Nick Coffelt – Aluma Systems
Picture yourself pouring a batch of jello into a series of differently-shaped molds. In what he admits is an overly simplistic explanation, this is how Nick Coffelt describes what he does for work to friends at cocktail parties or relatives around the Thanksgiving dinner table.
With one important exception: Instead of colored sugar water, he has to pour tons of wet concrete.
For Coffelt, director of engineering for the North American arm of Toronto-based Aluma Systems, the explanation also comes in handy when recruiting college graduates to the global engineering services company. Through its talented engineers, Aluma’s concrete molds are transformed into slabs and beams to build everything from high-rise buildings to dams and bridges.
Since coming on board in 2017, his mission has been to support a business that is expected to grow and return a profit to its stakeholders, while working through a combination of employee development initiatives and unique recruiting practices.
Indeed, it’s a special kind of engineer who Coffelt is looking for, eschewing the stereotypical “pocket-protector type” for passionate people capable of communicating high-tech processes in a language all can understand.
“We have to learn how to describe our industry to people—an industry people don’t often think about,” he says.
Founded in 1972 in Toronto, Aluma delivers concrete forming and shoring solutions to serve the global energy, industrial and commercial markets. With eight engineering locations in the United States and two in Canada, its special reinforced beams support projects that help build everything from stadiums to power plants.
The company became famous for its development of the “Aluma Beam,” a breakthrough in construction engineering that revolutionized the industry. By introducing high-grade aluminum forming and shoring components within concrete construction the beam replaced expensive heavy steel equipment—resulting in significant cost savings for builders and contractors.
Coffelt isn’t responsible for making the beams (or any of Aluma’s niche-spanning wares), but he does play a critical role on the talent development front. To that end, he’s always looking for top level engineers and CAD designers to add to Aluma’s 80-member engineering team who will support the company’s growth.
The perfect professional
So what does the ideal Aluma engineer look like?
First and foremost, they have to be ready to tackle some of the biggest projects of their careers—building airports, power plants, automotive plants and university facilities—all of which Aluma has done, both here in the U.S. and in countries including Dubai, France and Germany.
Though talent, prowess and skillset are integral, he also wants staff who can effectively interact with clients and internal salespeople alike.
“We’re looking for skilled engineers—people who are part psychiatrist—that are real problem-solvers,” Coffelt says.
Passion for the job is also key. The hours are long; the projects often intense and the focus is always on the clients, he says. Since the team spends a lot of time on the job, it helps to work side by side with people who enjoy what they’re doing at their home away from home.
“My goal is to find the right candidates and invest enough time and training in each engineer to make sure they all become experts in their field,” he says.
Passion, a prerequisite
Even if those fields happen to be hundreds of miles away.
Spending a lot of time on the road away from his farm and family in Iowa, Coffelt travels across the country, managing and directing his existing team—and making sure clients get what they paid for. He also wants to make sure the team is equipped with the training and tools they need to meet those expectations. Developing these tools and aids is the focus of many on the team, allowing them to share their knowledge and skills with the next generation.
“We want to give our employees the opportunities to grow in rewarding ways,” he says, noting training opportunities, mentoring, and internal coaching to hone skillsets, as a few of the initiatives underway.
He also serves as a “face for the company” to keep up with industry standards: participating on technical committees, attending trade conferences throughout the country, and so on.
It’s good for the business
With the company always looking for top talent, it’s worth wondering: Why not hire just anybody?
Holding out for the right hire pays dividends, Coffelt says.
“Clients come to us because they know the supportive role we offer with engineering assistance,” he says. “Our engineers deliver on that and create relationships because that’s what we offer them. It’s all about fostering a service mindset.”
In years past, Coffelt says part of what made a successful economy were the daily interactions people had with their grocers and barbers. It’s that type of “beyond transactional relationship” he’s hoping to instill in others.
“In construction there is high stress and tempers and a lot of testosterone … when you have a personalized business, it lessens the finger-pointing and is just a good way to operate by being respectful of one another.”
Laying down roots
The respect for other people comes from Coffelt’s own background.
The son of a career naval officer, he grew up around the world, mostly in countries in and around the Pacific Rim. Through that experience he learned how to connect with a variety of people from different backgrounds.
“Everything from my past and present has helped me with this position,” he says. “I come from a long line of military service and grew up in a structure-driven household,” he says. “That meshed well with what I found here.”
That commitment to service, learned early on, is the favorite part of his position.
“What I really love about any project with clients is that there’s a distinct partnership. I know that each project is successful because our engineers are involved and connect with the client and achieve these results because they are our people,” he says.
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