Today’s Comanche runs longer than usual. It’s about the same length as four magazine pages. It’s about George Brazil, a difference maker and legend in the world of contracting. George passed away recently and a “Celebration of his Life” was held on Saturday.
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George M. Brazil, RIP
On Saturday, I flew to Phoenix for George Brazil’s “Celebration of Life.” I had knee surgery on Wednesday and no business getting on a plane. But this was George. I had to go. I had to go for myself and to represent the Service Roundtable. Mostly, I had to go for myself.
When I encountered Pat Langlin at the hotel bar, I knew I made the right decision. Pat was George’s wife, partner, and soul mate. I could tell she was glad I came.
My first encounter with George was a phone call when I worked at Decision Analyst. We had immediate rapport. George struck me as the consummate salesperson. Sales was so integrated into his personality that I doubt he was consciously aware that he turned nearly every statement into a question. He would lead with, “Can you agree that…” Or, he would end with, “…wouldn’t you agree?”
When we finally met face-to-face, George was climbing down a ladder in his Santa Ana shop. I was struck by his energy level. Here was a guy in his late 60s and I was struggling to keep up with him. He was constantly moving, talking the entire time, seeking agreement with every statement. He was like a force of nature.
In the shop I saw the two largest city maps I’d ever seen. George was in the process of selling this building and had already moved the operation elsewhere. The maps, which George proudly showed me, and banks of yellow pages were remnants of a thriving service business. As George explained, I could tell he had made a science of dispatching. Heck, he made a science out of every aspect of business. I realized that many of the cutting edge operations that impressed me in previous years were echoes of George. I was standing with the source.
Years ago, Chuck Sternod used George’s scientific approach to business as the means of playing a practical joke. With George within earshot, he engaged another contractor in a discussion about his sales analysis that resulted in a higher average ticket. As expected, George broke into the conversation and asked Chuck what he was talking about. Chuck assured George it wasn’t much and he certainly wouldn’t be interested, which made George intensely interested. After George pressed him, Chuck elaborated in great detail about how he had determined through scientific means that plumbers 5’8″ and shorter outsold plumbers over 6′ (Chuck, by the way, was under 5’8″ and George was over 6′). George was fascinated and kept asking more and more questions. At one point Chuck feared George was going to fire every employee over 6′. Eventually, Chuck had trouble maintaining a straight face. George caught on, and laughed. He loved a good joke.
George was my client when I was consulting. As a client, I found him intense and demanding, but fair. He didn’t suffer fools or foolishness. He was always on a mission. You either helped him or got out of his way because nothing was going to remain in his way for very long.
At the service, one of Pat’s relatives told a story about meeting George before a family wedding in upstate Indiana. George learned that one of his in-laws was an accomplished violist, but was not going to play before the wedding. He couldn’t imagine why not. Why not, George asked.
Well, we didn’t bring a viola.
Why not get one here, George responded.
We’re in northern Indiana on a Friday night and the wedding’s tomorrow. Where would we find one?
Do you have a yellow pages, George asked. And so it went until George broke down all of the barriers, an acceptable viola was located and a viola solo was worked into the wedding.
People often refer to George as a visionary. Certainly, he was. He was one of those people who could see a different future and bring it about. If anything, he was too much of a visionary. He was filled with so many big ideas, that he couldn’t always accomplish them. If he didn’t accomplish all of them, he did far more than most in the course of a lifetime.
As I sat with Pat in the bar, she recounted her first meeting with George. He was on a curriculum advisory committee for an apprentice training program. Typical George, he tried to take over. He started telling everyone how things were going to be. Pat interrupted him and informed him with her precise, upper crust accent that he was on the “advisory” committee and they would consider the committee’s recommendations, which they may or may not use. Pat got up and walked out. As she walked by George, Pat heard him muttering to another committee member, “I’ll get even with that ‘witch’ if it’s the last thing I do.”
Pat joked that George did that ever since. Humor aside, the story reveals a fundamental truth about George. He had a strong personality and tended to overpower those around him. Those who refused to be cowed by George earned his respect, provided of course that George didn’t consider them fools.
George Brazil did not lack detractors. It’s the nature of the service trades that most companies are run by technicians, not business people. The technicians know how to turn a wrench, but not a profit. George knew how to turn both and that generated no small amount of envy.
For some reason, tradesmen who are advocates of the free market and who would defend the right of, say Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse to charge more than Bonanza, turn vicious and bitter about contractors who strive to deliver a premium service for a premium price. This, I believe, lies at the root of most criticism of George.
At the reception following the service, George’s protégé Mike Diamond said it well. The same plumbers who would criticize George for charging $2,000 for a water heater replacement should have thanked him. He made it easier for them to charge $1,200 instead of the $500 they were charging.
George priced high, but who is to say whether it was justified? His customers. One of them was a consulting client of mine. He lived on the Palos Verdes peninsula west of the Los Angeles airport in a home with a sweeping panorama of the Santa Monica Bay and a short walk to ocean tidal pools. From this house my client spawned two major software company startups.
Once my client mentioned that he used George Brazil for plumbing. He’s kinda pricey, I told him, noting that he could probably get the work done for half the price Brazil charged.
Nope, he said. His wife loves the plumbers George Brazil sends out and won’t allow any other plumber in her house. These are people quite willing to pay a premium for fast service from pleasant, professional plumbers, attired in all white uniforms. So who says George charges too much? He could charge my client twice as much and my client would still be happy.
In all fairness, the pricing disdain ran both ways. At the service Pat told the story of a PHCC seminar where George was speaking. Before starting, he went around the room and asked everyone for their hourly rate. All were pathetically low. George’s Portuguese temper flared. As Pat cringed, George launched into a string of four letter epithets directed at the audience of plumbers, urging them to get the bleep out of his industry because they were ruining it for the professionals.
George’s disdain for poor business practices was matched by his generosity towards anyone who wanted to learn from him and improve. He was an open book. I learned from one of his sisters that George has been an open book his entire life.
George, who is well known for his sweet tooth, discovered his sister’s hiding place for candy. George grabbed the candy, leaving a few wrappers and dropped rat pellets so the rats would get the blame. When his sister bought the ruse, George couldn’t help himself. He thought it was such a brilliant idea that he had to share it and take credit for it. His sister still didn’t buy it and told him that he wasn’t that clever.
He was that clever. Throughout life, whenever he came up with a clever or brilliant idea he shared it. He shared it openly and freely. He never bought into the notion that it hurt him if you became more efficient because he shared his shelving and inventory system. So George shared freely.
One of the contractors attending the service flew in from Cleveland (unfortunately, I didn’t get a card and can’t recall his name). He made the effort to attend the service as a way of thanking George for all of the help George provided for him. He said George spent hours with him and helped design a new shelving system for his trucks. Why? The guy called George and asked for help.
Mike Diamond recounted how he was once one of George’s detractors until George welcomed him into his shop and opened his eyes. It made all of the difference. Today, Mike is considered by many to be the most successful plumber in the nation. I told him that he does George Brazil better than George. Mike laughed, but agreed. He excelled at taking George’s ideas and putting them into practice.
George was also a perfectionist. His perfectionism kept him from executing some of his ideas. He kept coming up with ways to improve them. Pat expressed a determination to me to drive a few of George’s final works in process through to completion.
George’s perfectionism could drive his employees nuts. Once when he was getting an aerial picture taken of all of the company trucks (around 60 at that time), he insisted on going up in the helicopter to look at them before taking the picture. He decided that they all needed to point in a different direction. It took four hours to move all sixty trucks.
He noticed some scuffs on this shop floor and decided the must be from the air conditioning techs. He had all of the techs line up and attempt to make scuff marks. None matched and George told them they were doing it wrong. He proceeded to demonstrate and suddenly everyone realized it was George who was making the scuffs. George realized it too. This is one of the few times in his life that George was speechless.
George was also over-the-top, way over-the-top. He had a “show truck” that he would take to trade shows to display his shelving and inventory system. A plumber commented to him that he had everything but the kitchen sink. After the show, George had a small rack fitted for a stainless steel sink.
Maybe the best example of George Brazil going over the top is his airship. He had a four passenger airship custom built in Germany. Think of a scaled down Goodyear Blimp, only this uses hot air. An airship! A frigging airship! There are only two hot airships in the entire country and one of them is George Brazil’s! Conduct an Internet search for “George Brazil Airship.”
It’s the nature of funerals that you learn unknown facts about the diseased. People are multi-dimensional and we seldom know all facets. Even during my parents’ funerals, I learned things I didn’t know. Having only interacted with George on a peer level, I was particularly fascinated to learn about George’s management style from employees.
A dispatcher told how George would call him and ask if he was hungry on a Sunday morning and show up carrying a silver handled tray with breakfast. When the same dispatcher, who is a huge sports fan, volunteered to work New Year’s Day, George had a 52 inch plasma television with a satellite connection set up in the dispatch office.
I was struck by the number of former employees who talked about George as a father figure. He showed them tough love when they screwed up, but also support. Decades after they left George’s employment, they still talked with him.
George celebrated victories. When the company was approaching a major milestone, George announced that he would take the entire company and their families to Disneyland if they hit it. They did and George fulfilled his promise. He said at the time it was something he had always dreamed about doing.
I knew George hated smoking. I didn’t know he paid for employees to take smoking cessation courses and/or offered bonuses if they quit.
He hired a decorator to come in for every holiday and decorate the office. This was not “decorations.” That was over-the-top, George Brazil level work. He wanted people to have a nice place to work.
Twenty-eight people were scheduled to speak at George’s service. Even more jumped in at the end. One of the things that struck me was the number of suppliers who wanted to speak. Everyone from the banker who was trying to figure out how to finance an airship to George’s dentist wanted to speak at his service. His dentist? Who has their dentist ask to speak at a memorial service? Apparently George.
Of course, the PHCC had a representative present. So did the PHCC Auxiliary. Both were appreciated. I was happy to run into old friends and acquaintances who were George’s peers through the years, like Mike Diamond, John Ward, Jeff Meehan, and Keith Broyles. I just wished we were meeting under better circumstances.
Unfortunately, because of health considerations George’s dear friend Frank Blau was unable to make the trip. Frank prepared what he wanted to say and had Keith Broyles read it on his behalf. Whenever I think of Frank and George, I think of brothers.
I remember a meeting where George was leading the discussion and Frank’s hearing aid started acting up. As Frank tried to adjust it, the hearing aid let off a high pitched squeal. This seemed to happen whenever George was starting to get on a roll. George got more and more irritated. The rest of us were getting more and more amused. George started yelling at Frank. Frank started yelling at George. I thought they were like brothers.
Later, Frank asked me if I knew how George saved his life. Tell me, I said.
Frank said he and George got into an argument where Frank became so mad that he thought he was having a heart attack and went to the hospital to get checked out. It turned out he wasn’t having a heart attack, but his arteries were partially blocked. He needed an angioplasty right away. If he didn’t get the angioplasty when he did, Frank probably was rapidly heading toward a massive a heart attack that likely would have been fatal.
So you see, Frank said with a chuckle, George saved my life.
As I listened to speaker after speaker, I discovered there was much more to George than I suspected. I decided I liked him even more.
Rest in peace, George. Many will miss and remember you.