Man on a Mission

Richard Brown has always been drawn to how things work. Growing up in Jamaica, he was engrossed with the human body, ecosystems and animals. But college wasn’t a financial possibility when he graduated from high school in 1997, so his father—a carpenter—encouraged him to develop a skill.
By Joanna Masterson
May 30, 2018

ABC Craft Professional of the Year

Richard Brown has always been drawn to how things work. Growing up in Jamaica, he was engrossed with the human body, ecosystems and animals. But college wasn’t a financial possibility when he graduated from high school in 1997, so his father—a carpenter—encouraged him to develop a skill.

Transferring his sense of curiosity from biology to electricity, Brown enrolled in classes at Jamaica’s Human Employment and Resource Training Trust/National Training Agency and quickly fell in love with the electrical trade. He excelled, graduating among the top in his class and eventually starting his own business.

Fast-forward two decades and that go-getter is now a resident of Indiana, with a wife, five kids and a career as a service technician at Gaylor Electric. In honor of his remarkable journey and work ethic, Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) recently named Brown its Craft Professional of the Year.

ABC gives out the annual award—plus a brand new Ram Tradesman truck from Tradesmen International, with support from FCA—to a construction craft professional who excels in his or her field while also demonstrating a commitment to safety, training and the merit shop philosophy. Brown was selected from a shortlist of three worthy finalists.

When Brown heard his name called as the winner, he aptly described the feeling as “a shock of electric current.”

“It’s one of the high points of my life. It was exhilarating, nerve-racking and exciting—all the rollercoaster of emotions,” he says. “Small milestones have snowballed into getting me where I am today: graduating from the ABC apprenticeship program and getting my journeyman’s card; being entrusted with millions of dollars of jobs that have to be brought in on budget and on time; and now mentoring folks so they develop good habits.”

The Journey From Jamaica to Indiana

Brown’s dedication to training started in earnest in Jamaica. After earning his National Vocational Qualification, he went back to school on his own dime to gain more knowledge. The third and fourth years proved too expensive, so he worked hard—making about $500 per week—to continue his electrical education.

Brown was running a construction business with a friend in 2000, helping expand the church where his father was a minister, when a young American woman disrupted his life in the best possible way.

“We found out a team from America was coming to help us financially and with the labor to expand the church,” Brown says. “One of the ladies on the team was Jennifer.”

They hit it off for two weeks that February, and Jennifer returned to Jamaica in November for another week, and then again in January 2001. By Valentine’s Day—just a year from when the pair first met—Brown proposed over the phone and Jennifer responded, “What took you so long?”

Brown procured a fiancé visa, went to the U.S. embassy in Jamaica and was approved to join Jennifer in Indiana. They had 90 days to get married.

“I arrived on Dec. 20, 2001, just a short time after 9/11. It was a little scary to come during such a defining moment for the United States,” he says. “We got married in March and I became a permanent resident.”

Unsure what to do professionally, Brown accepted a community member’s offer to become a bank teller. Eventually, corporate headquarters offered to send him to school to get his degree to become a bank manager and loan officer.

“As we went through the paperwork, I realized the bank manager only made $24 an hour,” Brown says. “That wasn’t what I expected, so I told them about my electrical background and they realized that’s where my talent should go. They even helped me get a job with an electrical contractor.”

Brown proved himself right off the bat—maybe a little too much so. He worked nights for nine months straight, missing way too much time with his growing family. He asked to be put on the day shift and his employer agreed, but he had to train a replacement first. That person turned out to be unreliable, so Brown spent another 28 weeks on the night shift.

“I couldn’t take it anymore; it was time to move on.” He reached out to Chuck Goodrich, president of Gaylor Electric, whom he’d formed a relationship with at church.

“When someone hires you, they’re saying they’re going to invest in you—that you have some qualities that are of great value to the company. The burden is on me to prove that was a good decision. From day one, I set out on a journey to show Chuck it was a good gamble.”

Unstoppable Commitment

Brown has been with Gaylor Electric for 12 years now. By title, he’s a service technician, but his responsibilities extend beyond responding to calls in the van to running crews, coordinating jobs, and serving as a middleman between the company and its customers. One morning he might be at a medical office, and the next he’s at a Nestle or Dow AgroSciences facility.

“I like that each day is different because it keeps me on my toes. I don’t have time to be lackadaisical. I have to adapt and be creative and solve problems.”

Often working solo, Brown takes his commitment to safety extremely seriously.

“Nobody is necessarily here to look over my shoulder and make sure the work is done safely, so I develop habits every day that keep me accountable and on track so I don’t take shortcuts,” he says. “If you decide to do something ‘just this one time,’ you’ll expose yourself to something bad happening and all the other stuff you did right goes out the door.”

That level of commitment traces back to Brown’s first foray into the ABC apprenticeship program. Having learned the metric system in Jamaica, he opened up the core curriculum and couldn’t even recognize a fraction. Feeling lost, and with his enthusiasm shattered, Brown admitted his math problem to the ABC administrator in charge of the program. She gave him materials to help sort out the difference between the metric and imperial systems of measurement and told him he could do it if he had the drive. Enough said.

“I would sit at the table with my wife, who was a teacher, and figure out what a numerator is, how to reduce a fraction, etc. Within eight weeks, I took the core curriculum math test and got an A. I felt like I was unstoppable.”

Instinctive and Resolute

Brown chalks up much of his success to an investment in personal development. He spends his own money to attend quarterly leadership seminars to grow his people skills.

“I constantly try to improve. When I go home, I ask myself what I could do better or what I did well that could be built on to be even better next week.”
He extends the self-reflection to his boss, whom he’ll call for advice on making certain processes go smoother. Together, they’ll come up with something new to try and then adopt it company-wide if it’s successful.

Ingenuity seems to be instinctive for Brown; he has a knack for understanding complex situations and communicating what needs to be done. On one job that was in the closing stage with no materials left onsite, another contractor drove a piece of heavy equipment over the parking lot and collapsed the PVC pipe underneath. Thinking quick on his feet, Brown (a journeyman at the time) rounded up PVC glue, a 2-inch pipe and a blowtorch. With the support of his supervisor, he cut out the collapsed piece of pipe, pulled the wire out, used the blow torch to evenly heat up the PVC pipe so it got “noodly” and stuck on the new piece of pipe to make a bell end.

“Essentially, we made a splice in the pipe without having to take a trip to the supply house. My supervisor was impressed, so we built a replica and submitted it as the company’s idea of the month and it won.”

Gaylor Electric’s board suggested using the product company-wide, so it obtained UL certification. Brown won $1,200 for coming up with the idea of the year, and Gaylor now owns the product.

“People come to Gaylor for a job, but what they get is a life,” Brown says. “People come here for an income, but they also get camaraderie and family.”
Moving forward, Brown is resolute about inspiring the people around him in a positive way—whether it’s through on-the-job mentorship or through one of his mission trips to Jamaica and Panama, where he uses his skills to help build medical clinics.

“A goal of mine is that anyone associated with me or my jobs walks away with some form of encouragement to go further or do more. Society brings so much doom and gloom, so when people are around me, I want them to feel a sense of accomplishment,” he says.

It’s a sentiment Brown is proud to acknowledge in his own life. “When I start my engine to go home in the evening, I feel a sense of gratitude. I feel like I’m a winner.”

by Joanna Masterson

Joanna Masterson was a writer and editor for Construction Executive for more than a decade.

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