Local executive is leading a family business into its eighth decade
As the company marks its 70th year in business this year, Lawson Mechanical Contractors in Sacramento still has a familiar name at the top.
David Lawson, who became company president and CEO in April 2016, is the third generation of Lawsons to run the sheet metal and piping manufacturing company. His grandfather Archie started Lawson Mechanical in 1947 at a plant in North Sacramento, while his father Rod was president from the 1970s to the 2000s, during which the company moved to its current home on South Watt Avenue in unincorporated Sacramento County.
Lawson said he grew up around the company, watching as it built such high-profile projects as the California Railroad Museum and Sutter Health’s initial medical center on L Street near downtown Sacramento. He even had unofficial roles, such as scoring for the Lawson Mechanical company softball team. He said he saw Lawson Mechanical establish a name for itself by taking on projects all over the state, many of them in the more remote corners of California.
“When I was a kid, I don’t know that I ever contemplated working here,” said Lawson, 46. He attended the University of California Santa Cruz, and got degrees in history and politics. “The only thing I got out of it was the ability to read, analyze and write.”
That was when company executives approached him about a post-graduation role with Lawson Mechanical, starting as a draftsman. After three years, including stints in estimating and project management, Lawson left to get his master’s degree in business administration, then returned in 2001.
Getting that degree was good for his career at Lawson, he said, but it also called back to a lesson from his grandfather, who came to California for job opportunities but told his grandson to be aware those opportunities could always go away. A master’s degree wouldn’t.
Rod Barbour, Lawson Mechanical’s chief financial officer, said he knew David Lawson when he was a kid, and saw him grow in a series of roles before getting into management. That was by design, said Barbour, who started with the company in 1978 and knew Lawson’s father and grandfather.
“The important thing was that he was working for one of the managers, and he had to pull his weight,” Barbour said. “That was how he got exposure to a lot of different parts of the company.”
Barbour said at a well-run construction company, a manager can walk anywhere in the company or at a job site and understand what’s happening.
After he returned to Lawson, David Lawson said the company’s focus shifted with the market. In 2001, he said, Lawson Mechanical was primarily a “plans and spec” company. That meant a developer gave the company plans for a project and asked what the price would be.
That paradigm began to shift, and the company with it, to a design-build model, he said.
“You’re given a concept rather than plans,” he said. “You’re responsible for the project.” The result is that mechanical contracting has become more relationship driven, where a developer has to trust in the contractor’s vision, both in delivering final product and in the price.
“If you always deliver a crummy product, then the relationship won’t matter,” Lawson said.
Moving to a design-build model was in response to where the industry was headed, said Lawson, who’d become director of management operations soon after he returned to the company. But in 2007 and 2008, when the entire construction industry ground to a halt during the Great Recession, it was a shift that proved prescient.
Lawson said when work began to slow, he would bid on projects thinking they would last two years, long enough to ride out the downturn. Instead, construction didn’t see any real improvement for half a decade. Had Lawson Mechanical remained a company that waited for someone else to hand it the plans, he said, it wouldn’t have survived.
“When the market changes, you have to respond sooner rather than later,” he said.
As a market, Sacramento has also changed. For much of the company’s history, Lawson Mechanical could find local work with government agencies, or at what were then military bases at McClellan, Mather and the Army Depot.
With those bases closed, the company has shifted to more jobs out of town, though still with government. In the last few years, Lawson Mechanical got a number of contracts on a spree of new courthouses in the Central Valley, including in Kings, San Joaquin, Tehama and Yolo counties. Because they’re such visible buildings, everyone pays more attention to controlling costs, Lawson said.
Keith Voll, construction operations manager at Kitchell in Sacramento, said his firm is working with Lawson Mechanical on three jobs currently, and he’s worked with David Lawson directly on many more.
“He can be a tough subcontractor, but at the end of the day, he’s always fair,” Voll said. He recalled a project the two companies worked on together about five years ago in Marin County. Well after the project was complete, the water pipes in the building developed leaks. Without argument, Lawson sent a team to fix the problem, even though the work was out of warranty, Voll said.
“He sent a crew down because it was the right thing to do,” Voll said.
The company also put its design-build skills to work on local projects, such as the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento and the expansion of the Tercero dorms at University of California Davis.
Lawson Mechanical has also expanded its service lines, with more clients interested now not just in building a project, but maintaining it. David Lawson said the company’s five-year-old service department operates differently than the building side, which has a more fleeting relationship with clients.
“You have to be more responsive, because you’re coming into their world,” he said of service department employees. “It’s just a much more sensitive process.”
As the boss, Lawson said, he realizes his position carries added weight because his name is also the company name. It’s helped that he’s worked a number of positions he oversees now, and even his boss when he was 13 years old is still with the company. The difference from being operations manager to president and CEO, he said, is hearing about successes now more than problems, but having the final say either way.
Future prospects for the company look bright, with more design-build projects likely as well as more collaboration with other firms, owing to the complexity of many jobs these days. Lawson said he’s especially concerned about finding new employee talent, so the company is plugged into training programs to bring in the workforce of the future, he said.
But while a lot has changed over the company’s history, and even during his own tenure, Lawson said, some lessons he’s learned are timeless.
“I remember what my dad told me about my grandfather, that he didn’t always make the best decision, but he stuck to it,” Lawson said. “And he made sure he had the right people working for him.”
David Lawson, CEO, Lawson Mechanical Contractors
Career: Has worked for Lawson Mechanical for entire career starting full time in 1994. Has been a draftsman, project manager and estimator. Became operations manager in 2001, and president in April 2016.
Education: UC Davis, master’s degree in business administration, 2000; UC Santa Cruz, bachelor’s degrees in history and politics, 1994.
Personal/family: Lives in Fair Oaks with wife Joy and sons Andrew, 18, and Matthew, 15.
An effective business leader … “is guided by their convictions and sticks to his or her decisions.”
Fantasy job (excluding your own): Bicycle mechanic
Biggest professional worry: “That I forgot to do something.”
First job – nonprofessional: Paperboy for the Sacramento Union