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June 3, 2010

Construction Q&A: Gary Van Loo

Van Loo

Company: Andgar Corp.

Position: President

Ferndale-based Andgar Corp. has a lot of specialties: plumbing, heating, air conditioning and manufacturing, to name a few. But President Gary Van Loo said they all have one thing in common: metal.

His father was a sheet metal worker in Whatcom County, and Van Loo followed him into the trade after high school in 1967. Just a few years later, in 1973, Van Loo and a partner, Andy Mellema, purchased a small sheet metal company that they have owned ever since.

About 10 years ago Andgar developed a new specialty, renewable energy. The company builds anaerobic digesters that convert waste from cattle into biogas, a renewable fuel.

Andgar won AGC’s award for heavy/industrial construction this year for its work on a digester in Skagit County for Farm Power Northwest LLC. The company also earned a safety award for most improved subcontractor.

Van Loo was quick to share credit for Andgar’s successes with his 120 employees. “It feels good to use the talents in the company.”

He even brought along general manager Todd Kunzman to field some of the interview questions.

Kunzman said the company’s efforts to diversify have been customer-driven. “Our customers trusted us in the work we were doing and they came to us and asked for additional services.

“At the heart of it we’re a people-based business, and it allows our people to move seamlessly from one area to the next. So it’s great not only to service our customers, but to retain employees.”

Van Loo answered the rest of the questions below.

Where did you get your start after high school?

I worked for five years in the Seattle area while going to school for the first three or four years in the industry, so both my partner (Mellema) and I had a lot of opportunity to be exposed to a lot of different facets of sheet metal.

What was the highlight of your time there?

I think the one job in Seattle that I had an opportunity to cut my teeth on as an apprentice foreman was the Hec Edmundson Pavilion, and renovating all the HVAC and sheet metal in that building. I had an opportunity to work for a year on that with good supervision and I learned a lot.

What was your worst on-the-job injury?

I cut the tendon in my big toe. A piece of metal was in the way of where I was walking. Or I was in the way of the metal laying there. One or the other.

Are you feeling any growing pains?

Up to about 10 years ago I had the opportunity to hire most everybody that works at Andgar, and as we continue to grow, I’m not able to do that as much anymore. You need to introduce yourself to people that maybe worked here a month or two or three, and that was probably more difficult to me than anything.

As you grow you need to share some of those responsibilities, and the good ones you need to share along with some of the bad ones.

Is there any silver lining in this recession?

I do think that times like this are good because it forces people to get back to the basics and not spend outside their means.

Will construction pick up soon?

I’m seeing more confidence, more acceptance of where it’s at today, and (contractors are) starting to break loose a little bit more today than they were 12 months ago. But you can’t continue to be fed by the government. We need pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and go forward.

Do you do home-improvement projects yourself or hire someone?

My wife would say I probably better do it myself. On the other hand, I love working closely with people, so I’d probably pull somebody in with expertise and we’d share that and work together.

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