Houston businessman – in the industry for 61 years – finds niche in market with fire life safety

HOUSTON – This year, Clinton Gowan celebrates his 61st year in the sheet metal industry. Over the years, the University of Houston graduate has absorbed a lot of information and history on the sheet metal industry. He held virtually every job at Gowan, Inc., the company his father took over in 1949. He began as a floor sweeper at age 14, became an apprentice by age 16 and a journeyman by his 20th birthday. Since then, he’s also been an owner and, currently, the man in charge of safety and labor relations.

“From old tin smiths to the HVAC sector – that has been my travel,” he said. “When I entered the trade, we did all sorts of sheet metal work.”

That part of the industry hasn’t changed. Approximately nine years ago, a different market for the sheet metal industry began to emerge in front of Gowan’s eyes – fire life safety inspections and modifications. Customers were coming to Gowan for help to scrutinize and test the operability of safety measures in their commercial buildings in case of a fire.

Gowan quickly realized, by working with local fire marshals, there was more training and information behind the skills than initially envisioned. He asked for training and marketing help from the National Contractors Association and the International Sheet Metal Workers Union, and a few years later, Gowan was in possession of a certified, trained workforce.

“It required a lot more formal approach than the industry had been doing. There were people doing observations instead of true inspections, and there were problems with the product produced by those just performing observations,” said Gowan, past president of the National Contractors Association. The local fire marshals said Houston wasn’t the only city having these problems.

Waiting for the formal training to take shape and take effect was difficult for Gowan, at first.

“Here I am at a time in my life where I don’t buy green bananas, and they’re telling me to have patience,” he joked. “But now I think it’s moving in a very good pace, and it’s being done the right way. In concert with the fire marshals, I felt it was worthy of the time being spent to do it right. There were lives at stake.”

Fire life safety is one of many new markets emerging in the sheet metal industry today. Markets such as green building bring on a whole new set of challenges, but they are challenges Gowan said he’s sure the industry can take on and face.

“The sheet metal workers we employ have more training requirements and more diversity,” he said. “So, it’s easier for companies to pick talented individuals and follow the new tech markets.”

As for fire life safety, Gowan doesn’t see the need, or the training, slowing down any time soon because it saves lives of occupants of the buildings as well as the firefighters sent inside in case of emergency.

“I think it’s going to mushroom overnight. The need is there,” he said. “That’s what life is all about – trying to build a better life for those who come after.”

Fire life safety is one of the many markets the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI) has identified as an emerging market in the sheet metal and air conditioning industry. Once NEMI identifies an emerging market, the organization works together with the International Training Institute (ITI) for the sheet metal and air conditioning industry to create curriculum for Joint Apprenticeship Training Centers throughout the nation to teach.

The fire life safety program trains technicians and supervisors to inspect, test and maintain fire and smoke dampers, providing a much-needed service to commercial building owners and occupants. The successful operation of these dampers may mean the difference between a nuisance fire and an uncontrollable catastrophe.

For more information on these or additional emerging market opportunities in the sheet metal and air conditioning industry, contact the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI) at www.nemionline.org or call 703-739-7100.