Robert L. “Bob” McCullough consistently focused on the future of the automatic fire protection industry. And the keys to that future, according to McCullough, were education and training. He promoted these principles through his dedication to the industry, his company and employees, his community, and his family.
Dedication to the Industry
In April 1997 McCullough wrote, “For a sprinkler contractor, training programs are the keys to success,” and “The only advantage one sprinkler company has over another is leadership and trained employees.” McCullough believed that “together we can build a better industry through education.”
McCullough worked together with others to advance the fire sprinkler industry. He was an active member of several industry organizations including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Georgia Fire Sprinkler Association (GFSA), Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC), American Subcontractors Association (ASA), Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI), Associated General Contractors (AGC), and the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER). He believed that everyone had to work together to educate, train and promote the fire sprinkler industry. McCullough was a charter member when GFSA was founded in 1983. He also served as a member of the board of directors, including three terms as president. In 1988, McCullough made significant contributions to the development and launching of the association’s Annual Fire Sprinkler Essay Contest, which was the basis for AFSA’s National Scholarship Essay Contest. In 1989, McCullough arranged the first Annual Fire Prevention Week Banquet, designed to honor a fire official of the year and essay contest winners. “Bob was well known in the halls of the Georgia capitol and in the Insurance Commissioner’s Office for his efforts in advancing the sprinkler legislative agenda,” comments Asa Tuten, HRS Systems, Tucker, Ga., a fellow member of GFSA. “Thanks in part to his efforts, the Georgia Fire Sprinkler Association enjoys the respect of the entire local fire protection community.” McCullough joined the Associated Builders & Contractors of Georgia (ABC) in 1989. He was a very active member of ABC’s Legislative and PAC Committees. “Bob was a true believer and advocate of merit shop construction and our country’s free enterprise system,” comments ABC of Georgia’s Executive Director Bill Anderson. McCullough was also a long-time member of the American Subcontractors Association’s (ASA) Georgia Chapter, serving on the Board of Directors for several years. “Bob and Lindalee [his wife] attended meetings on a regular basis and could always be counted on to offer their experience and advice,” comments ASA Georgia Chapter Executive Director Bob Thomas. “Bob was a great ASA member and a good friend.” In 1987 McCullough organized the first ASA Georgia Chapter Golf Tournament, which was a great success. He was also instrumental in developing an annual Leadership Retreat for chapter officers, directors and committees. McCullough worked with others to author a prompt pay bill for the state of Georgia, and was a member of the Congressional Fire Services Advisory Group when the U.S. Congress passed the National Hotel/Motel Fire Safety Act. “If we don’t stay motivated to promote sprinklers, you can be sure other groups will be out to repeal the legislation that has taken us years to develop,” McCullough stated. “If you are a business owner or in a responsible position, it is your duty to stay politically involved in your community to make sure only good and positive legislation is passed.” McCullough was recognized outside of the industry as well for his efforts. He was a finalist for the Small Businessman of the Year in Gwinnett County in 1990, and the Gwinnett Chapter of the American Business Women’s Association honored him as the Business Associate of the Year in 1995.
Dedication to AFSA
“Like most small business owners without a support staff, I put in long hours studying my options,” McCullough commented in June 1997. “In the summer of 1982, I learned of a merit shop sprinkler association that had just been formed. Their mission was to educate and train their members. Joining the American Fire Sprinkler Association [AFSA] was one of the easiest and perhaps the smartest business decisions I made as a sprinkler contractor.” Once he joined AFSA, McCullough fully immersed himself in its activities. He served on the AFSA Board of Directors from 1990 through 1999, including two terms as Chairman of the board from September 1996 through September 1998. He was also chairman of the Legislative Committee, co-chairman of the Apprenticeship & Education Committee, and chairman of the Fire Sprinkler Public Education & Awareness Committee. In McCullough’s own words: “The mission of AFSA is to educate and train our members, and since this is a never-ending process in the sprinkler industry, take advantage of what we have to offer. Remember, the only advantage one sprinkler company has over another is trained employees.” McCullough participated in updating AFSA’s Training for Excellence fitter correspondence courses. He also contributed his expertise and countless hours to attend course development meetings and review text when AFSA partnered with ABC to rewrite the Training for Excellence series to create Wheels of Learning sprinkler fitter classroom curriculum and correspondence courses. He was also a member of the review committees for AFSA’s Applied Sprinkler Technology correspondence course and The Leadership Ladder foremanship training course. When McCullough was chairman of the Apprenticeship & Education Committee, he wanted to make AFSA’s training program more appealing to contractor members. His idea – an annual apprentice competition – made the program more visible and recognized the best apprentices in the industry. The Board of Directors approved the plan, and the first National Apprentice Competition took place during the 1994 AFSA Convention & Exhibition in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The competition is now one of the most popular convention events. Earlier this year, AFSA’s Board of Directors voted and approved to create an award to honor McCullough for his dedication to the competition and to training. The Robert L. McCullough AFSA Training for Excellence Award will be displayed each year at the National Apprentice Competition. The award will feature the first place winner’s name of each competition, dating back to the first year. It will be housed at AFSA’s national office in Dallas, Texas. “One of Bob’s greatest legacies is the National Apprentice Competition,” comments AFSA’s Chairman of the Board Bill Corbin, Mutual Sprinklers, Inc., Dallas, Texas. “This award is a small token of our appreciation for Bob’s hard work and tireless efforts on behalf of sprinkler apprentices.” McCullough stepped outside of the industry with another project to educate the public about automatic fire sprinklers, the National Scholarship Essay Contest. In February 1996, he wrote the following: “…We plan to launch a National Sprinkler Essay Contest that will provide scholarship money to high school seniors as they prepare to enter college. We believe this essay contest will help boost public awareness of automatic sprinkler systems for the students, parents, teachers, and in many cases the fire officials they interview.” “In Georgia we have conducted this type of essay contest for the past eight years, and I know for a fact that the students who write sprinkler essays in high school will continue to write about sprinklers while in college. This is a massive public awareness project, and we will need the help of local chapters and other industry groups who are willing to help promote sprinkler education.” The first contest was held during the 1996-97 school year and was a great success. Over 800 entries were received from 39 states. This year, over 1,450 entries were received from every state in the nation, 176 industry professionals volunteered their time to judge the entries, and seven AFSA chapters and state associations sponsored their own countries. McCullough summed up his thoughts after the first contest in May 1997: “this is an excellent opportunity for college hopefuls to earn scholarship money, and it provides a vehicle for us to teach the future leaders of this country the benefits of having a sprinkler system.” No doubt thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people have been exposed to the message that fire sprinklers save lives and property, students, teachers, counselors, parents, friends, and relatives. It was McCullough’s hope that these students would retain that knowledge as they ventured off to college, careers, and families of their own.
Dedication to the Company
When McCullough purchased the property for the office and shop, Pleasant Hill Road was only two lanes and had no traffic lights. There were farms and open fields all along the road. “Bob did 75% of the construction on the building himself,” comments Lindalee. “He rented a backhoe and graded the land. He stubbed in all the plumbing, did most of the framing and carpentry work, dry wall work, painting, and flooring. I have pictures of him working on the building. He designed it to be just the way he wanted it to be, and he made it happen.” McCullough had a basic business philosophy of keeping abreast of all new innovations in the industry. The company switched to computer hydraulic calculations in the late 1970’s with a huge cassette-driven Hewlett Packard computer, and upgrade to new technology as soon as it was available. “We continue to upgrade as new technology emerges,” states Lindalee. “When most shops were still threading pipe, we had a welder’s station set up and we began to weld pipe.” Another basic business philosophy, which family, friends, and industry peers witnessed time to time again, was that whatever McCullough said he would do, whatever commitment he made, he would fulfill his promise – even if it cost him money on the job. “His word was his bond,” says Lindalee. “No short cuts, no ‘But you must have misunderstood me,’ no excuses. If he said he would do something, it was a done deal. Sometimes when other parties did not live up to their end of the bargain he was personally disappointed, especially if it was an employee he felt he could trust and who did not live up to his expectations. Bob always believed the best about any person.” McCullough strived to help his employees achieve their best. He firmly believed an educated employee “is your best asset” and “for a sprinkler contractor, training programs are the key to success.” In October 1996, McCullough wrote: “In my company every young designer and apprentice is enrolled in one of these programs [fitter apprentice courses, sprinkler design books]. The cost is minimal, but the benefits are great. If these young people are truly interested in this industry, these courses will accelerate their knowledge of the business. The books will stabilize your workforce. The employees understand that as they pass certain levels, they will receive pay raises: and of course, we all turn out better product, which is the ultimate goal of a high-tech industry.”
Dedication to Family
McCullough was born and raised in Niles, Ohio, with one sister, Susan, and one brother, Bill. McCullough was a star quarterback on his high school football team and a track enthusiast. He earned the nickname “Merc” thanks to the state 440 track record he held for a number of years. After high school, McCullough attended Youngstown University before entering the Marine Corps. While in the Corps, he was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., a high-security area guarded by the Marines during the Korean War. After serving his country, he returned to Niles, Ohio, took a job with “Automatic” Sprinkler Company of America, and continued his education at Youngstown. McCullough worked in the “Automatic” design department for a number of years, and later to be a regional manager. While there, he enrolled at Georgia Tech. “I remember Bob telling us about working on the deluge system for the launch pads at Cape Canaveral [now Cape Kennedy] in Florida,” says Lindalee, about McCullough’s years at “Automatic.” In January 1997, McCullough reminisced about his start in the industry: “When I began my career in this industry in 1957, I worked for one of the largest sprinkler companies in the world. They had leadership, the products, dedicated people, and they spent a great deal of money to train their people. “In 1969, I worked for one of the smallest sprinkler companies in the world, my own. My plan at that time was to generate enough money to continue eating; but my goal was to build a successful, modest-size company that would stand the test of time.” McCullough not only found success in the sprinkler industry. In the mid-70’s Lindalee Richardson came to work with him and another successful partnership began. “We were married on Bob’s birthday, April 14, 1979,” remembers Lindalee. “At this time his two sons were in college, and I had three daughters, ages 5,7, and 10. Bob became their father in all aspects.” The McCullough’s shared pride in their five children and six grandchildren: son Bobby and wife Lynne and their daughter, Alysha; son John and his children, John Jr., Mindy, and Abby; daughter Leanne and husband Kevin and their sons, Christopher and Eric; daughter Jessica and her husband Wade; and daughter Katherine and her husband Carlos. McCullough was an active father and despite all the time and energy he devoted to the sprinkler industry and his business, he always immersed himself in the children’s lives. “One thing that always amazed me about Bob was his energy level,” comments Lindalee. “When we were married, his two sons were practically grown. Bob had already done the Cub Scout, Boy Scout, little league ball thing with them, but he jumped right in and did the same thing with ‘our’ girls. “He did their swimming, gymnastics, music lessons, took us on trips, helped them raise rabbits. These were truly his girls. Their daughters loved to swim while growing up, and McCullough “dived” in with them. He soon became president of the swim team organizations, working his way up to the Chairman for U.S. Swimming for the State of Georgia. He soon became also an Olympic level certified official during those years. The McCulloughs also found time to enjoy personal hobbies. Both were members of the Atlanta Classic Thunderbird Club with their 1956 T-bird car, and McCullough was a member of the Zephyr Club, for owners of antique Lincoln Continental cars. Another hobby McCullough enjoyed was woodworking. On two separate occasions he made blue birdhouses that were pre-fabbed so that local Cub Scout troops could use them as projects. McCullough was also a Shriner and a 32nd degree Mason. When McCullough passed away suddenly on March 25, 2000 of a heart attack, family and friends, and industry peers were devastated. “I could talk about my Bob all day,” comments Lindalee “I surely do miss him.” The industry misses him, too.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with some giants in the fire sprinkler industry, but none with more dedication than Bob McCullough,” comments AFSA President Steve Muncy. “As I look at the important programs AFSA has launched in the past ten years, there are none that do not bear the fingerprints of Bob McCullough. He was a great man. AFSA Chairman Bill Corbin comments, “Each of us as contractor members who support the apprentice program owes a tremendous amount to Bob for the rewrite of the apprentice courses, along with the formation of the National Apprentice Competition. I consider it a privilege to have known and worked with this man.” “There were many things that I admired about Bob,” states Jack Viola, president of H.F.P. Corporation, Holyoke, Mass., and immediate past chairman of AFSA. “He was totally dedicated to this industry and particular training the young men and women entering this trade. Much of the work he did in this area, he did between board meetings and always on his own time. “I don’t believe anyone will ever know how much he actually did for AFSA and the sprinkler industry. You always knew where Bob stood on an issue. He wasn’t shy and he was persistent whenever he felt strongly about an issue. Ed Smith, Smith Fire Sprinkler Co., Naples, Fla. and a past chairman of AFSA, reflects on McCullough’s importance to AFSA. “Bob was one of the mainstays of AFSA, a hard worker. And a true leader,” he states. “The results of his leadership as chairman of the Apprenticeship and Education Committee, and founder of the annual apprenticeship competition will be an ongoing testament to his many active years with AFSA. Tom Waller, Viking Fire Protection of the Southeast, High Point, N.C., is another AFSA past chairman who enjoyed working with McCullough. “Bob McCullough was, I believe, the finest chairman to serve AFSA,” Waller comments. “Training of fire sprinkler fitters was the reason that AFSA was created. Bob’s belief in the necessity of training was the strength of his own company, and he brought that belief to our industry and AFSA. He was the father of the AFSA apprenticeship competition. It was my great pleasure to serve as the AFSA Education Committee chairman while Bob was chairman of the association. “He as hands-on in every project. He did not delegate – he led by doing in every project he touched. He served our industry far beyond the AFSA as he believed deeply in the fire sprinkler industry. He will be missed by our industry. I will miss a friend I cherished.” In case anyone doubted McCullough’s emphasis on education and training, he touched their benefits to the end of his term as AFSA Chairman. McCullough stated: “To our general membership, remember that no business can progress and grow without educated leaders, and in the final analysis. Educated and trained employees are the only real advantage one organization has over another in this competitive industry.” With McCullough’s legacies, educated and trained leaders are a reality in the automatic fire sprinkler industry.
This is an excerpt from: “Focusing on the Future Through Education and Training: Robert L. McCullough Named Henry S. Parmelee Award Recipient” by D’Arcy Graham Mantalvo, special issue editor. Sprinkler Age vol. 19 number 9 September 2000.
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