by Tracey Block
Back in 1984, it was risky business to start a new company all on your own. But 33 years and more than 300 projects later, Harry Jassmann, president of Systems I Mechanical Ltd., wouldn’t have done it any other way.
“I started . . . when there was the biggest recession going on,” recalls Jassmann with a laugh. “That was the learning curve there — keeping overhead costs low. A lot of the first years of capital went into tools and equipment.”
Born and raised in South Vancouver, Jassmann’s professional path was anything but smooth. “I was a high school dropout, actually,” he admits. “It was tough days back then and school wasn’t for me.” After his early departure from John Oliver Secondary School, Jassmann says he got into plumbing where he excelled.
“I actually wanted to be an autobody mechanic [but] I couldn’t get into it anywhere,” he explains. “So I got a connection [in plumbing], worked my way up and the rest is history.”
Jassmann is Red Seal Certified as a plumber and gas fitter and Gold Seal Certified in project management through Canadian Construction Association. He credits working at Martina Enterprises Ltd. for helping him successfully complete his apprenticeship. After a short stint in Calgary, Jassmann returned to Vancouver where he was encouraged to start his own business.
“We do everything from residential high-rise, to wood frame and town homes,” says Jassmann of Systems I Mechanical. A longtime professional relationship with Polygon Homes Ltd. garnered his company many noteworthy projects over the years. The company’s website showcases a number of its projects with Polygon including Chancellor, a 42-storey concrete and glass tower apartment in Burnaby and Luma, a 32-storey concrete tower apartment in South Burnaby.
Jassmann credits much of his own company’s success to its emphasis on quality and long-term associations. “Our motto is not to do just one [job] and disappear,” he says. “Our motto is to show them what we can do and then be sought out to do the next one for them.”
The only plumber in his family, Jassmann recognizes a change in the learning opportunities for the current generation coming up in the business and is proud of the extensive apprenticeship program he’s built up at Systems I Mechanical Ltd.
Fostering tomorrow’s (and yesterday’s) workforce
“We give them broad spectrum training of all the facets of what we do,” says Jassmann. “We hopefully see them as journeymen and then they stay with us. Basically, our top guys are people we have trained – including the operations manager, Brian Hamanishi, who started off as an apprentice with us.” Hamanishi joined Systems in 1992 and is a Red Seal Certified plumber and gas fitter.
Jassmann’s father, Lothar, has also been working at Systems for more than 20 years. “My dad was working in a saw mill,” explains Jassmann. “He took early retirement and was bored, so I brought him into the shop. He loved it, loved being with the guys.”
Systems has had a few women on its roster and still has one on the crew. “She’s a journeyman and she wants to become a foreman,” says Jassmann. “And we’re giving her all the help we can to get there. It’s not something you see a lot of women in, but she’s tough . . . and she’s a great, great person.”
In his more than three decades in the industry, Jassmann has noticed some big changes taking place. “There’s way too much going on right now,” he says. “And all indicators . . . are saying it will slow down drastically next year.”
He doesn’t think the lull will last long. “But I think there’s still just a lot of inventory out there. Everybody and their dog got into the construction business and started building.”
The biggest problem Jassmann sees lately is a lack of quality site superintendents. “Whereas before everyone had their guys trained,” he adds, “now they’re taking painters and plumbers and making them site foremen. It’s a different world that way. Too much too fast.”
With a son working in B.C.’s film industry and a daughter who is a kindergarten teacher, Jassmann has no plans to see the business taken over by family when he retires, although he would be happy to see a few select employees take over in the future.
At 57, Jassmann is now working a part-time schedule, though he had ideals of an earlier retirement. “It started at 45 – when I was dreaming,” he laughs. “Then it went to 55. Now I’m thinking max would be 65 because you live this business.”
Value in membership
Systems returned to being a member of Mechanical Contractors Association of BC (MCABC) about four years ago. “I was a member previously and . . . I thought we were still members, but it had slipped away,” says Jassmann.
“They’ve got a lot of support material,” he continues. “And the MCABC meetings among some of the other companies that are members are very helpful to us. We have meetings where we discuss the builders coming in trying to buy product direct – trying to buy their own plumbing fixtures etc., and we just became installers. It’s just a camaraderie of businesses that have the same interests.”
Jassmann says he recognized one of the biggest reasons he wanted to rejoin “was just to be part and parcel of the entire city group that are members of the MCA. Just to be a part of that team.”