Karine Leblanc

AHR Expo Leadership Discussions: Angie Simon

October 13, 2020

AHR Expo Council Member Karine Leblanc Chats with Angie Simon,
CEO of Western Allied Mechanical and the 2020 President of SMACNA

Karine Leblanc
Karine Leblanc

AHR Expo Expert Council Member Karine Leblanc is connecting with members of the HVACR Industry to dive into the dynamics of leadership and better understand personal approaches to finding success. In a series of discussions, Karine talks leadership amidst a global pandemic, the realization of defining moments, qualities and habits and much more.

In this edition, Karine connects with Angie Simon, CEO of Western Allied Mechanical (WAM) and the 2020 President of the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).

Let’s start by learning a bit about you. Tell me about yourself. Where are you from? Where is your business located? Tell us something that not a lot of people know about you.

I am a native Californian, born in Ventura, went to school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and continued moving north to the Bay Area after graduation. I have now lived in the Bay Area for 35 years. Western Allied Mechanical is located in Menlo Park, CA – in the heart of the Silicon Valley.

I started as a young project manager, and advanced to President in 2008 then to CEO in 2019. There may be two things that people do not know about me – I played NCAA softball for 4 years at Cal Poly and was team captain for 3 of the 4 years. Also, I spent my honeymoon playing baseball at the Giants Fantasy Camp – with my husband and 90 other guys.

Angie Simon
Angie Simon

Let’s talk about your career for a bit. Are there any defining moments in your career that you can recall? How about specific instances that urged you to make pivotal decisions? How did it transform the way you think in business?

This is my 34th year at Western Allied Mechanical so there are many. One that stands out is a specific instance when I was a young project manager about 3 years in at Western Allied. We had completed a Tenant Improvement project but needed a final inspection. My foreman was already onto his next project so I agreed to meet the inspector onsite and walk with him to get the final. When the inspector showed up he asked where the foreman was. I explained that he was unavailable and I was the project manager and would walk him through the project. At that point he said that he would not walk the site with a secretary and that we should reschedule when the foreman is free. That was a turning point for me. I did not back down – I told him that I was quite capable, as the PM – not a secretary – and that if he would not walk with me for the final, I would call the Head of Inspectors and explain how he delayed this tenant move in because he would not walk the project with the PM. He seemed shocked. Then after a long pause, he said, “FINE! Give me the permit card and I will sign it – you better not call my boss.”

That moment taught me that you sometimes have to stand up and fight for what you believe in. That you can stand up to bullies and they will back down. And that you should never underestimate someone just because of their sex, race, ethnicity, or age. I carried these lessons into my leadership at WAM and SMACNA.

Talent alone is not enough to enable us to reach our full potential. To be a successful leader such as yourself, you have to bring more than just talent. Can you share what it was that motivated you to meet your potential?

I love this industry and especially the people in it! The people are what motivate me. Construction is essentially a team sport. For good projects to be successful it takes many people and a good team. I love watching how people, when properly supported, grow and flourish. My success is directly related to how good my team is at Western Allied. Steve Jobs said, “Great things in business are never done by one person; they are done by a team of people.” My team is awesome and motivates me to be the best I can to support that team.

There is a lot of talk in leadership about time management. With the understanding that we all get the same amount of hours per day, how do you manage this yourself?

Self-preservation! In 2008 I was a mom of two pre-teen boys, a wife and a brand new president of Western Allied when a recession hit. I was just forced to manage everything. I totally believe in the saying “if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more things you can do.” I learned to prioritize by deadlines and just never let up. But I have found that you do need some down time to re-energize your internal battery.

Successful people don’t reach their potential by accident. What is your secret to success? Is it something you do daily? What do you think the biggest driver in your success is?

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. I try and learn something new every day. I feel that this learning has helped me become a better leader. You can learn from everyone. I have learned from our summer interns, from other contractors and from our clients. A good, humble leader realizes that they don’t know everything. I still have many things I can learn to improve myself and become a better leader.

Leaders distinguish their success during tough times. What advice do you have to offer during a crisis, such as the current situation with COVID-19, where tough calls have to be made? What are some practices that you use?

Stay calm. Everyone is looking to you as a leader for guidance and advice. They will see fear if you show it. We need to lead with calm and reassurance. I also feel that leaders need to show compassion. I care greatly for all our WAM family and I think they know this. The combination of compassion and calm has helped us get through these tough times.

What are the obstacles and challenges that you face as a leader? Are there areas that you feel
you are still working on?

I feel the biggest challenge of being a leader in the construction industry is the constant pressure you face. Construction has very distinct deadlines with lots of stress to get the job done on time, safely and within budget. How you handle this pressure is important. I try to stay calm – but there are times this is a challenge. I am always working on this to become better. If I stay calm I build confidence in my team as well.

What is the best leadership advice you have received from someone?

My former boss said his goal was to surround himself with people who were smarter than him. I feel good that I have done that. Also – It’s not about me! Leadership is actually serving the organization, the company and the vision. It is not about the person but about the results.

In your opinion, what is the “secret sauce” that younger engineers or managers miss in leadership?

I would say three things:

  • Perseverance: Sticking to a goal is hard – quitting is easy.
  • Commitment: Learning from your mistakes rather than being discouraged by them.
  • Excellence: Doing the best you can in every situation.

Crystal ball: What does YOUR personal next level of success look like in your position as a leader?

I am currently wearing two hats – being CEO of Western Allied Mechanical and I am also President of National SMACNA (Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning National Association). In the SMACNA role, I hope to share some of my experiences with the 2,000 contractors that are part of the association. As the first woman president in the 75 years of SMACNA (and any union MEP Trade organizations) I would like to take this opportunity to highlight how our industry needs to focus on inclusiveness and diversity. It is past due for things to change – and I hope to make a difference by not being afraid to share on this subject.