It’s a Matter of Progress
Protégé Mechanical Labor Solutions brings people and teams together
Protégé Mechanical Labor Solutions (Protégé) works with mechanical contractors who need skilled labor support and general contractors who need general labor support in commercial and industrial construction. Based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the company provides short- and long-term labor for projects throughout the southeast.
“To build or renovate a building is a team effort,” says Rena Smith, President and CEO of Protégé. “It takes people with specific talents to plan, construct and ultimately complete the project. The result is a combined effort to produce an amazing outcome—with each member of the team on the project proud to say that they were a part of ‘building that building.’ ”
The company has a core team of skilled and semi-skilled construction employees. Capabilities include HVAC, plumbing, electrical and general construction, including masonry, carpentry, drywall, painting and general labor. “Quite a few of our employees have worked with us for years. That longevity and loyalty is essential to our success,” Rena says.
“We go where our customers ask us to go throughout the southeastern U.S.,” she adds. The size, scope and duration of each project depend on customer requirements.
Passion and Purpose
Edwin West Jr. founded the company in 1983. From the start, he was focused on building relationships on both sides of the equation: employees and customers.
Rena and Ed knew each other professionally for many years: they’d worked together at an HVAC firm early in their careers. Ed asked Rena to join Protégé in 2005. She put her accounting degree to work in the office and was promoted to Chief Operating Officer in 2011. “I found my passion for the construction industry at Protégé,” Rena says.
In March 2014, Ed received a cancer diagnosis and died just four months later. Rena recalled what a comfort it was to him to know that his company was in her capable hands. Upon his death, his widow, Carol West, named Rena president of the company. Rena became Owner of the business in 2015. “It was an honor to carry forward the company that Ed had worked so hard to build,” Rena says.
There’s No ‘Temp’ in Team
Rena doesn’t see the firm as a traditional temp agency. “We’re basically problem-solvers: we fit in where our customers need us,” she says, explaining that the company matches employee interests and skills to the requirements of each project assignment.
Corey Smith, Field Operations at Protégé, says: “Many people believe a staffing company just juggles temporary people around to projects. We prefer not to use the word ‘temp.’ When you bring someone in to do your important work on a building, they are part of your team.”
Protégé has approximately 100 employees, ranging from those early in their construction careers—ready and willing to learn—to experienced workers, many of whom have been with Protégé for 15 years or longer. “Our people become so integrated with a project team that many are able to perform at lead-level to direct the work of employees from other staffing companies,” Corey adds.
Corey, who is Rena’s son, joined the company five years ago to manage safety and workers’ compensation issues, a natural fit with his background in medical insurance and claims. His role expanded to recruiting and then field operations. In Corey’s current role, he often meets with supervisors and Protégé employees on-site. He is readily available by phone or in person to listen and ask questions to determine how the company can be of assistance. “It’s all about partnerships,” he notes.
Doing the Right Thing
The company’s motto is: “It’s a matter of progress.” That means progress for people and for the industry. A focus on safety on the job site in construction is critical to living out that motto.
Rena is committed to doing the right thing for employees to keep them safe, focused and on the job. “Our people are awesome; they do amazing work,” Rena says. “We are constantly looking for ways to build strong employee relationships to maximize employee retention.” It is particularly important in today’s job market where the unemployment rate is extremely low. Protégé offers health insurance plans for employees that include family coverage options, and also a paid time-off program.
Last year, Protégé had a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the move to its new facility at 904 South Marshall Street. Open houses for employees are regular occurrences, where they are recognized for their accomplishments and years of service. Families are always invited and welcome. “We understand that our employees are working hard to provide for their families,” she adds.
The company’s concern for employees extends to providing advances for gas, car repairs and travel expenses. “An employee may need funds to travel to a project,” Rena says. “We have a commitment to never leave an employee stranded and in need of assistance.”
She recalls a time when one of their mechanics called her from a job site. “He said he needed to go home and take care of an electrical bill. I told, him: ‘Just tell me who to call and I will take care of it. You don’t have to worry.’ It was the right thing to do and kept him focused and on the job.”
Training and Safety
The company’s new, larger facility represents its commitment to continuously improving training opportunities.
“The new headquarters is like a campus where we provide task-based training to improve construction labor performance of our employees,” Corey says. “Everyone wants a way to improve their lives. We use our facility to help people grow and progress in their careers.”
All office staff members undergo OSHA 30-Hour training to ensure they can recognize and articulate safety issues, whether talking to customers about job site needs, discussing job expectations with employees, conducting interviews or performing their day-to-day tasks.
The company’s leadership team participates in business management training through ActionCOACH. Protégé has received national awards from ActionCOACH for Best Service-Based Company and Best Overall Company Under 500 Employees.
Building the Next Generation
Rena is committed to building the future workforce pipeline. In 2019, Protégé began offering a $1,000 trades education scholarship in the Triad area. She is an active member of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce’s workforce development committee and serves on the council of Associated Builders and Contractors Carolinas (ABC Carolinas).
Protégé participates in Winston-Salem Construction Careers Days. During this event, high school students, guided by volunteers, build walls for homes being constructed for Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County. Last year the students completed walls for two homes.
Protégé also supports Connect For Success NC, an organization that partners with career and technical education programs in the North Carolina schools, and with Student Hands-on Experience Day (SHED), a competition in which high school students partner with contractors and subcontractors to design, plan and build utility buildings.
The Journey Continues
“We’re in an age of technology, but at the end of the day, it’s all about people,” Rena says. “I always remind myself, it’s all about people. And investing in each other.“
Rena believes—knows—she is exactly where she is supposed to be. “I remember conversations with Ed about how people should be treated in any business,” she adds. “That inspiration is ingrained in this business. He would expect nothing less.”