployment, which lasted through

January of this year, his team supported 33,000 hours of combat flight time. “I knew that I had Local 12 to go home to,” he says.

Upon his return, Alexander went to work for Glionna Plumbing and Heating where he has remained. Not long after he started, the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. Alexander notes that there have been no reported virus cases at any of the job sites on which he has been working. He credits Glionna, the general contractors, and the safety protocols adopted by the building trades for helping to keep him and his coworkers safe.

Many of Glionna’s projects are municipal buildings. Alexander, for example, has been working on new police headquarters in Belmont and Beverly. The crews are relatively small, which makes it easier to social distance. 

He cites another benefit of working for a smaller shop. “My uncle was a foreman and ran a lot of huge jobs. With Glionna, I get to do a lot more, because I wear many hats. I’m getting a lot of hands-on experience with a variety of things.”

Alexander says that his military experience and regard for the chain of command has served him well at job sites. “It makes it easier for me to learn. I have respect for the journeyman and foreman above me,” he notes. “You only have to tell me things once.”

He also notes parallels between the military and the union. “With Local 12, there’s strength in unity. We have each other’s backs. We are part of something bigger than ourselves.”

As for the benefits he is receiving, the 24-year-old says that he doesn’t know anybody else his age with a health care plan, an annuity, and a pension. “It’s pretty fantastic.”

Jovai Taylor

She always liked working with her hands, but Jovai Taylor ended up with jobs at auto dealerships and a car rental agency. Tired of sitting at a desk and seeking a change, she thought about the things she liked doing and remembered how much she enjoyed working alongside her father helping him with home 

repairs and improvements. It’s something Taylor carried with her throughout her life. She says that she always tries to figure out how to do things herself. She thought construction could be something to pursue.

“I wanted to get into the building trades for a long time,” Taylor says. “But I just didn’t know how to do it.”

Then a friend who is a pipefitter told her about Building Pathways. The Roxbury-based pre-apprenticeship program helps prepare people, especially women, people of color, and others in underserved communities, for careers in the building trades. Local 12 is one of the unions that works with and supports Building Pathways.

Taylor enrolled in the program in 2019 to begin her new career path. As part of the curriculum, participants are asked to identify two trades they would like to enter. She chose plumbing and pipefitting.

After graduating from Building Pathways, Taylor applied to some of the building trade unions. While she waited to hear from them, she took a job with a nonunion shop to get some experience.

Accepted by Local 12, the first-year apprentice says that up until recently, she didn’t know much about unions. “Now, there is a sense of security. I understand that Local 12 has my best interests at heart and is looking out for me,” Taylor says. “Unlike past jobs, it feels like a career for me now.”

Having briefly worked for a nonunion contractor, she says that there is a big difference on the union side. “The way I’m treated, the pay, the benefits–it’s all so much better.”

As a woman working in the trades, Taylor says her gender has been a non-issue. Everyone has been accepting her.

Since joining Local 12, Taylor has been working for GBPCA contractor TG Gallagher at 51 Sleeper Street in Boston’s Seaport District. The mixed-use building, which dates back to 1924, is being renovated and converted into new office and lab space.

While the class sizes are smaller than usual at Local 12’s training center, and everyone is wearing a mask along with other safety measures, Taylor says that as a first-year apprentice, she has nothing to compare it to. Her experiences in the classroom and the center’s shop have been great, she notes. Taylor is especially looking forward to learning more about welding and brazing.

Patrick Mulkerrin Local 12 business agent

Local 12 welcomes Patrick Mulkerrin as business agent

To fill the business agent position vacated by Tim Fandel, Local 12 members elected Patrick Mulkerrin earlier this year. Fandel is serving as the local’s business manager.

Mulkerrin is the first plumber in his family, but not the first union member. “That’s what we do in my family,” he says, noting that his father is a laborer and his grandfather was business manager of the laborers local.

Growing up, Mulkerrin says that his family did most of the repairs and work at their house. He remembers pitching in with projects such as rebuilding the deck and replacing water heaters and says that he was always handy and interested in the trades.

To help pay for college, Mulkerrin worked nights doing construction. While on the job, he became fascinated by and drawn to the mechanical trades. “Seeing a project start from nothing and watch as the whole system got built was almost like artwork,” Mulkerrin recalls. He decided not to return to college and pursued plumbing as a career instead.

Joining Local 12 in 2006, Mulkerrin apprenticed with GBPCA contractor, Kennedy Mechanical, and worked on the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, one of the first major projects in the Seaport District. He says he loved the trade from the start. “I had fun every day and came home smiling.”

The Great Recession intervened in 2008 and temporarily derailed Mulkerrin’s apprenticeship. He was out of work for ten months. The experience, which illustrated the sometimes-cyclical nature of the construction industry, left a deep impression on him. He returned to work and finished his apprenticeship with Cannistraro.

Soon after becoming a journeyman, Mulkerrin got involved with Local 12 and was appointed to the Joint Conference Board, which is comprised of both union officers and contractors. That gave him the opportunity to meet and work with many GBPCA contractors and get to know the management side of the business.

Mulkerrin subsequently ran for and was elected recording secretary for Local 12, was a delegate for the New England pipe trades at the 2016 United Association (UA) convention, and then got the nod as the local’s vice president. When the UA asked former business manager Harry Brett to serve as its special representative in New England, the local appointed Mulkerrin as interim business agent at the start of 2020. He was elected to the position in February.

Soon after Mulkerrin became a business agent, the pandemic created chaos and caused 80% unemployment among Local 12 members because of construction site shutdowns. It’s been something of an extreme trial by fire.

“There’s nothing in any UA manual to prepare anybody for this,” Fandel says, referring to the COVID-19 crisis. “Nonetheless, Patrick has been extremely focused and engaged. He is doing a great job despite the circumstances.”

For his part, Mulkerrin says that he knew business agents assisted members, but he didn’t realize the extent of the involvement—especially amid the pandemic. At the height of the layoffs, the business agents were kept busy helping members navigate the unemployment system and apply for benefits.

The most frustrating fallout from the pandemic has been the inability to meet face-to-face with members, Mulkerrin says. With in-person union meetings cancelled and most other communication limited to text messages, Facebook posts, phone calls, and other remote means, it’s been difficult for the new business agent.

“I look forward to things retuning to normal,” says Mulkerrin. “I want to meet people at the hall and have personal interactions where we can be with one another.”

Tim Fandel at Local 12 Boston

Tim Fandel takes the reins at Local 12

When the United Association appointed Harry Brett, Local 12’s business manager, to the position of special representative for the New England region, that left a leadership void at the union. In early 2020, the membership elected Tim Fandel to head Local 12. For the new business manager, the role was many years–and generations–in the making.

Plumbing and Local 12 are something of a tradition in the Fandel family. Tim’s dad, Hank, now retired, worked as a Local 12 plumber and taught the trade at a vocational school. Tim’s uncle and Hank’s brother, Jack, was also a plumber and served as the director of the local’s training center. Tim’s grandfather and Hank’s father, William J. Fandel II, was a plumber and was one of the first Local 12 members to draw a pension when it became available in the mid-1950s. Tim’s great-grandfather, William J. Fandel, began the tradition. He emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the late 1880s and found work as a plumber. Tim’s brothers, Hank Jr. and Sean, and his cousin, Danny Weeder, are also Local 12 members.

Fandel has childhood memories of his father and uncle putting on their sport coats to attend union meetings. (That was back in the day when people would get dressed up for such occasions.) “At first, I didn’t know what the heck they did at union meetings,” he says. “As I got older, however, I slowly understood more about Local 12 and unions and the impact they had on me and our family. They were lessons to be learned.”

Despite his family’s ties to the industry, Fandel says that he didn’t think about plumbing or other construction trades while he was in high school. He did, however, consider a career as a chef and was accepted to Johnson & Wales, the culinary school in Rhode Island. Fandel instead opted to get a job (although he still loves cooking for his family and friends), and in 1982 went to work for Streeter Plumbing and Heating. He also went to school nights to get his plumbing license. His dad was the instructor. It was also his father who gave Tim the phone number of Irving Streeter and handed his son old tools that had been used by generations of Fandels.

Although he had no hands-on experience, Fandel quickly acclimated and enjoyed the work. Streeter Plumbing, based in Winthrop, did mostly residential projects including service, new construction, and kitchen and bath remodeling. It allowed Fandel to develop a broad base of skills.

He became a Local 12 member in 1983. As was the convention back then, Fandel was indentured to one shop, Maurer Sforza Plumbing and Pipefitting in Needham, for the duration of his four-year apprenticeship. His first project, which lasted three years, was a large research and development facility at Harvard University. Joe Croce, who now leads Local 12’s retirees, was the job’s foreman. After he got his journeyman’s license in 1987 and his master’s license a year later, Fandel stayed with Maurer Sforza. He later went to work for larger shops including J.F. Shine Mechanical and American Plumbing and Heating.

Soon after he joined Local 12, Fandel got involved in the organization’s politics. “It’s what the plumbers in my family did,” he explains. “There is a sense of giving back to the union and to the industry. There are probably few positions in the local that I haven’t held.” The experience gave him a broad-based understanding of the union. It also allowed him to develop ties with many of the local’s leaders, who encouraged him to run for office. In 2006, he tossed his hat into the ring and was elected as a business agent, a position he held for 14 years.

During many of those years, he worked alongside Brett, who was also a business agent before he was elected as Local 12’s business manager in 2013. “He’s been my partner every step of the way,” Brett says, referring to his successor and friend. “Tim has a wonderful way of dealing with people. He’s not afraid to act. He’s the right guy and the members know it.”

Coming into the role of business manager, Fandel inherited a good working relationship with the plumbing contractors that employ Local 12 members. He considers himself lucky and credits Brett for nurturing the relationship. Fandel thinks it is critical for both parties that they work together amicably, and knows that it’s not always the case for labor groups and the companies that hire them. “It’s one of the great strengths for both the local and the contractors,” Fandel says.

“We take pride in our ability to collaborate on issues with shared goals and shared perspectives. We sometimes agree to disagree–without being disagreeable. We’ve always been able to resolve issues through communication, respect, and an understanding of our shared history. The fruits of out positive relationship are easy to see. We do things as partners. Unfortunately, some people find that unusual,” notes Fandel, referring to the stereotypes often associated with unions and management. “It should be the rule, not the exception.”

Jeremy Ryan, the executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association, supports Fandel’s outlook and looks forward to working collaboratively with the business manager. “Tim is a voice of reason and has a calming influence. His mentality of always trying to find common ground makes him invaluable,” he says. “I see our industry moving forward and growing boundlessly under Tim’s leadership.”

Although the construction industry has enjoyed a long period of growth and prosperity, Fandel says that he remains bullish about the future and points to economic engines such as the healthcare, education, and research and development markets that make the Boston region uniquely positioned to weather potential downturns. In addition, he calls out some especially large projects, such as Cambridge Crossing, Harvard University’s development in Allston, the Bulfinch Crossing complex in Government Center, and the Suffolk Downs redevelopment that all have long buildout plans and will keep Local 12 members working for decades.

“I remain cautiously optimistic,” Fandel says. “But I think we need to be diligent and vigilant about plotting our own course. To that end, he hopes that the signatory contractors with which the local works will refocus on public work projects such as major high schools and other government-funded development. Fandel believes there is a lot of opportunity to expand in that sector, and that public work tends to continue regardless of prevailing economic winds.

As for the residential division that Brett launched, the new business manager sees nothing but growth there. There are many transit-oriented projects being built near MBTA stations, especially in areas outside Boston. He would like to chase more of that work and wants to increase the number of signatory plumbing contractors that do residential construction.

“We all know construction is cyclical,” notes Fandel. “But I see residential construction, residential service, and service for commercial and other markets as being right in our wheelhouse. This kind of work can insulate us to a degree should the economy falter.”

“Tim will do a great job,” Brett attests. “I think he will help Local 12 continue to grow and expand.”

Apprentice draws on her past experience

Third-year Local 12 apprentice Kerri Reppucci took an interesting journey into the industry. 

For nine years she was a mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) coordinator and developed blueprints for commercial construction projects. Now Reppucci is on crews doing the kind of plumbing that she once designed. Her background gives her a unique perspective among apprentices.

Unlike many people who find their way to Local 12, Reppucci didn’t know anybody who was a plumber or worked in other construction trades, nor was she exposed to or had any inclination to join the industry as she was growing up. She knew the owner of EHK Adjorlolo & Associates, a building information modeling (BIM) services company based in Norwood, who hired her soon after she graduated high school and trained her in all aspects of virtual design and construction.

The learning curve was steep, but Reppucci became proficient as an MEP coordinator and developed drawings using computer-aided design (CAD). She simultaneously learned about plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and fire protection systems as well as the overall building trades industry. “In time, I ran coordination meetings,” Reppucci says. She recalls sitting across the table from GBPCA contractors such as E. M. Duggan and Valante Mechanical.

While she enjoyed the work, Reppucci says she eventually wanted to change careers and began thinking about being on the other side of the construction industry. An avid equestrian and an active, outdoorsy person, she sometimes found it a struggle to sit behind a computer and be confined to an office. “When I went to job sites, I loved being out there,” recalls Reppucci.

Interestingly, it was her boss who helped steer her away from his company. He would often talk to Reppucci about her personal five-year plan and encouraged her to envision where she saw herself. She realized she wanted to explore a career in the construction trades.

Coincidentally, Reppucci met a plumber who discovered the MEP coordination work she did and asked her if she ever though about getting into the field. When she expressed interest, he offered her a part-time position working for him on Saturdays. For about a year, Reppucci learned the basics of plumbing on residential service jobs.

“I liked it from the start,” she says. Reppucci decided to actively pursue becoming a full-time plumber. “It was scary to switch careers. But I knew I had to pull the trigger.”

She applied to Local 12, but didn’t initially get in. The plumber with whom she had been working on Saturdays offered her an apprenticeship position and she took it, although Reppucci says that she didn’t give up on her dream to get into the union. She knew the pay would be better as well as the benefits such as health insurance and a pension. She also knew that Local 12-affiliated contractors did the type of large-scale projects on which she wanted to work.

In 2018, Reppucci reapplied and was accepted into Local 12. She has been working for American Plumbing and Heating on projects such as a new Children’s Hospital building and the expansion of TD Garden’s concourse.

“When I first started, it was so exciting,” she enthuses. “It was almost surreal. I would ask myself, ‘Is this happening?’ ”

Reppucci says her many years as an MEP coordinator have been serving her well. Her ability to look at drawings and know exactly what they mean has helped her on the job. At the same time, she adds, she is learning a different side of plumbing that she couldn’t get in an office.

“Pipe is much easier to manipulate in your hands than in a drawing,” Reppucci notes.

She is currently on the American crew at the mixed-use development known as Parcel K in Boston’s Seaport district. The 500,000-square-foot project includes a 12-story residential building with 304 apartments and a 12-story Hyatt Place hotel with 294 rooms. Parcel K will also include an underground parking garage, office space, and ground-level retail shops and restaurants. Reppucci is working on the hotel side of the project.

Before she came to Local 12, Reppucci had taken classes for open-shop apprentices. She says that the union’s training center, which emphasizes hands-on opportunities in its shops, is a completely different experience. Whereas before, she mostly sat at a desk and read along as teachers lectured, now she is putting theory into practice.

“We’re doing things that help me really understand plumbing,” says Reppucci. “I’m a tactile learner. I need to do it to understand it. The instructors are great.”

When she gets older, Reppucci says that she may want to return to MEP coordination. But for now she is thrilled to be learning a trade that she loves. She looks forward to a long career and says that she is bullish on the plumbing industry.

“People will always need water, sinks, toilets, and heat,” explains Reppucci. “The trade won’t go away.”