Two women succeed with their own HVAC company: The male-dominated world of sheet metal contracting has not always been hospitable to female workers

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Kim Mann was 19 when she started in the sheet metal trade, installing heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment for the now-defunct Apex Ventilating. She did a five-year apprenticeship and worked on some major projects such as First Indiana Plaza and Bank One Center.

The president of Apex at the time, Phil Meyers, gave Mann the chance to be a forewoman. “He stuck me with some of the old, tough men, which taught me something,” Mann said. “At that time, there were not a lot of women working as foremen. Phil gave me an opportunity a lot of other women never got.”

Mann, 40, now co-owns her own sheet metal contracting firm, K&M Metalworks Inc., with another woman, Melissa Gillespie. The two started K&M in February 2001, and the company’s 2004 revenue was more than $500,000.

But success didn’t come easily.

Mann and Gillespie, 37, first met 16 years ago playing softball. Gillespie then spent two years in the Army, after which she worked for a Colorado asphalt company that she ended up buying and running for five years.

When Gillespie returned to her native Indiana, she told Mann she wanted a good job where she could make a lot of money. Mann said, “Do what I do.” So Gillespie got started in an apprenticeship, and the two worked together at Bright Sheet Metal Co., which Meyers had bought and still operates.

Gillespie also spoke highly of the opportunities Meyers gave her. When asked why he did it, Meyers said: “They were good hands. I wish I could say it was noble, but they did a good job for me. They just happened to be girls.”

But not everyone was so willing to accept them.

“The first couple of years, we struggled, and it took everything we had not to go back to work for somebody else,” Mann said. “At the beginning, it was still a good old boys club. It’s taken a few years for a lot of the major mechanical contractors to recognize us.”

Most projects have a general contractor that subcontracts with a mechanical contractor, who in turn subcontracts with a sheet metal contractor.

“When we first started, we beat on a lot of doors, asking for a chance to bid their work,” Mann said. The contacts she had made over the years and the reputation she had built opened a few doors for them. “But it still took a couple of years of saying, ‘Please give us a chance.'”

Mann recalled attending a startup meeting-where all of the tradespeople on a project get together to coordinate-about 2-1/2 years after K&M began. “After the meeting, we found out the owner [of the company the building was being built for] had gone up to the mechanical contractor and said, ‘What are you guys doing? These are women!'”

But K&M already had the contract, and as the job progressed, the owner told the mechanical contractor he was very impressed, Mann said. “We still do a lot of work for them.”

Another roadblock for K&M was that it couldn’t get competitive pricing from suppliers because it was women-owned, Mann said. She admitted she can’t prove it, but in one case, she had a male friend price the same materials, and he was given a quote about $1,000 less than hers.

The women persevered, using only their personal savings to finance the business and doing all of the office work themselves for the first couple of years. They now have five employees, two of whom are women.

One of the general contractors K&M works with is the local Performance Services Inc. Mike Barnhart, operations manager for Performance Services, said Mann and Gillespie put a little extra effort into what they do.

“With a lot of subcontractors, once they get the job, all they want to do is make as much money as they can,” Barnhart said. “Kim and Melissa spend a little extra time to make sure I as a customer, and my customers, are satisfied with what they’ve done.”

Both of the women seem to truly enjoy what they do.

“Sheet metal always intrigued me,” Mann said. “Walking into a room full of equipment, visualizing and drawing on a piece of paper how you’re going to get everything hooked up-I love the mental challenge.”

Gillespie likes to sit back and look at a job once it’s done. “It’s an accomplishment you can physically see,” she said.

Mann advises other women who are interested in working in construction to get the knowledge they need and be determined. “You’ve got to have willpower and stamina to break through,” she said. “There were nights when I’d come home and be so tired, all I wanted to do was cry. But I couldn’t give up.”

Kim Mann, left, and Melissa Gillespie co-own K&M Metalworks Inc., which has done HVAC work on numerous local buildings.

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