Growing architectural firm takes 'social capital' approach
As a nuclear power plant operator aboard the submarine USS Columbia at age 25, Michael Cherock suffered a debilitating injury to his left hand and was discharged from the military.
“The Navy was all I knew, along with electronics,” said Cherock, who had enlisted in his junior year at Norwin High School and entered service in 1989 when he finished high school.
The injury ended a seven-year military career, but it helped Cherock pursue a new passion — architectural engineering. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees simultaneously in 2002 from Penn State.
The architectural degrees have paid off. After five years working for local companies, Cherock started his own business, AE Works Ltd., in 2007 in the basement of his home on Mt. Washington. It has expanded to more than 30 employees in Larimer and two other locations.
Cherock credits his Navy background for AE Works' success so far.
“It was all about doing the right thing when nobody's looking,” said Cherock, 43. “People at AE Works operate on the same principle.”
Cherock said he wants to set his company apart — not by being the biggest, but the best architectural engineering design firm in the region.
“Architecture is what sells” and attracts clients, he said, but other services — engineering, plumbing and fire protection, heating and air conditioning, telecommunications and interior design — pay the bills.
AE Works competes with local companies such as Astorino in Pittsburgh, which has 110 employees. While smaller, Cherock wants his company to be a full-service competitor, producing project blueprints that clients turn over to contractors. “Everything we do here is a project,” he said, from renovating spaces to updating electrical systems.
“AE Works is a good friend of ours,” said John McCabe, CEO of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.
Last year, AE Works designed and managed a $910,000 “green roof” installation project and other repairs for Soldiers & Sailors. “They recognized what we do, and what we needed and our vision for the future,” McCabe said.
The roof and drains in the building on Fifth Avenue were deteriorating, resulting in large amounts of rain water runoff that damaged inside walls. A low-weight vegetation covering on flat portions of the roof along the top of the century-old building reduced the rainwater runoff by 60 percent and added insulation that cut heating and cooling costs.
“He's a smart business man and knows it was important to help sustain us,” McCabe said of Cherock. “His personal touch, sincerity and passion for what we're about was something I could not ignore.”
AE Works was paid $75,000 for design and construction management on the project, McCabe said. Cuddy Roofing and Burns & Scalo did the construction work.
AE Works has 25 employees in Larimer, five in a State College office opened in 2012, and one in Richmond, Va., which keeps tabs on government contracts. Health care clinics for the Veterans Administration are a big part the company's business. AE Works has worked on 70 projects at 23 VA campuses in nine Mid-Atlantic states. The projects ranged from $5 million to $10 million in size.
Such work ranked AE Works at No. 735 on Inc. magazine's list of the 5,000 fastest growing small businesses in the nation in 2013, with a 624 percent three-year growth rate, and $3.2 million in sales.
AE Works started as a two-person shop working long hours during the Great Recession in 2008-2009. Business was slow, which led him to the Small Business Administration in Pittsburgh, and to government contracting. A government contract won in 2009 turned the company around, Cherock said.
“We installed a new generator and several other projects at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, at President Lincoln's summer home in the D.C. area,” Cherock said. “That project opened a door for us.”
Loans from an SBA program for former military personnel also helped him hire five people, all still with the company, he said.
Cherock runs his company with a focus on what he calls “social capital” — teamwork, community involvement and employee activities.
He mentioned AE Works' wellness committee, where employees work on health issues, good eating, exercise and employee camaraderie, quarterly training meetings at off-site locations that include non-work activities, and profit sharing that paid out 10 percent of compensation in 2013.
“We want people to have meaning in their jobs, in how they can contribute,” said Cherock, who regained use of his hand through exercise, therapy and by playing the guitar. He wants a company “where everyone is relevant, a business that accesses all forms of capital, not just money.”
Cherock won two local business awards in recent months.
He was named Small Business Person of the Year by the Western Pennsylvania district office of the SBA in May. Last month, Ernst & Young named him its Entrepreneur of the Year for Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia in the services category.
The SBA's Kevin White, acting district director in Pittsburgh, said Cherock uses his military and college expertise and “that sense of teamwork and pride which empowers employees and has resulted in his tremendous growth.”
Cherock said his goal “is to hire the best people, train them to be the best team, and explain to everybody why we're here. And for me — to be the best example. I love it,” he said.
John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or joravecz @tribweb.com.
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