Compressing his career into a 45-minute conference room chat, Chris Harapat summarized that life has been both rewarding and pretty remarkable, given how he started out.
The president and CEO of the burgeoning Superior Contracting & Manufacturing Services Co., Harapat shared how he and wife Paula, with a growing group of dedicated and like-minded employees, built a small plumbing and heating company into a growing one-stop-shop of service and manufacturing businesses.
But Chris Harapat is quick to divert the credit and admits he would rather get dirty working with his fellow “ditch diggers” than be known as a business mogul.
“I do like this place and this group of people,” Harapat said while motoring a golf cart through the 154,000 square foot former El Dorado National building. This huge structure is now home to Superior and their eight subsidiaries, six of which were added in the last five years after Chris and Paula sold the company to their employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan or ESOP.
Superior became employee owned on October 31, 2015. During that same year Chris introduced the concept of open book management to his employees. Superior implemented the Great Game of Business management practice of creating transparency by sharing financial information with employees. Chris knew if he could help teach his employees to think and act like business owners there would be no telling how far they could take the Company.
As the saying goes, “It’s easy to stop one guy, but it’s pretty hard to stop 100.”
At every tour stop, Harapat heaped praise on individuals and groups of workers, from shop to front office — all who own a piece of the company — and credited each for Superior’s strong future.
“This place is pretty busy, and these people are the glue that holds it together,” Harapat repeated through the half-hour drive at 1655 Wall Street, near the southern limits of Salina’s Airport Industrial Center.
“Superior is all about the employees and what they, collectively, have done to grow the company.” said Stephanie Carlin of C5 Business Advisors, of Salina, who has been helping the company with various aspects of business succession, strategic planning and the ESOP.
She refers to Chris as the opportunistic visionary of the company, but it’s the employee-owners who make that vision become a reality.
The family of services under the Superior Contracting & Manufacturing Services Co. umbrella are Superior Plumbing & Heating, Boretec, Systems 4, Superior Pump & Electric Motor Services, South Industrial Sheet Metal, Accurate Electric, Tool Time and Callabresi Heating & Cooling.
“Superior has primarily grown through acquiring the assets of smaller, locally owned companies, which includes bringing on board most of their employees and the former owners to continue to run the business,” Carlin said. “Superior has proven the synergies their 100% wholly owned subsidiaries have developed by working together to provide the best service possible for their customers is a recipe for success.”
The original Superior Plumbing & Heating was founded in 1979 by his father-in-law, the late Max Pitts. He built the business around chief customer Tony’s Pizza, Chris said. Superior workers know just about every inch of the mammoth international business that’s now their neighbor in the airport industrial community.
“Every once in awhile we find a new (nook and cranny),” Chris quipped. “Max primarily did the work for Tony’s. That’s how he started.”
Chris and Paula owned half of the company when Max Pitts died in 2005. The couple then took on full ownership and continued to expand.
Superior grew from less than 20 workers in 2015 to over 130 today, which includes all of the divisions, while turning the former ElDorado National bus manufacturing space at 1655 Wall Street, into what looks like a mall of the trades for Salina, north-central Kansas, and beyond, depending on how the territory expands.
The building has a cafeteria in what used to be a mini-bus showroom. The complex also includes an 83,000-square foot building which may be leased or used to house the continued growth of Superior. Carlin said.
"We welcome Superior Contracting & Manufacturing Services Co." said Tim Rogers, Salina Airport Authority executive director. "The employee-owned company provides a number of valuable services to the airport authority and other businesses at the airport industrial center."
The Harapats sought mom-and-pop type companies like theirs to build a larger company that will make the whole more competitive, offering many services. Callabresi Heating & Cooling, for example, didn’t include electrical and plumbing in-house, said Scott Krous, the Callabresi vice president.
In bidding “plan and spec” jobs, he said, you must include a “complete package; plumbing, heating and electrical. Larger Wichita contractors are bidding all three trades, so this is a way for us to compete with the big companies.”
Superior is aimed at helping a number of businesses, said Tom O’Neil, who runs Systems 4 that joined the group in April 2016.
“Chris had this vision to make a conglomerate of trades that would bid jobs together,” O’Neil said. “It’s about being able to stay competitive in today’s world and offering complete service.”
Joining forces will provide more buying power in purchasing materials, Krous said. While the local trades used to compete for work, he said, they also worked together on some jobs. They developed good relationships years ago that have endured.
“This adds huge value moving forward. We’re coming together as one and it adds to the longevity of all involved,” Krous said. “We’ll be stronger together.”
Ron Stratman, Accurate Electric, posed for a photo with his division’s warehouse section in the background, standing where shuttle buses used to be assembled. Employing 146 people, ElDorado closed in Salina last May. Superior bought the two buildings and 34 acres on July 1, 2021.
“It’s going well. I like it a lot,” said Stratman, president of the Accurate Electric division.
He started the company in 1996, and its assets were acquired by Superior in 2020.
“Chris and I did a lot of work together. We were journeymen out in the field working jobs, and now we’re joined together in one big company,” Stratman said. “It’s one big payroll, one (human resources) department and that’s huge when you take that off of a smaller company.”
Working together made sense to Chris, and he likes what the partnership can provide.
“I want to build this company and set up the employee owners for success long after I’m gone,” he said. “Over time, these guys will get shares of the company. Our job is to make this company more valuable so they can leave here with something.”
Now Superior is a family of businesses where everybody will straighten up their work stations, pick up a piece of trash that blows into the parking lot, and know that it makes fiscal sense to shut the lights off when they’re not in the office. They take pride in being an employee owner.
Everyone is informed about the company’s performance on a regular basis, and the responsibilities of owning a company are shared.
“There is a lot to manage when you’re a small business owner,” Carlin said. “ESOP is a way to transition ownership, and it also produces an opportunity to develop the next generation of leadership for business succession.”
Employee ownership spreads stress and success over the entire roster.
“Chris no longer feels the sole burden of ensuring the success of Superior. He has been committed to teaching people to think and act like a business owner and now they all can enjoy the sweet taste of success that comes from working together as a team of employee owners.”
Open-book management appeals to Preston McClellan, operations manager for the South Industrial Sheet Metal division.
“Everyone tends to pull a little more weight than they would normally,” he said. “It’s really cool to see how that gets through to everybody in the company. Nobody is more valuable, from the line level employee to somebody in charge of the entire division. Everybody matters.”
Chris echoed that remark.
“The crew will come talk to me. They’re all welcome to,” he said, adding that “the suggestion box is coming back.”
Feedback is paramount, McClellan said. “Some of the best ideas come from the guys out in the field,” he said.
Other workers may be “doing just enough to get by,” McClellan said. “You don’t see that where we work. We are in charge of our own destiny. What we put into it is what’s going to make us successful.”
A conglomerate produces economies of scale and “reduces customer concentration,” Chris Harapat said. Overall, risk is minimized through diversification.
“There’s this mentality that we try to pursue a sense of camaraderie,” said Megan Ayers, who is part of the Superior leadership team. “It’s super cool. Ownership is what we all have in common. We all have a voice in things we care about,” she said. “It’s really exciting doing what we’re doing.”
Work is “a big group effort,” said Mark Millard, chief financial officer.
“People are excited about what they themselves, have been able to produce,” he said.
Company leaders and division presidents earn a salary, just like everybody else, said Chad McClain, chief operating officer/vice president of Superior, and Boretec division manager.
“If we have a really good year, the profits get reinvested back into the company and the share price goes up,” he said.
When business gets slow in one trade, others may be busy, Stratman said.
“If someone needs a hand, you can go help them. We can swap labor back and forth,” he said. “I can rely on the other divisions to get me through.”
Many customers like to arrange work with one company, Stratman said, and the multifaceted company makes bidding jobs a lot easier.
Stratman sold Accurate Electric to Superior in 2020. “With the employee stock ownership plan, I’d like to think I was looking out for my own employees,” he said. “You kind all mesh together, and 10 or 20 years down the road, if you want to leave, you sell your shares and move on.”
As the former sole owner of Accurate Electric, Stratman said, being in business on your own can be hard on you and your family.
“If something happens and you have $3 million worth of work to do, you don’t have anyone else who can take that work on, “ he said. “In the end the company might ultimately have to be auctioned and I didn’t want to put my wife through all of that.”
Five months into occupying the new building, Stratman said, working with customers is convenient, especially when you’re talking to someone about plumbing and heating, and a question about electrical comes up.
“You just walk down the hall and say ‘Hey, let’s go look at this.’ It’s very handy,” he said. “We have the whole town of Salina covered with all of the divisions.”
The ESOP is a good thing, said Josh Smith, manager of the Superior Automation and Controls division.
“It gives employees extra pride to get jobs done and done right,” he said. “I’ve seen very little controversy. It’s better to have the different departments, and there is a good working relationship between a lot of them.”
Chris Harapat stopped the tour at one point for a report from Joe T. Willis, safety manager, who mentioned catching a co-worker standing on a chair while hanging Christmas lights.
“I went and got her a proper ladder to be safe,” he said.
The CEO nodded, grinned and moved on.
Retired from Schwan’s in 2019, Willis said he suffered from boredom.
“Chris needed some help and I came over to give him a hand. It allows me to keep busy, and they’re a good bunch of people,” Willis said. “I would highly recommend someone go to work here. Chris is a good man, period.”
More “glue” praise was given to McClellan.
Preston McClellan joined the company in 2019 working in the South Industrial Sheet Metal division located in a 7,600-square-foot shop on Avenue A in south Salina. Superior acquired the assets of South Industrial in 2017. Now he and co-workers are enjoying over 50,000 square feet of space specifically allocated to them so they can continue to grow the full service metal and fabrication manufacturing division of Superior.
“We’re really starting to grow our division,” McClellan said. “We kind of do our own little thing, fabricating and installing structural steel equipment for customers like Great Plains (Manufacturing) and Tony’s.”
South Industrial facilitates all divisions as needed, he said.
“Right now, it’s really hard to get some materials,” McClellan said. “One of the divisions couldn’t get couplers for a job, so we’re over there welding pipe for them, so they can keep working. We’re able to keep their world turning.”
Some departments are super “glue” who help meld the divisions. Josh Smith works in the Superior Automation and Controls division and his role is to make systems run smoother and better for Superior and their customers. Superior is one of two companies in Salina and not many others in Kansas, who offer industrial programming, he said.
“We build and design panels that can run many pieces of equipment and give you details about how the equipment is working,” Smith said. “There is troubleshooting and diagnostics as well. You have the ability to set up and change speeds and functions.”
Smith has been at Superior for about a month, after 22 years at Schwan’s and Synergy, doing HR solutions and management training.
“I’m getting to use more of my education and leadership training and have introduced the company to the DiSC model of management training,” he said.
The acronym stands for Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness, and is described as a “powerful and profoundly simple tool for understanding people,” according to discinsights.com.
“It’s a good tool to get you to understand the different aspects of different people, how to adapt and function together to meet common goals outside of your normal differences,” Smith said.
He likes the climate at Superior.
“I think the company’s headed in a good direction. I see a lot of good people here,” Smith said. “Chris is good at bringing people together. He gives them a sense of ownership coming in. He might say ‘I don’t know what you do, but I know you’re good at it. He’ll give you the trust, resources and backing to get it done.”
Another one-employee division is Steve Windholz, manager of Tool Time, which provides commercial, industrial and residential tool sales and repair services. “The biggest thing right now is keeping up with sales,” he said.
Customers include Great Plains Manufacturing/Kubota, Schwan’s/Tony’s, the Salina School District, and Streit Manufacturing.
Tool Time is in the process of working with Farmada, a new agricultural manufacturer in Salina.
Windholz works almost in lockstep with Dave Tharp, the sole member of Superior Pump & Electric Motor Service division. They worked together 14 years at Mid-Kansas Tool and joined up again at Superior.
“It’s a joint effort. It takes two of us, two brains,” Windholz said.
He enjoys the “free reign” philosophy at Superior.
“Chris is really open on bringing in tools. It’s whatever I decide,” Windholz said.
He also equips the Superior divisions with tools through a nationwide vendor. “Lately it’s been kind of tough to get stuff, but it’s getting a little better,” said the Tool Time manager, referring to the supply chain disruption experienced by many businesses around the globe.
The Harapats’ first opportunity to expand their business was founding Boretec in 2007.
“We bought our first (tunnel) boring machine in 2006. We had been hiring out that work and it was becoming pretty expensive,” Chris said. “We got pretty good at it.”
Directional boring puts service lines — water, natural gas and electric — underground and dodges obstacles, such as roads, McClain said. Superior bought the assets of Boyd Underground of Abilene in early 2015, which enabled Boretec to grow.
Superior Plumbing became employee owned October 31, 2015, when it was sold to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan.
The company continued growing:
- Highlights in 2016 included bringing Systems 4, another locally owned company which has been in the Salina community since 1981 on board and founding Superior Pump & Electric Motor Service.
- South Industrial Sheet Metal was acquired in 2017.
- Accurate Electric was acquired in 2020
- July 1, 2021, Superior bought the property located at 1655 Wall Street, which includes 2 buildings and sits on 34 acres in the Salina Airport Industrial Center, enabling the Superior family of businesses to operate under one roof.
- On December 31, 2021 the asset acquisition of Callabresi Heating & Cooling will be official, adding another service line and 35-plus employees to operate as part of the Superior team.