Honoring a Contractor Who Helped Educate the Industry
Becoming a leader doesn’t happen overnight. Leaders work their way through the ranks and rise to the top thanks to a combination of hard work, perseverance, and traits and qualities that make them a true trailblazer.
In recognition of his dedication and selfless devotion to the advancement of the industry, the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) has named George Wagner as its 2015 Henry S. Parmelee Award recipient. The association’s highest honor, the Parmelee Award is given to a select group of individuals who have tirelessly committed to strengthening the fire sprinkler industry.
Fusing his 40-plus years of extensive industry experience with his business school training, he has devoted his life to helping others develop the skills they need to thrive in today’s high-stakes environment. Through industry, company and association work, George Wagner has proven to be a true advocate of fire protection and the fire sprinkler industry.
“The easiest day in the sprinkler industry was very difficult”
George Wagner was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. “In 1967, I joined the service and I decided to go to school, because I was working for four guys with masters degrees who were making big bucks and I was making nothing doing all their work!” Wagner recalls with a chuckle.
While serving in the Army Reserve, he attended Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, where he earned his associate’s degree in electrical electronics technology in 1969.
“I came from a family that didn’t have anything so they gave me a shelter over my head and told me they would provide food and shelter while I was in college, but I had to pay for it. I worked three and four part-time jobs the whole time I was in college. In 1969, one of those part-time jobs was working at Worsham for $2 an hour as a design trainee, and I quickly became design manager,” says Wagner.
Worsham Sprinkler Co. (WSC) was a small family business that was started in 1965 by Wes Worsham and Willis Fain in the basement of Worsham’s home in Mechanicsville, Virginia, doing less than $500,000 dollars in revenue annually. Wagner worked as a fire sprinkler designer while continuing to pursue a bachelor’s degree from VCU, until an exciting opportunity presented itself.
In January 1971, he was promoted to chief engineer for the design department then vice president in 1973. The promotion made him responsible for the entire operation of WSC, including design, fabrication, construction and sales.
“I was working full time when I became vice president at Worsham, and it was just impossible to go to school full time and do the travelling and the things I had to do for the business,” Wagner said.
Forced to make the tough decision between the demands of his degree and his work, Wagner withdrew from VCU a mere 12 credit hours short of completing his bachelor’s degree in business management. “While I didn’t get a degree, all the business courses gave me a great background to help build a business, to grow that business, and to consistently manage people in an effective way.”
Philadelphia Suburban Corporation (PSC) purchased the company in 1973. In June of 1975 Wes Worsham resigned as WSC president, and Wagner was appointed as president. At the time, WSC was a $1.5 million company operating in the State of Virginia only, but by 1979, Wagner had grown WSC to over $3.5 million in annual sales. In the fall of 1979, WSC’s owners at PSC tasked Wagner with growing WSC even further.
WSC was advised by PSC to concentrate on growth the next five years, not profit, said Wagner. Under Wagner’s direction, a plan to grow WSC was developed and implemented starting in November 1979. By 1981, WSC was operating in 22 states with revenues in excess of $17 million dollars.
“The sprinkler business is fast and furious. I tell people that, ‘The easiest day in the sprinkler industry was very difficult.’ There are just so many challenges, because you have so many variables to deal with,” muses Wagner.
Over the next several years, WSC was bought and sold by four other companies, forcing Wagner to change tack with each sale. Each time he continued to grow and adapt the company to its new management environment.
At the American Management Association Course for Company Presidents’ Program in 1994, Wagner said he was asked how he survived as president of WSC through six different ownerships. He answered that he was honest and straightforward with everyone: the owners, the managers, the employees and the customers. Wagner recalled that many times they didn’t like what he had to say, but they knew that it was factual and truthful and that they could rely on what he had to say. Wagner said he tried to look out not only for the ownership, but also for the managers and the employees in all of the decisions that he made and that in all situations his goal was to find a balance that was good for all parties.
In 1999 with revenues of $31 million for the fiscal year, Wagner decided that after 28 years of running the everyday operations of WSC, 25 of those years as president, that it was time for him to do some relaxing.
“In 2000, I had 425 employees. The majority of my career was an 80-hour week,” Wagner recalled.
But Wagner didn’t go far from the industry. After fully retiring from WSC in November 2000, he started Wagner Consulting Services to help other sprinkler contractors by sharing experience he had of running a fire sprinkler business for almost 30 years. He also decided that in quasi-retirement it was finally time to do more work for the benefit of the fire sprinkler industry through AFSA.
More than Just a Job
When WSC first joined AFSA in 1983, Wagner fully immersed himself in its activities. He served on the national Board of Directors for two terms from 1998 to 2003. He was also co-chairman of the Legislative Committee, co-chairman of the Apprenticeship & Education Committee, and a member of the AFSA national Convention, Insurance, Industry Protection, Long Range Planning, and Safety Committees.
Under the direction of Wagner, the Legislative Committee pursued the development of model licensing laws for state adoption and worked on a supplement to model licensing for fire sprinkler contractors that addressed minimum competency requirements needed to perform NFPA 13D systems. Through his involvement with AFSA at the Construction Industry Legislative Conference in 1999, he lobbied for the Construction Industry Payment Protection Act, which reformed then 65-year-old Miller Act, and he fought for the elimination of the “death tax” and OSHA reform.
AFSA First Vice Chairman, Region 6 Director and Chair of the AFSA Virginia Chapter Michael F. Meehan, senior vice president at VSC Fire & Security, Inc. in Virginia Beach, Virginia, says, “His steadfast efforts on the national, state and local levels has led to legislation that has enhanced the fire protection industry from the shop floor to state and national legislature. George is a doer. He has never shirked from a daunting task and has achieved goals that reap benefits on us all. His perseverance and work ethic are unmatched and we are lucky to have his extraordinary energies focused on improving our world, our codes and our people.”
Wagner worked together with others to advance the fire sprinkler industry. “I first had the opportunity to work alongside George when he became co-chair of AFSA’s Apprenticeship & Education Committee,” Bob Rees, president of Sunland Fire Protection, Inc. in High Point, North Carolina, says. “The challenges of our association at that time were many. None were too big for George. During those years, several of our training programs were developed and/or enhanced under the leadership of George. As a result, many apprentices had the opportunity to increase their understanding of the knowledge and skills required to become great sprinkler installers. The same challenges existed for fire sprinkler designers. Many designers were able to prepare for certification. A multitude of training enhancements became available during his tenure.”
Wagner believes that everyone has to work together to educate, train and promote the fire sprinkler industry, so getting involved in training seemed only natural. “When Don Kaufman and I took over the Apprenticeship & Education Committee when I was on the National board, he spent most of his time working on the [Apprentice] Competition and I took the lead on the programs,” he recalls. “At the time, everything had been a little behind for a few years. The fitter program had to be updated and we got Level One translated into Spanish. Then, we developed a bunch of new programs.”
Under Wagner’s leadership as co-chairman from 1998 to 2003, committee members continued on their quest to provide a quality education by updating the existing AFSA Apprenticeship and Designer correspondence courses and introducing many new programs including: NICET Inspection Study Guide; Estimating, Bidding, Selling, and Contracting for Fire Sprinkler Systems; Leadership Ladder – Foremanship Training for Fire Sprinkler Fitters; and Project Management Tools.
In 2014, Wagner was asked to help create AFSA’s new inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) program, which is currently in development. Earlier this year, he took the responsibility of acting as the project facilitator for the ITM program to develop NICET Level II Inspectors.
2013 Parmelee winner Russ Leavitt, executive chairman of Telgian Corporation in Phoenix, Arizona, has worked with this year’s winner on several AFSA projects. “I have worked with George over the years for the development of AFSA training programs, including the new water-based inspector training program. I know of no one in our industry more dedicated or more committed to the training of technicians for design, installation, and inspections. He has donated countless hours leading the development of some of the highest impact training programs in AFSA’s history. I have always wondered where he finds the time. He directs a thriving international fire protection firm and serves as the executive director for the Virginia Chapter of AFSA while at the same time devoting much of his life to the development of training programs for AFSA.”
Wagner’s passion for the industry is obvious to those around him and his enthusiasm is infectious. In 1991, Wagner became one of the founding sprinkler contractors of the Virginia Chapter of AFSA, serving as its director for four years and as chairman for two years, before becoming its executive director, a position he has held since 2008.
“[AFSA] Board member, Tom Waller from the Carolinas Chapter, came to Virginia to hold an organizational meeting. Marty Giles and a couple other contractors were there and shortly after that meeting we formed the Virginia Chapter. I was very involved in the first dozen or so years of the chapter,” says Wagner. “We started a golf tournament in 1995. I’ve been involved in that since the beginning.”
What started with 40-60 golfers quickly grew under Wagner’s careful guidance to an annual event with over 200 players expected this year alone. In 2014, the Virginia Chapter awarded Wagner with a plaque honoring his commitment and involvement in the golf tournament since its inception.
Wagner is a man of character, says Bob Duncan, chairman of Argus Fire Control, Inc. in Charlotte, North Carolina. “At the completion of the annual golf tournament, while he would certainly be pleased that ‘all the pieces had come together’ for a successful outing, the thing that consistently mattered to him most was the financial support the day provided to the Old Dominion Firefighters Burn Foundation and The Central Virginia Burn Camp.”
Now in its 22nd year, the Virginia Chapter’s annual Burn Survivors Golf Tournament has raised $732,400 for the two charities.
Wagner married his wife Mary, a now retired schoolteacher, in 1971. They have one daughter Jessica, who is an attorney for Legal Aide of Virginia, and together with her husband Rob, they have two children Libby, 4, and Nathaniel, 2. Wagner enjoys gardening a “little bit of everything” at his Mechanicsville, Virginia home and fishing off of his pier.
Honoring a Leader
The highest honor AFSA bestows upon an individual, the Henry S. Parmelee Award was instituted in 1983 to recognize an outstanding individual who has dedicated him or herself to the professional advancement of the automatic fire sprinkler industry and to the goal of fire and life safety through automatic sprinklers. It is named for Henry S. Parmelee, who is recognized as the inventor of the first commercially successful closed sprinkler head. This year’s honoree has truly dedicated most of his life to this industry.
Over and over, the words “hardworking,” “tenacious,” and “determined” were used to describe this year’s Parmelee winner. AFSA President Steve Muncy says that is with good reason. “‘Driven’ is a good word to describe George Wagner. As a former member of the AFSA Board, as the former owner of a sprinkler contracting company, and now as executive director of the AFSA Virginia Chapter, he has been energetic and driven to support the fire sprinkler industry. Everyone who knows George knows that he is focused and dedicated to promoting fire sprinklers and no one works harder at it than George Wagner.”
AFSA At-Large Director Jack A. Medovich, P.E., senior vice president of Fire & Life Safety America (an ECFP Co.) in Hanover, Maryland, echoed several others commenting on Wagner’s exceptional work ethic, stating, “George is one of the hardest workers I have ever had the pleasure to be around. Whether he is serving our industry as a Board member for our association or as one of the best executive directors in the country, he continues to work an incredible amount of time making sure that the fire sprinkler industry is the best it can be. AFSA clearly wouldn’t be where it is today without George. I am blessed to have worked with George at both the national as well as the local level. More importantly, I consider him a friend.”
Wagner has many friends in the industry, including AFSA Region 2 Director Don Kaufman, president of Kaufman Fire Protection in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I have watched this man give everything he has to the fire protection industry over the years. He has always been there for me when I needed a little guidance and support. I am very proud to call him one of my personal friends.”
Jack Viola, P.E, president of JFV Engineering, LLC in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and the 2003 Parmelee winner, described a giving man worthy of the award’s 32-year legacy. “George has been an energetic industry leader for many years. I have had the pleasure of serving on a number of committees with George where he embraced every assignment with enthusiasm and tenacity. Everyone who knows him, respects and envies his ability to stay focused on the end goal knowing that he and those on his team will achieve the desired results. Always willing to share his knowledge and industry experience with others, George has made a lifelong commitment to spotlighting the benefits of fire sprinkler systems.”
Wagner is a tireless promoter of the AFSA, says Ed Cook, president of Performance Fire Protection, LLC, in Mooresville, North Carolina, who was introduced to the AFSA by Wagner. “What makes George such a great industry leader is a lot of things. The main thing is the experience he has from the number of years he’s worked in the fire sprinkler industry. Second, you will not find somebody who is more thorough and tenacious when it comes to addressing issues, whether that be dealing with a difficult customer and handling contract negotiations to establishing effective policies and procedures. You would not believe the countless hours that he works participating tirelessly for AFSA, volunteering for the local Virginia Chapter and helping others. He is always willing to help just because he is that kind of person.”
A mentor and friend to many, Wagner is well respected and admired, says Albert Jones, owner of ALZAN Services, LLC in Atlanta. “It was a pleasure for me to work under Mr. George Wagner. Mr. Wagner saw the potential in me that I never saw in myself. He always believed in training individuals who would after training be a great asset to the companies that he managed. I continue today to receive mentoring and advice from Mr. Wagner. I attribute my success to George Wagner due to his dedication and mentorship throughout the years.”
Russ Leavitt says, “George is organized, an excellent delegator, outgoing, positive, and a flat-out hard worker. The best compliment I can pay George is the best compliment that one can receive: I know of no one with more integrity. George is the paragon of what a Parmelee Award winner should embolden. In the end – George, it is about time you were selected!”
AFSA will present George Wagner with its 2015 Henry S. Parmelee Award, during the general session Monday, October 12, at its 34th Annual Convention and Exhibition at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa.