Notch Welding: The Nucleus of Growth
by Kitty Axelson-Berry for Related Matters
Notch Welding And Mechanical Contractors specializes in major mechanical construction projects using industrial pipe and high pressure vessel fabrications, as well as engineering and design services. Roger and Loraine Neveu started the business in their Granby, Mass., home (and garage) 23 years ago. In 1990, they designed and built a facility near Interstate-391 in Chicopee. The business now includes 18 family members: four of their children, their daughter-in-law, Loraine's sister, three nephews, six cousins, and Roger's sister-in-law. But they aren't the only family involved in this family business. Among their 65 employees are four more sets of brothers, as well as two fathers and sons.
Related Matters interviewed Roger, Loraine and eldest son, Steve at their Chicopee facility . Steve joined Notch Welding 10 years ago, bringing with him a Mechanical Engineering degree. He's since earned a Professional Engineering license and a Master's in Business Administration. He is the major contributor to the three-fold increase in the size of the company.
Related Matters: Is there a particular strength in this company that you think would be informative to other family businesses?
Steve: One thing that's really strong-and unique-is that my parents did not pressure us at all to join the business. If we were interested, we asked, but we weren't just handed a position. We have each had to earn a place here.
Loraine: The kids were very young when Roger started the business. Steven was ten. We lived in the country and had to cooperate helping Dad because he was doing all his work right there. The kids respected his work schedule and knew that when he was done, he was done; it was going to be their time.
Related Matters: Were you able to separate work and family time?
Roger: I have always been very good at that. I don't think you should work more than eight or 10 hours a day. Eight hours work, eight play, eight sleep.
Steve: He yells at me for not separating work and family time. Sometimes I get caught up in what I'm doing. "Look out for your family!" he says.
Roger: It's very easy to get caught up in business. It's straightforward. You add one and one, you come up with two. You put this and this together, you make a bracket. It's tangible. Families are different. They don't run the way you want them to. Everybody has their own ideas. It's easy for people to get lost in work because they get a lot of satisfaction from it.
Loraine: One reason he went into his own business was because he missed his kids. He traveled the first 10 years we were married. I was home with the babies, and he'd say the hardest thing was leaving. When he returned, and they were all jumping all over him, he was happy. One day, he said, "That's it. I've got to be home more."
Related Matters: You'd been doing welding before?
Roger: I went to school in welding and worked as a welder for 10 years, doing industrial piping and boilers, heavy equipment. By that time, I wasn't doing welding anymore. I was project manager. Though my expertise is in welding, apparently I have better ways of making money than welding.
Loraine: He was supervising jobs, and troubleshooting throughout the Northeast, hiring and firing, buying material, laying out all the equipment, everything. We had six little kids, and another on the way.
Related Matters: How old are they now?
Loraine: Steve is 33. Philip is 31 and part of the company. Our youngest son, Douglas, 25, is a high tech certified welder and pipe fitter, and a supervisor here. Sharon, 28, is a professional mechanical engineer, and part of the business. The third son is a master electrician and lives in Baltimore. Two other daughters live in the area. One is a chemical engineer. The other daughter is a physical therapist. And we have nine grandchildren. Phil is a professional mechanical engineer, but Sharon isn't yet. But she does have her Master's in Mechanical Engineering.
Related Matters: How is it that you weren't pushing your children to be part of the family business?
Loraine: He made life interesting at home. Being mechanical and creative, they wanted to see what he was doing. They looked forward to it if Dad said, "We're going to build something." Their fun things always had a little work involved and they were always doing things together. Family chores were made fun. When they had problems or something wasn't going right, Roger was there to receive them. He only gave advice when asked. He'd say, "You got it? You're on your own. Take it and do what you will."
Roger: The best way to get kids into a business is to give them training to know what the business is. When they were getting ready for college, I encouraged them to get into engineering; in this business,it's the engineers who are running everything.
Steve: It was natural for us. We all did well in school in the sciences and maths. Engineering is a field with options, whether we worked with him or someone else.
Roger: If you have a growing business and the children see a good life from it....but I didn't push them. When they graduated, I said, "I don't want you to come to work for me" because I figured I'd just spoil them or ruin them. I said, "Go to work for someone else for awhile. Learn something from outside and bring it back if you find that this is something you want to do."
Steve: I worked for the government as an engineer for almost two years and didn't think that was where my future was. I went back to school for an engineering master's degree and told a foreign student that I didn't think this degree was really what I wanted. She asked about my father's business and said that in her country, if your father is in business, you're expected to work in it. She planted the seed. Roger had never said "I expect you to work in this business." He'd said, "If you're interested, we can talk." So I went back and asked, "What do you think Dad? Is there room for me?" He said we'd have to double the volume because we'd be doubling the overhead.
Loraine: Roger didn't know what power he'd released. We started in the back room, then we built a second floor over the garage. We already had a draftsman and my sister was secretary. Steve was a whirlwind of action. After he came, we hired a draftsman and built another house for the business. We then hired three office personnel, two engineers, ten field employees, and a personnel manager in the next three years.
Steve: Over the years, Roger took me to jobs. When I was 11 or 12, he'd say, "I've got to go check out a job. Hop in the truck." We'd go for a ride, stop at the doughnut shop. You'd sneak me in the back room and I'd look at a big piece of equipment and say "WOW!" It was really exciting as a kid.
Related Matters: Did you harbor a secret hope that Steve and the others would go into the business?
Roger: Sure! But it wasn't part of a plan.
Loraine: Roger always said, "If they want to be here, they'll come on their own." And he said they could only come if there was a place for them. We just happened to be of a mind to look closer for a place.
Related Matters: The growth was organic, then, more than part of a master plan?
Loraine: Roger just wanted to make a living. The growth just came. Three then six then nine then 12. Since Steve came, our personnel has quadrupled.
Steve: After the first two years here, I started to see all that could be done and that the company needed more financial knowledge. I nominated myself and said, "If the company will pay for it, I'll go for an MBA at night." Roger didn't ask me to.
My sister worked [elsewhere] in manufacturing and when the company developed part of a manufacturing arm, we said, "Gee, we need someone managing this who has more expertise than we do. Sharon's available, let's ask if she's interested."
Roger: She said, "Yeah, I'd thought about it. I didn't think you wanted me."
Loraine: She'd been in a specialty that didn't seem to fit with the company until five or six years ago, when it became a perfect fit. It's like a puzzle. Roger and I never had wild ideas about the future. What the kids brought in is the nucleus for future growth. Roger didn't want to delve into that. He didn't have time to go out and get an education. He wanted to enjoy his family.
Related Matters: So the education took the practical experience and added new ideas and skills?
Roger: I got the biggest kick out of it when they'd say they were the only ones in some classes who knew exactly what the professor was talking about, like beams they'd worked on.
Steve: Sometimes it seemed like I learned more working with you than from college. College would bring points out about things that I'd already known.
Loraine: The professor would be talking out of books, Roger would be talking out of experience. And a couple of years after Steve joined the business, he really started to blend the two. Steven was "hungry" and could see growth. Roger was stable and could make do. The young ones are looking to a longer future ahead for themselves and their families.
Roger: We always had a lot of young guys here. Ninety-five percent of the young guys who were here 10 years ago remain here. But it's like a pyramid: If their jobs don't grow, they'll leave. If they don't see growth for themselves, they'll go. We hire a lot of young 18-, 19-year-old guys. After about five years, they want to be in charge of something. To do that, you have to grow. If you don't, you'll lose the people.
Steve: I never got that Dad wanted to grow for growth's sake or to make more money. Money was never a motivator for him. The younger people and I were looking for technical challenges like managing bigger or more complex projects than we'd ever done. So it naturally evolved.
Related Matters: How did that affect your relationship with employees?
Loraine: When the business was at the house, we were very close. We ate dinner together. The wives and kids were often over. At some point, we had to pull back. We couldn't be friends with everybody. Now we're still very nice to everybody but it's not on as personal a basis.
Related Matters: How did you manage to separate your personal life from your business life and your employees?
Roger: We were never friends like "let's go to a movie together." Loraine would make a big dinner and the guys would be right there in the back so we'd all have dinner together. We didn't plan that and we had to back off. But when we grew, instead of working side by side, we'd find we hadn't spoken to someone in a couple of days, or a week. Grow some more and you're saying, "Gee I have to find time to say hello to him."
Loraine: You just don't have enough time in the day. And as you grow, there are more needs and paper work.
Related Matters: With so many employees being in families, is there an expectation that the company will take care of them if there are special needs? For instance, if they need to borrow money?
Loraine: We did that sort of thing for years. Now the accountants and tax people won't let us. But we always know when someone's hurting. Funerals, extra time off, extra duties, sickness...we cover, we make them feel good. You've got to care.
Roger: When you start getting 40 or 50 employees, the bookkeeper is going crazy with things like that. You end up getting more standardized, which also means medical plans for everybody...
Steve: Roger tries to be a dependable employer. The construction business is very cyclical, with periodic layoffs. When things are slow, we try to do projects. Like this building. We designed and built it ourselves during slow times.
Related Matters: So you think about long-term effects of decisions on the entire company…
Loraine: I feel that the business has a big responsibility to all these families. Now that we've grown so much, it's a lot of responsibility.
Related Matters: What happens when there are family squabbles?
Roger: Those are walls to be climbed and we never have those problems. If we do, we solve it quickly. Our siblings are very well balanced.
Loraine: Roger has very good intuition. He can read a situation.
Related Matters: Did wisdom just come naturally or did you have childhood role models?
Loraine: He's always been like that. He's a thinker. He was encouraged in his 20s by at least half a dozen older men, and they all said they knew from the beginning. My uncle said, "Roger's a good man and he's going to do very well in life."
Related Matters: Did the times you grew up in have any influence on your priorities?
Loraine: We both came from the same religion, had five children in our families, went to parochial school, wanted to have a big family . From there, it was just hard work. The more people said, "You can't do this," the more we decided we could , and did. Back then, when you walked out your mother's door, you were on your own. They did not expect or want you to come back. It gave you a strong backbone.
Roger: I used to get $8 or $9 a week delivering newspapers and I'd give it to my mother, who was a widow. She'd give me back $1, which was fine. I had a greater sense of responsibility than many people seem to have today.
Loraine: Our kids didn't get freebies. They earned all their money. And we didn't tell them what to do with it.
Steve: The only thing Dad gave us was summer jobs as minimum wage laborers. We paid our own tuition and bought our own books. And because of Dad's business, we didn't get financial aid packages, although my sister and I got honor scholarships. They also let us live at home. I never lived on campus. My friends thought that was a little boring. We got a bed, food, and a summer job. My sister was one of the first woman laborers in this field, which is still male dominated. We worked for some of the guys we are now managing, and learned from the ground up, which is one of my strengths now. I understand what it takes to put that piece together.
Related Matters: Why do you think you feel so strongly about family?
Steve: Roger is more willing to take a chance on me because I'm his son. If I have a good idea and he thinks it has a 50-50 chance, he'll go out on a limb. He's very supportive. When my sister tells me something, I don't put the same filter on it that I might with other people. It takes much longer to build that kind of a bond with other people.
Related Matters: It's partly shared history?
Roger: There's satisfaction in watching your children run something you've worked on. It's natural, all over the world. If you've got a king running a country, it's his son who becomes prince and then king. Anyone who thinks it's different is up a tree. We're humans and it's survival.
Steve: You're a parent and you're there to protect and raise your kids, and help them survive and live well. That's your number one mission as a parent.
Roger: I tell them, "You see how you feel towards your little kids? You still feel that exact same way to me!" You just never grow out of that feeling. I don't care how old the kids are, that's how I feel about them.