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Going with the Flow
February 2007. Brian Johnson, construction writer. Finance and Commerce.

Paul Smallwood, president of Maple Grove-based FlowSense, started his mechanical contracting business after getting laid off in 2001. A native of Vietnam, he immigrated to the U.S. with his mother and stepfather. "What I learned in Vietnam was how to survive," he said. "You have to make the best with what you have." (F&C photo by Bill Klotz)

Paul Smallwood, who grew up in war-torn Vietnam, has found success and happiness as a mechanical contractor in Maple Grove.

As a boy, Paul Smallwood read Batman comic books, chased and rode water buffalos, fished with homemade bamboo poles and swam in the streams that cut through his rural Vietnamese village. He cut his entrepreneurial teeth by climbing mango trees, picking the fruit and peddling his newly acquired wares on the street. Distant bombs sometimes provided a soundtrack for the childhood escapades, but the explosions were just part of the deal. “Growing up was fine until I came over here and I started reading about how bad the situation was there,” Smallwood said, leaning back in his office chair. “But when you are there, you don’t have any reference point. You grew up in that environment, so it’s all you know.”

Smallwood relaxed in his new environment, a Maple Grove office, as he reminisced. A snapshot of Smallwood posing with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a poster of a nuclear submarine and reprints of newspaper stories about Smallwood adorned the office walls. The office is home base for his six-year-old company, FlowSense, which specializes in HVAC services, mechanical systems and construction management.

Clients ranging from the federal government to mid-size corporations have taken advantage of those services, and in January a federal client nominated the growing firm for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s “Prime Contractor of the Year” award.

Not bad for an immigrant who grew up in a war-ravaged country, living at times without modern conveniences like electricity.

A few years before he left Vietnam, young Paul found refuge in a boarding school sponsored by a French Catholic organization. Rising before dawn, the school kids started their day with jumping jacks before diving into their studies of math, history, French, writing and the arts.

Smallwood’s mother moved him there with the idea that the religious school would be a safe haven from the fighting.

“She was always very protective,” Smallwood said. “It was hard for her [to be separated from her son], but at the same time she didn’t want me to be involved in war casualties.”

In 1974, just as the war was winding down, 14-year-old Paul made his way to the United States with his mother and American stepfather. Paul spoke French, thanks to his boarding school experience, but English was still a foreign tongue.

The family settled in Orlando, Fla., however, and Paul quickly made progress in his adopted country.

He graduated from high school, spent eight years in the U.S. Air Force (where he suffered some hearing loss after long-term exposure to aircraft ground noise), earned his mechanical engineering degree at the University of Illinois, got married and started a family that would eventually include a daughter and two sons.

His engineering credentials led to jobs with major companies such as McQuay International, Honeywell and Westinghouse, where he contributed to the design of the U.S. Navy’s Seawolf, a nuclear submarine.

In 1996, he was scheduled to travel to Taipei for an assignment with Westinghouse. Instead, the Smallwood family ended up in Minnesota, where Paul’s wife, Annie, could be closer to her ailing mother.

“I moved here out of love,” he said. “My wife put me through engineering school. For someone to do that — there is some obligation there.”

A new start

Smallwood met his obligations without incident until 2001, when the economy hit a road bump and Smallwood was laid off. That’s when he started his own self-financed company, focusing on hydraulic systems, air flow control and indoor air quality.

Smallwood’s previous job was left vacant, so he filled the void by calling on customers he had known for years. He was competitive because he had less overhead. Gradually, he built up a client base that includes companies such as Honeywell, 3M and Cargill.

FlowSense remained a one-man operation until the summer of 2005. It has since added five employees and has outgrown several offices, leading to last month’s relocation to a 5,000-square-foot office-warehouse space on County Road 81 in Maple Grove.

Smallwood surpassed his sales goals last year, bringing in $2 million worth of business from April through December. He hopes to at least double those sales figures in each of the next two years.

A good chunk of the sales has come from government and military contracts, including projects for the VA Medical Center in Lebanon, Pa., the Minneapolis Naval Air Reserve, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Quantico Marine Corps base.

The company — which has worked on projects as far away as Italy — also hopes to collaborate on some larger jobs with its mentoring partner, St. Paul-based Doody Mechanical.

“Paul is a very energetic guy,” said Mike Stillman, president of Doody Mechanical. “He has a lot of ideas. Some of them he will have to pursue on his own, and others will fit well with the two of us.

“I think [the partnership] is going to be good for both of us, and hopefully it’s a model for other people out there.”

Steve Riedel, an international trade representative with the Minnesota Trade Office, said Smallwood has good interpersonal skills and cultural sensitivity.

“He’s real scrappy and builds relationships with people and keeps a lot of irons in the fire,” said Riedel, who has accompanied Smallwood on two international trade missions. “He doesn’t share the nuts and bolts of his success, [but] he seems to have done a very good job.

“We like to see guys like him succeed, because he’s not afraid to take a bit of a risk, going to places that are a little less established.”

Ties to the old country

Smallwood has established a good life in the United States, but he and his family still have strong ties to the old country.

Smallwood’s 24-year-old daughter, Marianne, is doing volunteer work in Hanoi for ChildFund, a nonprofit organization that reaches out to impoverished children and their families throughout the world.

A graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Marianne is committed to staying in Vietnam for another two years.

“There’s some truly fantastic work being executed by ChildFund,” Marianne Smallwood wrote, in her blog. “New medical centers, latrines, clean-water systems, irrigation channels, etc. ... There’s nothing like actually visiting the site of a new water well system and seeing tiny children wearing ChildFund schoolbags wave at you with the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen. I love it.”

“We’re very proud of her,” said Paul Smallwood, who also has two teenage sons, Alex and Paul Jr. “She knows what she wants, and now she wanted to spend time doing what she can before she goes to graduate school. She gave up a high-paying job to do this.

“She has probably seen more of the country than I did, growing up there for 14 years.”

Smallwood’s stepfather (from whom he took his name) died in 1984, but his mother is doing well and living in Orlando. Now 73, she credits a special brew featuring ginseng and liquor with keeping her young.

Who’s to say she’s not onto something?

“She doesn’t look a day over 50,” Smallwood said. “She’s a very healthy, independent woman, and I think that’s where I picked up my independence.”

Smallwood himself has been back to Vietnam several times, most recently in 2004, when he traveled with a delegation from the Minnesota Trade Office to conduct seminars about indoor air quality.

The trip came precisely 30 years after he first left Vietnam. He said there’s still a lot of poverty, but the people are “dying to grow their economy” and are making progress.

Smallwood’s own progress in the United States — including his business success — is a testament to the American Dream. But vivid, bittersweet memories of a faraway land still linger in his mind.

“You don’t forget your roots,” he said. “The fondest memories are always from childhood.”

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