Opposites Attract: Gross Mechanical Family Acquires Pipe/Duct Systems

By on January 13, 2019

by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

It is a principle of both physics and human psychology that opposites attract. These attractions often produce a spark of energy that can create magic: Think Penn and Teller or Wozniak and Jobs.

Tom Lee, left, and Geoff Gross

The recent acquisition of Pipe Systems Mechanical and Duct Systems by the Gross family, owners of Gross Mechanical, was the merger of two very different cultures. The result are two entities which maintain their distinct “personalities” but together are exploring novel approaches to mechanical contracting.

The two cultures are expressed in the personalities of Geoff Gross, president of Gross Mechanical, and Tom Lee, who with his wife Pat, built Pipe Systems and Duct Systems from Tom’s start in his garage in 1992. The combined enterprise will employ about 180 people. Tom Lee is remaining as part of the team. Pat Lee retired at the time of the acquisition.

Gross, now in its third generation, developed a very under-the-radar culture. Gross Mechanical works in the power, oil and gas, pharmaceutical, water/wastewater, chemical and industrial manufacturing, and food and beverage markets, mostly within the Bi-State region. The company exited commercial contracting three decades ago.

“Gross is not a marketing business,” Geoff Gross said. The company has typically relied on long standing relationships.

But the departures and reduced footprint of manufacturing behemoths such as Chrysler and A-B caused the Gross family and their team to examine new possibilities. Two years ago, they purchased and refurbished a 55,000 square foot manufacturing facility on President street near I-55 and Millipore-Sigma’s Dekalb Street facility.

Gross Mechanical’s 55,000-square-foot facility on President Street

About 40,000 square feet is fabrication space, with the rest used for materials staging/storage and offices. The site also has about 2.5 acres of vacant land, which allows for possible expansion. Gross’ office remains in Maplewood.

New Model, New Markets

The acquisition of Pipe Systems and Duct Systems means that Pipe/Duct will be able to be more competitive and efficient on the commercial, government, healthcare, hospitality, and institutional projects that have been Pipe Systems’ and Duct Systems’ bread and butter, as well as larger mechanical jobs they have not pursued in the past. “It gives us an increased basket of services that we can sell,” Geoff said. Pipe/Duct was at a competitive disadvantage not having access to a pipe fabrication shop. With the combined companies, Pipe/Duct’s capacity has increased significantly.

Gross has been using the new facility to enter a new arena. “(Gross’ leadership) decided, let’s create a market that’s not in St. Louis,” Geoff Gross said. Gross Mechanical is fabricating mechanical components for installation outside of the St. Louis region — both for contractors and directly for owners. Gross said that the new approach has been very successful. The new facility can support 40 craftsmen per shift. Its location near rail, truck, and barge facilities is an added plus.

Melding of Cultures

A mutual friend in the industry introduced Gross and Lee, suggesting that there were strong synergistic possibilities in the two cultures.

In contrast to Gross Mechanical, Pipe/Duct have been very much a marketing culture. Tom Lee began in the industry as a sheet metal worker (he still carries a union card). He employed the “Great Game of Business” business model for the two companies, which engages employees by opening the company’s books to them and encouraging them to think like business owners. “Last year (2017) was our best year ever. The growth of Pipe/Duct quadrupled from 2008 through 2015 during the economic slow-down and continued to remain strong.” Lee said.

Geoff Gross has been meeting one-on-one with all the office employees of Pipe/Duct Systems and is impressed with the quality of the team. He said he ultimately sees a melding of the two cultures’ best practices.

Meanwhile, Geoff Gross is empowering the team at Pipe Systems and Duct Systems to continue the quality work that led to his family’s decision to buy the companies.


About Tom Finan