Team Spirit, Industry Commitment

by Valerie Stakes, managing editor

Since the age of five, Mary Garvelink has had a deep appreciation for the benefits of HVAC, when she began working with her parents on their apple orchard.

“Because we also had a retail business, I quickly learned early how important a controlled atmosphere was to our livelihood,” she says. “Refrigeration extended the shelf life of the apples, enabling us to sell them ‘year-round. Of course, I had no idea that this would lead me to a life in HVAC.”

However, this appreciation has led to a successful 30+ -year career as co-owner and comptroller of Commercial Design Engineering, Ltd. in Colorado Springs, and many years as an active member and leader in the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association.

“What is so wonderful about this business is that
it’s always changing and expanding. You never stop learning,” she says.

An Illustrious Career

While studying science education at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI, Garvelink met future husband John, who was in the university’s HVAC program.

The two married in 1972 and moved to Colorado because of his military duty. Mary began teaching while John went to work for a mechanical contractor.

In 1975, the couple started their own mechanical business with two of John’s fellow employees. John’s employer was regorganizing so the group purchased some of the assets to start their own company.

“Our business started on a kitchen table, with just our two partners and one employee,” Garvelink says. Although she continued to work as substitute teacher, her flexible schedule allowed her to focus on the development of the new business.

“When I worked with my parents on the orchard, I did everything from working on the irrigation pipeline, which was my introduction to piping, to handling payroll. I guess my parents always assumed I would be a business woman,” she laughs.

Garvelink adopted that same “can-do” attitude when she started the business with her partners. “I did whatever was necessary, whether it was ordering and picking up materials from the supply house, answering the phone, making deliveries, or picking up the mail,” Garvelink adds.

As comptroller, she manages all responsibilities relating to insurance, safety education, finances, and bonding. She adds, “In my nearly 30 years with Commercial Design Engineering, I ‘m not sure if I ever made any money for the company. However, I certainly have saved us money!”

As the company grew, so did her role. In fact, by 1979, Garvelink gave up teaching to further focus on managing the business.

Since that time, the company has continued to expand to include offices in both Colorado Springs and Grand Junction. By 1994, the Garvelinks had bought out both partners and became co-owners of the firm. They also created an in-house HVAC department.

“Up until this point, we were more plumbing focused, and subcontracted the HVAC work,” Garvelink says. “We knew we had made the right decision to bring the HVAC work in-house when we were awarded our first HVAC-only job, which was a $1 million contract.”

Focusing on new construction and remodel projects, her company currently does more than $12 million in annual volume between its HVAC and plumbing components, and has 100 employees.

“In the late 1990s, our volume was up to $32 million, and we had nearly 353 people working for us,” she says. “However, we truly enjoy having a smaller sized company. In addition, the larger you are, the greater the potential for liability and latent defects.”

Also during the late 90s, John Garvelink held national leadership roles in the Plumbing Heating Cooling Contractors association, and was the first chairman of the North American Testing Excellence (NATE).

“Because of my association leadership responsibilities, I was away often away from the office,” says John. “As a result, Mary took on an even greater leadership role, and all major decisions rested on her. Not only did she grow as a business owner, our company continued to flourish.”

Garvelink is quick to attribute a large part of her company’s success to having a great team of employees.

“John and I are committed to providing a positive atmosphere where our employees can excel and grow,” she says. “I have tremendous respect for them, and have always felt that they work with me, rather than for me.”

Industry Involvement

As with her early introduction to the wonders of HVAC, Garvelink also saw the value of association involvement when she was just a child.

“I attended conventions and equipment shows with my dad, who was an officer with the Michigan State Horticultural Association. It was clear how valuable it was to network with peers,” she says. “Therefore, not long after we started our company, we became involved with PHCC. It certainly has helped the success of our company and my understanding of this industry.”

When the association needed a zone director from their region, John was again asked to run.

“John felt that he had already served his time, and said, ‘You know just as much about this business. Why don’t you run, instead?,’” she says.

Not only did Garvelink become the zone director, she soon ran for national vice president and was elected, becoming the first woman to hold this position. This put her in place to become PHCC’s first female president, a post she will accept at the association’s October convention in Boston, MA.

“We are so pleased that Mary Garvelink was selected as the Woman of the Year by Contracting Business,” says Ike Casey, executive vice president of PHCC- National Association. “We believe that Mary’s professionalism, high ethical standards, and dedication to the industry make her an excellent example of success for women in the plumbing and HVACR fields.”

Husband John agrees, “Because she is so team spirited, I have no doubt she will be a wonderful leader.”

As PHCC president, Garvelink says she looks forward to working with PHCC members and partnering with other industry associations to further important issues such professionalism and education.

“I am so proud to be a part of this industry and have it as my livelihood” she says.

And it’s this spirit and commitment that makes Mary Garvelink our clear choice for this year’s Woman of the Year.

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