Faculty Connections – Meet Brian Willia

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Brian, a Navy veteran from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is an instructor for the Mechanical Maintenance Engineering Associate Degree program at The Refrigeration School (RSI). Brian joined RSI in January 2016.

Thanks for your time, Brian. Tell us about your career prior to joining RSI.

My HVAC career started in the Navy in 1972. I was 18. I learned air conditioning and refrigeration on a ship. Within six months, I was in charge of a department and ran a crew of six guys. I got out in 1976 and earned my bachelor’s degree in Business, with an emphasis on Finance. I went on to get my graduate degree in Hospital Administration & Finance. Then I got commissioned as an officer, so I worked in finance for the Navy for three years. I was an assistant comptroller at a hospital, a bean counter.

Thank you for your service. When did you come back to the HVAC field?

When I got out, I worked for a for-profit hospital doing exactly the same thing for a further two years. Then I had the opportunity to go back to my first love, which is music. I was a professional musician for ten years in the Los Angeles area. I did a lot of recording, had management, but it never really panned out, so I decided to go back into HVAC full-time in 1991. I have been in the field since. I am a licensed Arizona contractor. I have had my own company for the past seven years.

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What made you decide to go into teaching?

I’ve always enjoyed working with young folks. I’ve done a lot of training, either in the military or when I ran service departments. As I said, I’m a contractor and work out in the field. I ran into a young man at one of my water treatment accounts who said he was a student at RSI. I was familiar with the school, and he said, “We need instructors at RSI. Why don’t you go down?” I’d thought about teaching, so I went in to see them. They had a vacancy coming up in the MME department, so the timing was good.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I enjoy watching these young men and women learn the field and grow. It’s something they will always have, and I really enjoy it. [Read more about Brian’s thoughts on the MME program here]

Tell us something that most people don’t know about you.

I’m a musician! My main passion has always been music. I play R&B, classic rock & roll, and acoustic and electric guitar. I still write once in a while. There are some vocal things out there on the internet.

If you weren’t a teacher, what would you do?

I would be doing my contracting work, and playing music a little more. I plan on having the company for another five years until I retire.

Tell us more about your business.

It’s called RexAir. It’s all industrial and commercial water treatment and HVAC. Earlier this week, I was at a waste water plant—one of eight here in Phoenix—looking at a $27 million project. I’m putting together a quotation to clean some piping on a new system where they take methane gas from human and other waste and convert it to clean natural gas. I’m also looking at a project up in Prescott where I’ll be quoting a water treatment program for an expansion of the Mojave County Courthouse.

Brian Willia faculty connection

How do you combine that with teaching? They both sound like full-time jobs.

My business has probably suffered a bit from the teaching because I’m so busy here. Once in a while I hire people when I get busy, but I try to do most of it myself between classes and on weekends. I kind of pick and choose my jobs because water treatment is very physical, and I’m 64! The jobs kind of go hand-in-hand. Because I’m working out in the field I see all this new stuff. That makes me a better educator because everything is fresh. Because of my contacts, I am able to take students on fascinating tours.

Student tours, that sounds like a fantastic opportunity. Where do you take them?

I’ve got three places that are absolutely off the hook technologically. One is a central plant that is under downtown Phoenix. It supplies to chill water to most of the buildings in downtown Phoenix, including the ballpark, the conference center. It’s huge down there. I’ve also got an SRP central plant that is close by, and the third place is the new State Farm buildings on Tempe Town Lake.

If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?

That’s a tough one. Maybe someone like Elvis Presley? Not that I really enjoy his music a whole lot, but he was revolutionary in what he did in pop music.

Tell us a little about your family.

I’m married and I have two daughters, aged 28 and 32. My older daughter lives here in Scottsdale, and my youngest lives in Dallas. I have two granddaughters, aged four and two.

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to students who are considering RSI?

Never let a day go by where you don’t read something to better yourself or advance your knowledge in the field.

What’s your most important tool?

I actually ask my students that question to get their input. I usually get a myriad of answers. But my best answer is your character. If you do your business, both personally and professionally, with character and pride, the rest of it will fall into place. You want to work with good, knowledgeable, honest people. If you have good character and treat others how you want to be treated, those things will come back to you. If you have questionable character, you will be working with people like that.

Thinking of your time in the field, what was your favorite part of the job?

Generally speaking, customer satisfaction. That kind of ties into the character thing. But I also enjoy taking something that was in a state of disrepair and improving it so the customer has a good system, whether that be good water quality or reliable commercial HVAC system that feeds their building.

If you got an unexpected afternoon off to yourself, what would you do with that time?

Visit my grandchildren!

If you were to tell someone “Thank You” for making you who you are today, who would it be and why?

Probably my father, Neil Willia. He had character. He was honest. He worked really hard but didn’t make a lot of money. He had this crazy desire for perfection in everything he did. He was a UDT guy [Underwater Demolitions Team – now called SEAL Teams] in the Navy in World War II, but he also cross-trained and learned how to fix boat motors with the Navy. He was a mechanic basically.

The MME Program – An Instructor’s View

Brian Willia is the instructor for the Mechanical Maintenance Engineering Associate Degree program at RSI. We asked Brian a few questions about the program he teaches for his perspective.

Before we start, tell us about your career prior to joining RSI.

My HVAC career started in the Navy in 1972; I was 18. I learned air conditioning and refrigeration on a Navy ship. I got out in 1976; I earned a bachelor’s degree in Business and a graduate degree in Hospital Administration & Finance in 1981. After college I got a commission as an officer in the Navy and worked as an assistant comptroller at Naval Hospital, Long Beach. I was a Navy bean counter for three years before doing exactly the same thing for two more years after I got out.

Thank you for your service; when did you return to HVAC?

  1. After working in the health care field, I first had the opportunity to go back to my first love which is music. I was a professional musician in LA for ten years. I did a lot of recording, had management, but it never really panned out. I decided to go back into HVAC in 1991. I am a licensed Arizona contractor; I have my own company and have been in business for seven years.

Tell us more about the MME program?

The Mechanical Maintenance Engineering (MME) program covers a myriad of subjects under this large umbrella called HVAC/R. Once students are done learning the basics of refrigeration, air conditioning and troubleshooting in the Electro-Mechanical Technologies program on the main campus, they come here to hone their skills a little more.   

What kind of roles does the MME program prepare graduates for?

Graduates of this program can apply for entry level industrial and institutional maintenance engineering positions, industrial refrigeration service, and other careers that require maintenance and service of large, complex systems. They can be power plant engineers, plant operators, preventative maintenance specialists, or HVAC managers eventually. There are lots of career options for them.

What kind of topics does the program cover?

Some of the subjects we cover here include psychrometrics, which is the study of properties of air. We study pneumatics, motors, we do heat-load calculations for buildings, we study how to develop preventative maintenance programs, we study cooling towers, chillers, boilers, and all the equipment associated with them. We also teach things like computer applications and entrepreneurship. I have a pretty good understanding of chillers, boilers, cooling towers and associated things – things you find out in the real world, so I also do an extensive water treatment segment for the students. They learn how chemical water treatment is applied.

Students can study the MME program either online or on campus correct?

Whatever works best for your work and life schedule. The online learning works well for a lot of people because their work, family commitments, or geography mean they can’t get to us for the morning or night classes. I have students here for the AM class, and at the moment I’m also the night instructor until we find a new person. I also manage all the online learning for the MME program.

How long does it take to complete the MME program?

Once you’ve completed the nine month Electro-Mechanical Technologies program on campus, it takes a further six to seven months to complete the MME program.

Want to learn more?

In about a third of the time it takes to earn a four year degree, you can get an Associate of Occupational Studies in Mechanical Maintenance Engineering and start your new career. Request more information now!  Want to learn more about your MME instructor? Read Brian’s full Staff Connections interview here.