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Business runs hot & cold

Entrepreneur grows firm amid Boston’s construction boom

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Business runs hot & cold
Abdul Barrie and Peter Stewart check duct work in an apartment building under construction in the Bartlett Place development.

For Abdul Barrie, starting Environmental Systems Engineering during an economic recession was an act of courage.

Barrie, who learned to work on heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in the U.S. Marine Corps, hung out his shingle after being laid off in the post-9/11 economic slump. He began by going door-to-door to sell his services.

“I had money saved up,” Barrie says. “I had tools. I bought my first van and printed up flyers.”

Environmental Systems Engineering CEO Abdul Barrie.

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But all the preparation in the world doesn’t prepare an entrepreneur for relentless rejection from restaurants, retail shops and other businesses.

“For every ‘yes,’ you get 100 rejections,” Barrie said. “My first ‘yes’ had nothing to do with HVAC. It was a gentleman who wanted me to do some wiring, wall repair and painting.”

Barrie let the customer, a Hyde Park homeowner, know he specialized in HVAC systems. Satisfied with the quality of his work, that customer referred Barrie to others, leading to HVAC contracts. Business spread by word of mouth. While he struggled for the first six months, Barrie says, the second half of the year was surprisingly lucrative.

That was 17 years ago. Today, Barrie employs 14 men, all of whom are currently working on major projects including the Bartlett Place housing and retail development and the Marriott Residence Inn under construction on Parcel 9, both in the Dudley Square area. His firm has recently completed work on a 24-unit condo complex in the Forest Hills section of Jamaica Plain and new apartment buildings in the Four Corners and Savin Hill sections of Dorchester.

Most of his employees and the subcontractors he hires are people of color who live in Boston.

Opportunity strikes

Barrie, who grew up in Boston and Burlington after moving to the United States from Sierra Leone at age 10, says he’s enjoying the city’s current building boom.

“I can look at new buildings and say, ‘I helped build that,’” he says. “I enjoy re-building the neighborhoods in Boston that have been neglected for so long.”

Standing in the utility room at Bartlett Place, a bare, windowless room that will house the building’s heating system, Barrie consults architectural plans on his iPad as he advises a team of plumbers on how to bring in the unit heaters, pipes, boilers and water tanks that will keep the apartments warm.

“We’ll crane ‘em up,” he says.

On the roof outside the mechanical room, a 6-by-15-foot chiller will be hoisted in place to provide cooling for the building. Throughout the building, Barrie’s workers have installed the ductwork that will bring the air down from the mechanical room and keep residents comfortable.

Barrie has grown familiar enough with the complex workings of modern apartment systems. He also enjoys working on older buildings, along with the challenging problems they pose. An early project Barrie enjoyed was a remodeling project featured on PBS’ “This Old House” show, a Second Empire Victorian two-family on Woodbine Street renovated by contractor David Lopes.

Barrie received help scaling up his business from real estate developers and general contractors Arnold Johnson and George Chin, whose Crossroads Construction company has added scores of units to Roxbury’s housing stock over the past two decades.

“They’ve been instrumental in helping minority firms grow,” Barrie said.

Johnson and Chin gave Barrie his first break with the Washington Commons project, a development consisting of 35 single-family and multi-unit buildings at the corner of Washington Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard on land cleared during the city’s urban renewal program in the 1960s.

“I was just 26 years old,” Barrie says. “They took a chance with me. But it ended up being successful. Ever since then, we’ve been working together.”

As Crosswinds has taken on larger projects, such as Bartlett Yard, Barrie has come along with the firm, hiring more hands to increase his capacity to get the job done.

In the current building boom, Barrie says, his biggest challenge is finding enough skilled tradespeople to keep up with the demand. With so much work, Barrie is now in a position that contrasts sharply with his early days in the trade, marked by repeated rejections.

“I’ve never seen it this busy in all the years I’ve been in business,” he said. “We turn away more work than we accept.”