How Bill Bradford became a legend at Ductmate Industries Inc.
Bill Bradford’s sheet metal career is the embodiment of the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Only, in this story, Bradford is one of the giants.
Bill Bradford is a veteran of the sheet metal industry in more ways than most.
Born and raised in North Side Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the city’s “Steel City” renaissance, Bradford graduated from high school June 1955 and immediately joined the Air Force that July. “I was 17 so my parents had to sign documents to get me in,” he remembers. His dad, a truck driver, was gone on the road a lot while his mom worked different jobs to make ends meet. “Upbringing was normal in that we did not have a lot but did not want for anything,” he says, the oldest of two brothers and two sisters. The service was his chance to fight for his country while learning skills to build a future.
“College was not for me,” Bradford says, simply. Around age 23, a job repairing fighter jets for the National Guard became his ticket into the sheet metal industry, and soon he signed up for his first apprenticeship. “I did not want to go to college with that experience from the Guard,” he explains, “so I joined the Pittsburgh Local 12 Sheet Metal Apprenticeship program.” He adds, “Where else can you start a career and make a great living right out of the gate?”
Now at 82 years old and retired, Bradford is celebrated as part of the early generation of tin knockers who made making a living in the sheet metal industry possible. “I miss the great trade, the great people that I worked with over the many years,” he says. “Right now, we cannot hire enough sheet metal workers as there is so much work to be done across the country.” The bulk of Bradford’s part in that work began in the ’70s.
On a scale of 1 to 10, “Sheet metal work was a 10 back then,” Bradford says. “What made it difficult was all electric corded tools; we had to build scaffolding; there were no GLG lifts, heavy wooden ladders, no Tek screws, all pan head screws that had to be screwed in with flat blade screw driver, a lot of heavy manual lifting of ductwork,” the list goes on. However, that never stopped Bradford from getting the job done, and the downtown Pittsburgh skyline flaunts his resume. Installing the U.S. Steel Tower’s large HVAC system, “We also installed very large drop ceilings that were part of our scope of work,” he explains. “They were approximately 5 feet by 3 feet and 3 inches thick. No Ductmate-type connectors at that time.” Today’s PNC Park and Heinz Field stadiums are also at the location of another Bradford assisted project, the former Three Rivers Stadium (built in 1970 and demolished in 2000). “The coldest job ever,” he remembers. “Heavy ladders were hard to move around and the weather conditions were horrible.”
In 1978, Bradford made the career jump from field metalwork to manufacturing duct products as the first employee for a little-known company at the time called Ductmate Industries (now DMI Companies) under founder Peter Arnoldt. At 40 years old, Bradford welcomed the “lucky opportunity” to give his body a break from the everyday grunt work and extend his career.
“I received a call from one of the Ductmate owners about the possibility of a job. I talked it over with the foreman at my current company and he told me that Ductmate was a new company and he did not know much about it,” he remembers. “The good thing was, he told me to give it a shot and if it does not work out you can come back.” After a month, Bradford knew the company would be a success, he says. “I thought the company would be a success because of the type of connection they were going to introduce to the industry.”
The Ductmate 35 Flange was the first product line. “Peter (Arnoldt) chose that as the first one. I helped him set up the first roll former to get the 35 out the door. We were on a shoestring budget getting that first roll former up and running. We spent many nights and weekends working overtime to get that very first piece of equipment running properly,” says Bradford, and he wore more than a few hats in the process as general superintendent and national service manager. “I ran the shop, ran the roll former and did the purchasing. If we had field installation problems, Peter would send me to troubleshoot and fix the problem.”
The most common problem with field installations at the time was that contractors were not reading the installation instructions, he explains. “When they read the installation documentation, the installs went well. We made automated equipment to help contractors install Ductmate Flange better and faster. Some of these were the Ductmater, Autosealer and Super Welder. Peter invented all of these pieces of equipment.”
As the company took off and started to expand in the late ’80s, Bradford took on a role that most people today know him for: mentor.
“My first meeting with Bill Bradford, who supervised me at the time, sticks out in mind,” says Doug Gudenburr, now chief operating officer at DMI Companies. “We were young, snot-nosed, knew everything, and he would chase us around and shake his head sometimes. But at the end of the day, I think we really appreciated him and he appreciated us. At that time the general concept and mentality of the folks was whatever it took to get the job done. We played hard but we certainly worked hard, and that’s something I will always remember about Bill.”
Under Bradford’s whatever-it-takes-to-get-the-job-done style, future leaders were made that could efficiently manage the company’s operations into success. The William Bradford Training Center at DMI’s headquarters in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, pays homage to that success.
“I decided to retire as I had the proper people in place to take over my responsibilities,” says Bradford. “We had good people at Ductmate so I was not worried that the success we had would continue.” And it has.
“The generations of workers that Bill has trained, it could be countless. From his early days of running the facility to being on the road and working with contractors and users and distributors, different sales forces that have come and gone over the time. Many people at this point are either retired or frankly not with us any longer,” says Gudenburr. “It’s just a whole new group of people Bill has touched as time has gone on with his tenure in the company.”