Making the grade with plumbing
Spotlight on Boston Mechanical Inc.
Richard MacDonald forged his own career by first discovering plumbing as a student at a vocational technical school. He later opened his own shop, which has grown and evolved through the years. Both of his sons now work alongside their dad at GBPCA contractor, Boston Mechanical Inc. But their journey into the industry began in an unconventional way, with Richard charting the unique course.
Growing up, Richard says that he always enjoyed working with his hands and approached projects such as fixing his bicycle and disassembling lawn mowers with curiosity and confidence. He did not have any role models in his family to follow, but he had a sense that he might want to work in the construction industry. That led him to enroll in the exploratory program at Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Lexington.
As fate would have it, a new plumbing instructor, Gordon Carlberg, joined the faculty on the same day that Richard started school. Because the teacher seemed like a nice guy, the new student thought he would give his class a try.
“As it turned out, I loved it,” says Richard referring to both the class and the trade. Always good with math, he liked the precise measuring and the conceptual problem solving that the projects required. He also enjoyed the practical applications of the work and the sense of accomplishment he felt. “I started a job in the morning, and by the end of the day it would be finished,” Richard adds. “It was great seeing the results of my efforts.”
He enjoyed the trade so much, he started doing side jobs while still a teenager. By age 16, Richard had a roster of customers, including neighbors, family members, and others he acquired through word of mouth. The fact that he genuinely liked people and had a gift for gab, even at a young age, helped the young entrepreneur and budding plumber succeed. After graduating in 1984, Richard did a four-year apprenticeship with a shop. But he never stopped doing work for his customers on the side. The work was so steady, he opened his own one-man shop, MacDonald Plumbing, as soon as he got his license in 1988.
Based in Arlington, Richard did all types of service work, but developed a specialty working on the steam heating systems of the town’s many older homes. He hired an employee in 1990, got a second van, and eventually expanded to ten employees and six trucks as the business continued to grow. He opened a storefront office for MacDonald Plumbing, which he says gave the company even more exposure. His client base swelled to more than 5,000 customers, mostly residential.
Richard’s oldest son, John, showed a keen interest in the trade at a very young age. He would tag along with his dad to jobs and pitch in to help.
“When he was three years old, I asked John if he wanted to be a plumber,” Richard recalls. “He told me, ‘I already am.’ ”
In 2009, when John was a junior at Arlington High, Richard had a brainstorm to help advance his son’s career path. He met with one of the school’s guidance counselors, explained John’s interest in and aptitude for plumbing, told the counselor that his son had been helping him at work on weekends, and made an interesting proposal. Instead of going to study period or an elective such as cooking, what if John could accompany him to work three days per week and get credit for it? Further, he offered to mentor other students interested in the trade. The school approved the plan.
For John’s final two years in public school, he and a few classmates shadowed Richard. In addition to giving them opportunities to observe the plumbing work, he taught them formulas and showed them the role that math played in the trade. Richard documented all the work that John and the other students performed. The program was so successful, he was invited to continue it two years later, when his younger son, Jeff, was a junior at the school.
Richard recalls a proud moment at John’s high school graduation. “They singled out three students for recognition,” he says. “One was going to Harvard and another was going to M.I.T. Then they announced that John MacDonald was going to be a plumber is his family’s business.”
Switch to commercial market–and Local 12
With both of his sons working with him, Richard continued to expand, focusing mostly on residential work. But things began to change when he bid on and won a Boston Public Schools contract to maintain the system’s many buildings. He subsequently got a contract to do similar work for the Boston Police Department. Suddenly, he and his crew were spending a lot of time in Boston doing service work for municipal and commercial customers.
In 2015, after 27 years in business, Richard shifted gears, changing the name of his shop to Boston Mechanical Inc. and pivoting to commercial work. Soon after, he connected with Local 12 and became a signatory contractor.
“Years ago, the union wasn’t as interested in small companies,” Richard says. “But Local 12 changed its business model.” He says the prospect of being a union shop was a bit scary at first. But everything quickly fell into place. With the backing of Local 12, he was able to attract and field more bids. “Business began growing like crazy,” Richard adds.
Among the jobs he landed early on was a project to add 13 commercial kitchens at Boston Public Schools buildings. The kicker? The work had to be completed in 13 weeks during summer break. Boston Mechanical was able to pick up 25 highly trained and qualified plumbers from the Local for the job.
“We came through the fire on that project,” says Richard. “We gained confidence and made connections. It was a great experience.”
Similarly, the contractor took on a job with UMass Lowell that needed to be wrapped in the period between the spring and fall semesters. He has since done work for the Hingham Public Schools and on many of the municipal buildings in Tewksbury.
Richard has become an evangelist for Local 12, telling prospective non-union shops about his experience with the union and encouraging them to join the fold. “It’s tough these days to find plumbers,” he notes. “But as a Local 12 affiliate, there is a ready pool available. More importantly, they are all excellent. They view plumbing as their career.”
It’s something of a family affair at Boston Mechanical with John serving as the shop’s manager and Jeff as service manager. Richard’s daughter, Danielle, is a social worker. But her boyfriend works at the shop. Richard notes he and his wife, Lisa, have been together since they were 16 years old, and that she has been with him on their journey every step of the way.
Already one of Local 12’s biggest service providers, Richard hopes to expand by picking up even more maintenance contracts with municipal customers. He also plans to diversify and take on medium-sized construction projects.