AFSA Honors Industry Leader, Visionary
In 1983, the American Fire Sprinkler Association’s (AFSA) created its highest honor, the Henry S. Parmelee Award, to recognize an outstanding individual who has dedicated himself or herself to the professional advancement of the fire sprinkler industry and the goal of fire safety through automatic sprinklers. The recipient of this year’s award has spent over 40 years dedicated to this industry and its people. He is passionate about serving the members of the fire protection community, and his enthusiasm is infectious. For AFSA, it is an honor to recognize George DiMatteo, vice president of Ferguson Enterprises, with the 2021 Henry S. Parmelee Award.
Paving the Way
DiMatteo says his career in the fire protection industry is in “direct correlation” to meeting Mary Shaw in 1979. “I went to Idaho that summer to water ski and met her. I instantly knew she was ‘the one,’” DiMatteo reminisces. “I called my father and said, ‘I met the girl I’m going to marry.’ We were married a short time later.”
Within a few months, the DiMatteo’s had a son on the way. “I now had a family to support! The family of high school friends were fitters in the 669 Sprinkler Fitter Union and were headed to Reno, Nevada, where the retrofit fire sprinkler codes were going into effect. They asked me to join them.”
The couple embraced the opportunity and moved to Reno. DiMatteo started working in the fabrication shop at Delta Fire Systems in Reno while waiting for a union apprentice position to open. Working in that shop taught DiMatteo a sense of self-worth and pride in his job. “The fitters I worked with carried a tremendous amount of pride in their work and expected the same type of work ethic from those around them,” says DiMatteo. “This is a trait I have carried with me all these years.”
Less than two years after starting with Delta Fire Systems, DiMatteo was offered a union apprenticeship in Reno or a fabrication mana
ger position at Delta’s Transwest Supply facility in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Mary and I decided to relocate to Salt Lake City with our two children, Nick and Alisse.”
DiMatteo says the job was a great experience. “I truly enjoyed learning the supply business—all types of industrial, fire sprinkler, and special hazards pipe fabrication, including all the system products. The sales side of the business and working with the customers just came naturally to me.”
The years at Delta Fire Systems provided the foundation that built DiMatteo’s career. “Many of the associates and customers I worked with then are still in our industry. Some are retired or gone, but several of them work at Ferguson today, and some are customers or competitors. I am so proud to call them all my friends.”
In 1986, DiMatteo was offered a managing partner position at JLB Pipeworks, a start-up fire sprinkler fabrication supply company in Sacramento, California. “Life was very good in Salt Lake City,” says DiMatteo. “We had our third child, Jennie. Mary’s mother and grandmother were also living close by. But my parents had retired to Northern California, and my siblings had followed them. JLB was a great opportunity to become a partner in this fabrication shop at just 29 years old and a chance to bring both of our families together. We couldn’t pass that up.”
The DiMatteos relocated to Sacramento and brought Mary’s family with them. The highlight of DiMatteo’s time at JLB was when his father came out of retirement to help grow the company. “While he did not know our business,” notes DiMatteo, “he was a professional businessman. He became our outside salesman and was the face of the company. My father was a true people person. Everyone was attracted to his personality.”
DiMatteo says he has been “gifted” with several of his father’s traits. “He taught me to have strong ethics, how to treat people with respect from a young age, and always do what you say you’re going to do! He would tell me, ‘Business is business. It doesn’t matter if it’s the produce business, the restaurant business, or the pipe valve and fitting business. It’s all the same rules.’”
His father also taught him invaluable lessons about making and maintaining business relationships. “My dad used to say, ‘Keep it simple—take care of your customers and your associates,” DiMatteo remembers. “I realize today his advice was like gold. I still say those same words all these years later.”
DiMatteo notes that there’s not one business that isn’t a relationship business. “It’s the relationships I’ve built over 40 years that have gotten me to the point I’m at today. My customers and the people I work with are the same people I spend time and travel with on vacations. I have lifetime relationships from those that began in this business.”
Those relationships helped sustain DiMatteo when a recession hit in the early ‘90s and impacted business at JLB. “JLB offered my ‘life’s lessons’ years,” states DiMatteo. “They say in business, and in life, you’ll make mistakes, but the key is to learn from them. Thank God I learned. Years later, when I was at Ferguson, and the 2007-2009 recession
hit, I remembered those lessons, so we made sure we made the right decisions at Ferguson Fire & Fabrication.”
In 1992, DiMatteo became the first associate and territory manager under Lee Klein at Pacific Fire Safety, a division of Ferguson Enterprises. “I had a customer base from JLB and started selling almost immediately,” DiMatteo remembers. “All of those relationships I built over the first 12 years of my career came to fruition. My father passed away a few months after I came to Pacific Fire Safety, but his lessons stayed with me, and we started growing that business.”
DiMatteo surrounded himself with experienced leaders to open Pacific’s first fire supply branch in Woodland, California. Within seven years, they added six locations in Northern California. Next, Klein created and placed DiMatteo on the “A-Team” to focus on national expansion through acquisitions. In 2000, DiMatteo acquired and managed Pacific’s first fabrication shop. Thus began a stream of 10 acquisitions over the next 10 years.
“I learned early on in my career that this was not unlike a team sport,” says DiMatteo. “If we wanted to win, then we were going to have to assemble a winning team. I have always surrounded myself with the best and smartest associates in the business.”
In 2004, with the national expansion of Pacific Fire Safety moving rapidly, DiMatteo relocated to Mansfield, Texas, to become a regional manager. “When we were growing so quickly, Lee had the forethought to spread the experienced managers out across the country so we could share our business culture to manage the acquisitions and build out each area,” DiMatteo notes.
Creating Ferguson Fire & Fabrication
In 2005, after the acquisition of the Clark Group, an equal-sized business with 12 locations and a wealth of great leaders and talent, Pacific Fire Safety officially changed its name to Ferguson Fire & Fabrication (FFF), and DiMatteo was promoted to southwest general manager. Within 18 months, he became area manag
er with managers in the Southwest, Midwest, and Southeast areas under his supervision. He stayed in that position until Klein retired in 2011 and was subsequently promoted to district manager over the United States and president of FFF.
“In my positions at Ferguson, we have been able to influence the advancement of our industry,” DiMatteo proudly states. “In the earliest day of outside fabrication shops, our goal was to be a cost-effective, value-added means for contractors to utilize. We managed the complete job—from the time it was designed to the time of jobsite delivery for installation on the project start date —with very little contractor involvement. Combining professional supply distribution and fabrication has changed the industry.”
One of DiMatteo’s career highlights was in 2016 when he was promoted to regional vice president with parent company Ferguson Enterprises. “With this promotion, I knew Fire & Fabrication would always have a seat on the executive leadership team and that it was recognized as a core business within the Ferguson family,” comments DiMatteo. “We are the smallest business within the Ferguson family, but we are core. It was a great promotion for our whole business and what Lee and all of us had worked for during the previous 20 years.”
Bruce LaRue, former president of the fire sprinkler division at Potter Electric Signal Co., LLC, St. Louis, Missouri, met DiMatteo during Pacific Fire Safety’s formative years. “George and I traveled up and down the Pacific coast with a caravan of Pacific’s employees and vendors, introducing the fire sprinkler contracting community to our concept.”
He continues: “It was clear to me early on and holds true today that George’s work ethic and industry knowledge have contributed to Ferguson Fire and Fabrication success. My best description of George and my relationship is best described by the following; ‘Respect is earned, honesty is appreciated, trust is gained, and loyalty is returned.’ I am positive that all who have dealt with George feel the same.”
In 1986, DiMatteo attended his first AFSA convention in Anaheim, California. It was the fourth convention for the organization. “It was very special to be there and be part of the beginnings of this association,” says DiMatteo. “It was my first true experience of being involved in the fire sprinkler industry. I had known or met many of the manufacturers before, but I could talk to everyone in just a couple of days at the convention. I saw all of the new products like this new plastic pipe called CPVC that we were going to use in residential.”
DiMatteo added new product lines and built several new relationships during that convention, meeting Eileen O’Neil with Star Sprinkler, Wendall Persing with Persing Hangers, Bill Vollmar with Top Brand, Riken Groove and Bill Sallee with R.G. Sloane CPVC, Randy Greenslate with Argco, and others. “It was a life-changing event for me,” he remembers.
In the following years, he continued attending AFSA conventions on the West Coast and participating in the nearest membership meetings, which the Bay Area Chapter hosted. Members came together to promote the industry, and business and personal connections were built during those events. “Tom McKinnon, Fred Benn, Bill Sallee… all AFSA Chapter members at that time traveled to town and city hall meetings in Northern California to advocate for residential fire sprinklers in the city and county codes,” remembers DiMatteo. ”I’ve always been that guy who wanted to instill change or make an impression in the industry. Residential sprinklers were new and exciting back then. We got on board pretty quick with that.”
DiMatteo also notes that camaraderie in the Sacramento area didn’t exist in the industry back then like it does today. “Creating the AFSA Sacramento Valley Chapter helped bring people together. We’d hold meetings, have barbecues, set up golf tournaments, and host other social events to build relationships with fellow members and our customers and competitors in the industry.”
Ferguson Fire & Fabrication encourages its employees to be active in the industry’s chapters and associations and try to have Ferguson representatives at every meeting and charity event. And Ferguson Enterprises has taken note of that involvement. “Our CEO is a strong advocate of all trade associations and encourages all division leadership to be involved with them.”
“It’s a true win-win for Ferguson and contractors,” continues DiMatteo. “Again, it’s all about relationships and how involved Fire and Fabrication is with associations.”
DiMatteo has served his industry on a national level as a member of several AFSA committees: Membership, Apprenticeship & Education, Convention, and the National Apprentice Competition sub-committee. He is also a member of the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA).
“I am very proud of the National Apprentice Competition—the competitors and their accomplishments—and how we support this event,” says DiMatteo. “The Contractor and Associate members of this sub-committee have worked hard to make this event a success. We now have a rotation schedule in place, so one supplier member is the material provider for the entire event for the year, which streamlines the entire process. This year is Ferguson Fire & Fabrication’s year to donate materials and time at the show, and we are proud and excited to do so.”
His association involvement has allowed DiMatteo to spend time with contractors to discover how best to serve them. “I enjoy visiting with contractors. I want to find what we can do better to help them. How can I meet their needs? What’s the hardest part of their job and what we can do to make that easier on them?”
Mentoring the Next Generation
True to his visionary outlook, DiMatteo mentors up-and-coming leaders in the industry. Ferguson Fire & Fabrication has run its college recruitment sales and management training programs to entice talented young professionals into the industry for many years. “These trainees are the lifeblood and future of our company and our industry,” he notes. “It’s no different than AFSA’s apprenticeship program—education and training cultivate talent in our industry.”
The program, which is an eight-month course, was developed after seeing the success of Ferguson Enterprises’ training program. Hundreds of trainees have gone through the process. “I believe the future is bright for those starting out in our industry,” DiMatteo says. “We also reach out to trade schools and retired military personnel. I don’t have a college degree; I learned everything through life training. I started out threading pipe, and now I sit on the executive leadership team at Ferguson Enterprises. There’s nothing these young people and second-career professionals can’t do.”
DiMatteo believes developing leaders will create strong advocates for the industry, whether they continue to work for Ferguson or not. “I believe if we can keep you in this industry for five years, then we have you for life,” he asserts. “Giving back to the industry is what legacy is all about. We cannot grow this industry without these young people, either as Associate members or contractors. We have to keep training and cultivating talent.”
“This job is not my life, but this industry has been my life,” says DiMatteo. “It gave me a sense of pride when I first came into the industry. The expectation was to do that job perfectly because lives depended on those fire safety systems. It meant a lot back then and still does today. That pride has carried with me all these years. But I still have a little gas left in the tank! I’m not going anywhere soon!”
When he’s not working, DiMatteo and his wife enjoy traveling with friends and spending time with their children and their families. They are the proud grandparents of five grandsons, ages one through 11. The families often gather everyone together at the DiMatteo’s house on Lake Granbury. “We’re lucky that most of our extended family has relocated to Texas.”
The couple also enjoys motorcycle trips with business friends. “We just completed a 2,000-mile trip over 10 days through Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho,” comments DiMatteo. “I ride with the guys I work with every day. Our wives are all friends, too. Mary and I have ridden over 75,000 miles of our country’s roads together over the years. We love it.”
AFSA will present DiMatteo with its 2021 Henry S. Parmelee Award at AFSA40: Convention, Exhibition, and Apprentice Competition, to be held September 18-21 at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa. The presentation will be the highlight of the general session on Monday, September 20, 2021, as indicated by the accolades about this year’s honoree.
“George’s enthusiasm and love of the fire protection industry and the people in it are evident to all who know him,” comments Chair of the AFSA Board of Directors Ted Wills, Anchor Fire Protection Co., Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania. “He has given his time, energy, and talents to this industry, and we are better for it. Congratulations, George!”
AFSA Second Vice Chair Linda Biernacki, president of Fire Tech Systems, Inc. in Shreveport, Louisiana, agrees. “My congratulations to George for this well-deserved and outstanding recognition by AFSA. It is apparent George loves our industry and our association. There is never a time that he backs down from an ask. He brings so much experience to the table, offers solutions, takes on challenges, and makes it better! I can always depend on him to offer his opinion along with a solution. Thank you, George!”
AFSA Region 6 Director Michael F. Meehan, CEO and president of VSC Fire & Security, Inc., Ashland, Virginia, notes DiMatteo’s generosity: “From humble beginnings, George has become an industry leader who understands the big picture. He is an ambassador for all of us—contractors, manufacturers, and suppliers. George gives back with his time and his resources and does so in a most genuine way.”
AFSA President Bob Caputo concurs: “Every year, there is no shortage of clichés and platitudes offered up when honoring someone, but this year’s selectee is as so deserving of recognition and appreciation, it’s hard not to sing his praises.”
He continues: “George is always one of the first to raise his hand and step up for this association and its members. Whether it’s time, materials, or donations, George’s dedication to this industry is second to none. It is an honor and a privilege to know George, and I cannot overstate AFSA’s appreciation of his long-time contributions to our mission.”
AFSA Region 3 Director Rod DiBona, COO, Rapid Fire Protection Group, Rapid City, South Dakota, works with DiMatteo on the apprentice competition: “I am thrilled that George has received this great award. He has been a constant help to our industry and association for a long time. He is well respected and loved by contractors and manufacturers alike, from small to large and from coast to coast, because his focus is always on people. His servant leadership permeates all that he says and does, and many in our industry owe him a debt of gratitude. Congratulations, George!”
AFSA Contractor member Bill Norwood, Alwest Fire Protection, Inc., Roseville, California, has known DiMatteo since the late ‘80s. “All these years later, it has always stuck in my mind that George was the ultimate coordinator. He had a way of always making the person he was talking to feel like he was very important.”
“George’s passion for the supply side of this essential industry brought us Pacific Fire Safety, then Ferguson Fire and Fabrication. A man with the right personality and ideas can really make a difference in this country,” Norwood concludes.
“I am very pleased and congratulate the AFSA Board of Directors for honoring the importance of George DiMatteo to our industry with our Parmelee award,” comments industry veteran Kraig Kirschner, who has also known DiMatteo for many years. “George exemplifies the AFSA ethos, making him an exceptional recipient and advocate for our mission. I admire and deem it’s rare that George, unlike most presidents of large distributors, personally commits to AFSA. In doing so, He brings his prestige and wise perspective. George’s friendship and candor have enriched me personally and professionally. Throughout my career, there are the few who ‘stand above’ … George is one.”
Kirschner concludes: “George, please know I hold you in the highest regard. Here’s to enough, partner. P.S. You got lucky when you got Mary!”
DiMatteo shies from praise and always notes that it’s a “team effort,” and it’s “we not me.” He says he always strives to work alongside others, look a few years ahead and beyond, and strategize to try and improve the industry. DiMatteo looks at the past recipients of this award and is humbled to have been chosen.
“I love our industry, and I’ve tried to promote it,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to positively influence the industry and do whatever I could do to support the contractors and their associations. This business and this industry are my life. These people are my friends. I am so honored. Thank you.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about AFSA’s awards or to nominate someone year-round, visit www.firesprinkler.org/awards.