ABC’s Young Professional of the Year Works to Build a Legacy of Student Outreach and Changing Industry Perceptions

Shon Smith may have taken a roundabout way to the construction industry, but now that’s he’s here, his path is clear: take on more leadership responsibilities and create opportunities for others to succeed. 

Smith graduated high school in 1994 and, at the urging of family and friends, went on to college. After two years of indecision regarding what degree to pursue, he joined the Navy and spent the next three and a half years in Hong Kong.

“The military system—always having a procedure and understanding chain of command—grounded me and made me understand that there’s more to life than what’s in my little circle,” Smith says. “I was a C student in high school, but the military made me understand you’ll get what you work for. The more you apply yourself, the better you’ll do.”

Smith has embodied that philosophy since exiting the military in 2000—morphing from a directionless student into one of the nation’s top sheet metal craftsmen, and then into a prefabrication manager, apprenticeship instructor, and liaison for various community and industry groups working to create more construction career pathways. To cap it off, last fall Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) named Smith its inaugural Young Professional of the Year.

“When you look at all Shon does to promote our industry, I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of the honor,” says ACI Mechanical President Mike McCoy. “Here at work, he is one of the people I count on to help us challenge ourselves to always be better tomorrow than we are today.” 

The Latitude to Lead
Back in Iowa post-Navy, and still unsure of the type of work he wanted to do, Smith landed a job with Proctor Mechanical in West Des Moines.

“I started in the sheet metal shop, then started an apprenticeship, and it just clicked with me. I loved working with my hands,” he says. “I was kicking myself for not finding it sooner.”

Smith stayed with Proctor Mechanical for a decade before joining ACI Mechanical, Inc., Ames, Iowa, three years ago. He was eager to grow with a larger firm, and ACI gave him the opportunity to help develop the newly created position of prefabrication manager. He now coordinates preconstruction between engineers and project managers to determine what can be built in the firm’s sheet metal and pipe welding shops, which he also oversees.

“I don’t have a typical day; I could be anywhere at any time,” Smith says. “I spend a lot of time at the shops and in the office, but I also try to spend time in the field to build camaraderie so it’s easier when those workers have to install what we build in the shop.”

He also teaches apprenticeship classes one to two nights per week, exposes local high school students to possible careers in the construction industry, serves on several task forces at ABC of Iowa, and volunteers as vice chairman and sheet metal project manager for the ABC National Craft Championships (NCC), which brings together the nation’s top craft trainees annually to complete written and practical examinations in carpentry, electrical, fire sprinkler, HVAC, instrumentation, insulation, millwright/industrial maintenance, pipefitting, plumbing, sheet metal and welding.

“One of the greatest things about ACI is that I have a lot of latitude to decide what’s best for the company and the industry as a whole,” Smith says.

“Shon is strategic and committed to improving not only the current way we conduct business, but also the future of the construction industry,” adds Eric Reisner, vice president of Comfort Systems USA, ACI’s parent company. “He deals with issues head on in a straightforward manner. He builds consensus on the various solutions that can be implemented to solve a problem. This has been key to getting programs adopted that involve changing corporate culture.”

From Competitor to Vice Chairman

Smith’s experience with the National Craft Championships actually dates back to 2008, when he competed as a sheet metal apprentice. Though he won top honors as a gold medalist, what he recalls most from the event was gaining a clearer understanding of what ABC does for apprentices and contractors as a whole. Smith wanted to be a part of it, so he started at the local level with ABC of Iowa’s Craft Championships Task Force and Apprenticeship and Training Trust, and he connected with the University of Northern Iowa ABC student chapter.

At the national level, he has been the NCC sheet metal project manager since 2010. In addition to developing the project that the competitors fabricate and install, he works with suppliers and vendors to incorporate new technology and sheet metal components into the event. At the 2016 NCC, which took place March 1-4 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., there were 13 sheet metal competitors, and Daniel West of Kruck Plumbing & Heating Co. Inc., Boone, Iowa, took home the gold medal.

This was also Smith’s first year as vice chairman of the NCC Committee, responsible for supporting ABC National Craft Championships Director Lisa Nardone and committee chairman Mitch Clark of Comfort Systems USA.

“My goal was to make sure any roadblocks were moved out of the way so we could have a successful competition,” Smith says. “As the event gets bigger—with more than 200 competitors this year—there are so many moving parts and I help make sure those moving parts are secured.”

While the logistical assistance is greatly appreciated, the genuine empathy Smith shares with competitors is one of his biggest assets. “Shon loves what he does in this role and has a great rapport with the competitors thanks to his experience when he won the gold medal,” Nardone says. “He truly supports the competitors with his enthusiasm and craft knowledge, and he sets an example for what you can do in the construction industry.”

Capturing Young People’s Attention
Smith enjoys sharing his story at the high school level as well, with an emphasis on painting a more accurate picture of how the construction industry operates. 

“Nobody is telling these kids what construction really is; high schools aren’t talking about it and neither are parents,” Smith says. “It’s important to show them what the trail looks like if they come into the construction industry—the money that can be made and that the education is paid for. It helps them look at the industry differently.

“Digging a hole to put a pipe in the ground is no longer just about shovels; it’s about using a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment with technology like an Xbox. It’s about using GPS and robots, and we need to share that to capture their attention.”

Last year, with the help of the local chamber of commerce, Smith and a few of ACI’s field workers spoke to more than 300 high schoolers to spread this message, as well as invited students to walk a jobsite and visit the office to talk about what a project looks like from start to finish. At the end of the 2014-2015 school year, ACI Mechanical hired 16 of the students.
“We want to be proactive and show these kids the opportunities that lay in front of them,” Smith says. “One of the tasks I have charged myself with is changing the perception of our industry. I hope to leave a legacy of reaching out to kids.”

Looking Ahead
At 40 years old, Smith may be aging out of emerging leader and young professional groups at the local and national level, but he’s already thinking about a few employees who can take over reaping the rewards of involvement. He brings his apprenticeship class to the ABC of Iowa legislative reception every year, where they get to speak with state representatives about the things that affect them on a daily basis. Special rates, networking receptions and educational courses for young professionals also are offered at ABC national events, including the upcoming Legislative Week (June 20-23 in Washington, D.C.) and Leadership Week (Nov. 13-17 in Dallas).

And he’s still soaking in the honor of being named ABC’s Young Professional of the Year out of a pool of more than 100 nominees.

“I was blown away by the other finalists (Greg Schniegenberg of Helix Electric and Chris Beckering of Pioneer Construction). Those guys are amazing,” he says. “I have been fairly successful throughout my career, but this is probably my top résumé item the biggest thing that has happened in my career.”

Given Smith’s track record, and his ambition to lead more people and work with more industry leaders, the honor is likely to be superseded in the not so distant future.

Meet the Finalists

ABC’s Young Professional of the Year award recognizes member company employees under the age of 40 who demonstrate career achievement, leadership and a vision for enhancing the construction industry. Three finalists were selected from more than 100 nominations, including the winner, Shon Smith of Iowa-based ACI Mechanical, Inc.

Here’s a look at the runners-up—two emerging leaders who personify the bright future of the merit shop construction industry across the country.

Greg Schniegenberg
Vice President
Helix Electric Inc.
Oakland, Calif.

College connection: Schniegenberg first connected with ABC while pursuing a construction management degree at the University of Cincinnati. He got involved with the ABC student chapter, spending time promoting construction as a career path to elementary school students. At Helix, he helped create an internship program with a focus on returning to his alma mater. Today, the company has recruited more than 40 interns, all of whom are required to get involved with ABC committees and events. “As a young leader, it is important for us to express our voice and grow professionally through service.”

Bold business move: When the construction industry hit the bottom of the great recession in 2009, Schniegenberg wrote a 20-page business plan for the next five years and sent it to his CEO. A week later, he was sitting in the CEO’s office, going through it page by page and getting the support and resources to put the plan in place. Now, the Northern California office is one of the company’s fastest growing divisions and is recognized in the Bay Area for its backlog, manpower and client satisfaction.

Outlook on success: “The key to success is hard work, strong relationships and consistency. By working for one of the most successful electrical contractors in the United States rooted in the merit shop philosophy, I have learned that when people work cooperatively toward common goals with integrity and attention to quality and detail, very special things can happen.”

Life outside of work: Schniegenberg has two children and is an avid golfer and basketball player. He co-founded the Morgan Amelia Foundation, which supports families and children dealing with a rare form of epilepsy.

Chris Beckering
Vice President of Strategic Business Operations
Pioneer Construction
Grand Rapids, Mich.

ABC lineage: Beckering’s grandfather was a founding member of the Contractors & Suppliers Association, which became the ABC Western Michigan Chapter. He grew up in a family business, experiencing firsthand the struggles of running a double-breasted operation and union intimidation tactics. “I believe it is my responsibility to be actively engaged in the fight for freedom within the construction industry.”

Political passion: As past chairman of ABC of Michigan, Beckering helped accomplish two major goals: banning government-mandated project labor agreements and passing Right to Work legislation in Michigan. Now, as a board member and co-chair of the Prevailing Wage Repeal Task Force, he is working toward ensuring the repeal of prevailing wage in Michigan.

One piece of advice: “Pick the right team. Where you choose to spend your time and the people you are surrounded by can make all the difference in the world. Find an organization that feels like a good fit with great people who will challenge and support you.”

Life outside of work: Beckering enjoys golfing and spending time with his wife, Ashley, and their four sons.

Joanna Masterson is senior editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email or follow @ConstructionMag