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Bret Abels

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Abels moderates a discussion during the NAEC 2016 Spring Educational Conference in Savannah, Georgia.

Bret Abels, president of NAEC and O’Keefe Elevator, reflects on an industry he entered by accident.

Bret Abels, president and chief operating officer of O’Keefe Elevator Co. and 2016 president of the National Association of Elevator Contractors (NAEC), often shares the story of how he got into the industry. For those who haven’t heard it, it’s a good one. Fresh out of the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) with a business degree, Abels got a call from a headhunter who wanted to send him to a job interview at an elevator company. This being the American Heartland, Abels assumed he was headed to a grain elevator company. So he was surprised when he showed up at O’Keefe and saw pictures of passenger elevators on the walls. Abels shared his story of getting into the elevator industry in Boston at the NAEC awards breakfast when he became president. He recalls:

“That really got a chuckle out of the room when I said I thought I was going to a company that sold grain elevators and farm equipment. I’m kind of unique in the industry. There are so many people, both at the contractor and supplier levels, who grew up carrying their grandfather’s toolbox or going along with their dads on service calls. But my story is completely different. I didn’t know anything about elevators when I started.”

That was in 1988, and Abels certainly knows the industry now. His first job at O’Keefe was in service sales, where he primarily handled maintenance and repair contracts. He then moved into Modernization and became its manager, overseeing that division until 2004. When President and Chief Executive Officer Denis J. “Skip” O’Keefe III passed away that same year, Abels was chosen to become senior vice president. In April 2016, Abels assumed his current role – the result of a historic vote making Abels the first non-family member to be president in the company’s 117-year history.

All heads of departments – Operations, Construction, Service, Administration – report directly to Abels, who handles the day-to-day operations. In all, he is in charge of more than 100 employees. Abels reports to Denis Wychulis, chairman of the board and chief executive officer. O’Keefe is headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, and has branch offices located throughout Iowa and Nebraska.

Abels’ new duties include interviewing potential new employees. “We are always looking for good people to join our company,” he states, adding that the company “recently hired a new salesperseon and a field operations manager for our Des Moines, Iowa, office, who oversees the operations of the central and eastern Iowa branches.”

Abels grew up in the small town of Papillion, a suburb of Omaha. UNK is about three hours away, and after graduation, Abels moved back to the Omaha area and married his college sweetheart, Candi. The pair have two adult daughters, one of whom is a kindergarten teacher and the other who is in business and works for a company supplying braces and other medical equipment. Even though they have a new grandson, Abels says he is pretty sure he will be the first and last person in his family in the elevator industry.

Between his roles leading O’Keefe and NAEC, Abels has little time for leisure activities, but when he does, he enjoys golfing, family vacations, NASCAR, sports in general and relaxing on the beach. “We’ve been to many racetracks and always look forward to going to new tracks. Besides that, beaches and warm weather are always good when you’re from the Midwest, especially in the winter months.”

In April 2016, Abels assumed his current role – the result of a historic vote making Abels the first non-family member to be president in the company’s 117-year history.

The Abels are also big college football fans and attend almost all Nebraska Cornhuskers games. O’Keefe, as well, is a big supporter of the university and a longtime season ticketholder. For all home games, O’Keefe hosts a tailgate for clients, guests, business associates and friends. “Everyone is welcome,” Abels states. “We do it to say ‘thank you’ and enjoy the day away from the normal work environment.”

Abels is a natural leader at NAEC. During industry events, he is a knowledgeable and affable emcee and moderator. During the 2016 NAEC Educational Conference in Savannah, Georgia, in April, he led a particularly interesting discussion about the pros and cons of machine-room-less (MRL) elevator systems. The issue is among challenges facing the industry, and it is not going away anytime soon, he says, continuing:

“Topics that we will continue to need to work on include products, particularly MRL products – their acceptance, maintenance, repair and – before much longer – modernization. Safety in our industry will continue to be a top priority and of utmost importance to all contractors and suppliers. Training our workforce on continually evolving new products and types of lifts will be an ongoing challenge.”

Abels says he loves the elevator industry and the company he works for. O’Keefe is headquartered in an award-winning historic renovated warehouse building that boasts high-tech office equipment along with aesthetic elements such as art and history displays (ELEVATOR WORLD, August 2003).

He is just getting started in his president role, and looks forward to the future. He states:

“What has been most rewarding is having had the opportunity to work for a very strong, independent, family-owned business. The family is very supportive and very passionate about the company they own, their employees and the industry they are in. They take a lot of pride in who we are as a company on both the local and national levels. We are one of the few independently owned companies of our size that is still operating.” 

“Rewarding” and “educational” are the words Abels uses to describe his year as NAEC president. The role gave him the opportunity to meet and interact with many experienced professionals from all over the U.S. and Canada. He praises the NAEC staff for consistently providing services for and assisting members, and is confident they will continue to do so successfully.

Abels advises incoming NAEC President Joe McNally of McNally Elevator to make the most of his year, stating: 

“We have a large membership and a very good board that has a considerable amount of knowledge and experience in the elevator industry. I would recommend the president always be a good listener, look and gather as much information as possible on any subject or issue, seek advice from industry experts, if necessary, and make decisions that are in the best interest of the NAEC.”  

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