Big Cats of Carolina

Morris-Jenkins has 40,000 active customers, and maintains 6,500 service agreements in a mere 25-mile service radius. But the most substantial monument to this company's financial success is its average annual growth of 20% for 18 straight years.

The National Football League's Carolina Panthers, based in Charlotte, NC, had a great 2008 season that ended much too soon. After clawing its way to a 12-4 regular season record to win the NFC South Division title, the team was defeated in the conference playoff by the Arizona Cardinals.

The city of Charlotte, however, is well stocked with champions of another sort. One HVAC team in particular is a perennial champion every season, earning rave reviews from thousands of fans in and around this busy city: Morris-Jenkins, the ContractingBusiness.com 2009 Residential Contractor of the Year.

Luther Morris founded Morris-Jenkins as Morris Heating & Cooling in 1958. Entrepreneur Dewey Jenkins purchased the business in 1990. A licensed CPA, Jenkins had previously operated a tax practice and real estate development business. When the real estate market declined in the 1980s, Jenkins said goodbye to real estate and hello to the HVAC business.

The enterprising Jenkins recognized that service businesses usually have a built-in defense against economic downturns. “At first, I was looking for a residential plumbing company,” he recalls. “I figured that the customer would always be willing to pay to keep the water flowing. The business might be affected to a point, but there wouldn't be a severe downturn. And, I realized that if I had a business with a broad customer base, losing one customer wouldn't sink the entire company. I soon realized that HVAC was a similar kind of business.”

After 32 years in business, the original Morris company had 12 employees and an excellent reputation, but virtually no service division. When Dewey Jenkins walked in the door, he rewrote the game plan, and along the way, he found his own path to genuine business fulfillment.

Astounding ‘Fan’ Base

Morris-Jenkins has 40,000 active customers, and maintains 6,500 service agreements in a mere 25-mile service radius.

But the most substantial monument to this company's financial success is its average annual growth of 20% for 18 straight years. In 2007, sales peaked at $19.4 million. In 2008, that figure climbed to $23.5 million. Already well into its 2009 fiscal year, Morris-Jenkins is determined to thrive, even during the recession. The phone was ringing off the hook during a rare January cold snap, so it's likely they'll exceed last year's numbers.

Morris-Jenkins is an advertising juggernaut, which accounts for some of its strong customer base. It follows an uninterrupted advertising schedule. Radio, television, newspapers, and targeted direct mail are all part of its strategy to reach and attract customers. The company jingle was written by Dewey's wife Renee and daughters, Blaire Bancroft and Kelly Jenkins. In the song, a customer wakes up freezing (in winter) or sweating (in summer). He calls Morris-Jenkins, and is reassured: “You'll have warm heat at your house tonight,” or, “You'll have cool air at your house tonight.” The melody is adapted to fit a variety of musical styles, from bluegrass to Broadway.

“We do a wide array of marketing. There are times when certain media perform better than others, but the key to being successful is remaining consistent,” says Kelly Jenkins, director of marketing.

Pick a Goal: It's Yours to Attain

Morris-Jenkins' employees thrive on goal setting. All are offered opportunities to grow, succeed, contribute, and improve. It's part of the philosophy Jenkins formalized as he observed the industry in the early ‘90s. He realized the importance of goal setting for technicians, installers, salespersons, and customer service representatives; virtually anyone on the front lines of customer contact.

Technicians' goals include high customer satisfaction ratings, low call-backs, training, and overall productivity.

Customer testimonials — also known as “Happiness Checks” — flow in to the office every week, and are shared. The one-page surveys include high praise for technicians' good service and attitudes. Words such as “very knowledgeable,” “excellent service,” and “keep up the good work” are scribbled by satisfied homeowners.

Let the Managers Manage

Dewey Jenkins' used to be a micromanager. He gradually adapted his management style to be hands-off, thanks to his team of top-notch managers in whom he has the utmost trust and confidence.

“Losing the micromanaging habit is the hardest thing in the world to do,” Jenkins says. “You have to trust other people, and trust them through their mistakes, which is difficult, because leaders sometimes think nobody can do it as well as they can. But you can't grow and develop your people if you micromanage. You must allow them to make mistakes.

“When I was younger, I had all this energy, and I knew how I wanted it to be done. I made it difficult for my managers to manage. It was a learning process to put them in place and step back.”

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Management A-Team

Key elements to the company's continued success are a continual emphasis on change and improvement, and an absolute commitment to honesty, integrity, and fairness.

Morris-Jenkins managers combine vast amounts of experience with genuine concern for employees' well-being and professional development.

  • General Manager Anne Gannon follows up on the execution of the business plan and ensures all processes are followed with consistency.

    “A good example is our dispatch procedure,” she explains. “Is every technician on the dispatch board? Does every technician have an 8 o'clock appointment? Do the best technicians get the best calls? Are we sensitive to drive times? Are we contacting the customer before we come? You can set up any system or process, but unless you follow up on it you'll fall behind.” Customer Service Associate (CSA) phone techniques receive the same scrutiny. Telephone scripts must be followed, customers must be thanked, and hold times must be short.

  • Installation Manager Dave Hearne has been with Morris-Jenkins from the time Dewey Jenkins took charge. He started as a service technician, and then moved to installation manager.

    “When I began here, we had three installation crews. Now we're up to 11 crews, and we have a great warehouse support system,” Hearne says.

    And don't call beginning technicians “helpers” around Hearne. “We call new employees ‘assistants.’ Our goal is to help them grow and develop, learn more, earn more, and be more valuable,” Hearne says. “Branding someone with the label ‘helper’ doesn't challenge him or her. As we've expanded our crews, we look internally for staffing. Yesterday's assistant becomes today's lead mechanic.”

  • Sales Manager David Smith operates in a constant support mode for his six-person sales team.

    “To improve your sales team, you've got to support them,” Smith advises. “Be certain they have everything they need, from the sales literature to the training. Sales can be a great job or a depressing one. I can see when they're going down, and I throw them some support. Once they're trained, it's a matter of repeating it to new prospects and role playing.”

    Morris-Jenkins' top two sales consultants — Allen Smith and Jonathan Bancroft — reached $3.3 million and $3.1 million in sales, respectively, for 2008. Their success is based on consistency.

    “They have a good sales presentation and they don't deviate from it,” Smith says. Their sales presentation is a blend of information Smith and Jenkins have acquired from sales leaders such as author and sales philospher Jim Rohn, motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, and Rick Hutcherson.

  • “Listen to your technicians,” advises Service Manager Tim O'Brien. “Find out if they have any concerns. A large challenge to our industry is getting and retaining technicians. We set productivity goals combined with minimum call-backs, as well as goals for various technical achievements. We want to train and keep the good ones. And, each of our ‘Supreme Service Champions’ is a NATE-certified technician,” O'Brien says.

  • Kent Weaver, accounting manager, tracks all the numbers, all the time. “Budgets are established, and tracking is key. If you don't know where you're at, it leads to problems,” Weaver says. “We know exactly where we are to date for each month. The technicians, salesmen, and installers see the numbers.”

  • Tookie Harto, director of human resources, works to find prospects who possess the right qualities and skills, and who can demonstrate a clear understanding of the Morris-Jenkins vision and culture. “We need to see their skill set to determine if it's a good match or not.” Harto says. “It's all about finding the best talent, offering a good pay and benefits package, and trying to foresee their growth possibilities with Morris-Jenkins. We have a lot to offer, but it's still all about finding the right person.”

    Once an employee is on board, Morris-Jenkins' managers are dedicated to helping the individual build upon their strengths. “I don't want our managers to focus on weaknesses. In my opinion, weaknesses can seldom be improved; but the strengths can be improved tremendously,” Jenkins says. “I ask our managers to hold employees accountable. It's easy to get into a mode of, “we want you do to well.” which is nebulous. True growth is seen when people are held accountable.”

  • Yelena Shishkova, director of operational analysis, helps ensure various projects are seen through to completion, and manages insurance plans and budget reports. n Support Services Manager, Alli Todd, ensures that all employees have the tools and other supplies they need to do their jobs, and helps deal with any impediments to effective performance. She manages dispatch, purchasing, warehousing, customer service representatives, and the company's Priority Advantage service agreement program.

  • Kent Buckalew, training director, moved his wife and family to Charlotte from West Virginia in 2005 to take a service technician job at Morris-Jenkins.

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“My wife wanted me to get out of the industry because of all the hours I was working. After I started here, she never said it again, because they don't overwork us. They take good care of us.” After about nine months, Buckalew became a field supervisor, and last November, he assumed the mantle of training director.

Buckalew is a technician's technician. He's the guy the other technicians try to stump with questions at Monday morning service meetings. He rarely fails, and is happy to get an answer wrong, because a prize goes to anyone who can trip him up. He manages the in-house Morris-Jenkins University, but is always ready to help out with some troubleshooting in the field.

“I'm a motivator by nature,” Buckalew says. “I love to see people do well, so it's a perfect fit for me. Many will say the training element helps us keep people, and I think that's true. How can you do something for a living and not want to be the best?”

In recognition of its training efforts, Morris-Jenkins received the ACCA Excellence in Training Award in 2007.

Advice from the Coach

“When I see how our market has grown, I believe we can continue growing into the future,” Jenkins says, as his infectious smile beams brightly “This has been the most enjoyable thing I've ever done. I found good people who wanted to do good work, and who responded to recognition.”

Dewey Jenkins' advice to other business owners who want to reach new heights: “Focus on your employees, and treat them well. Give them everything they need to do their jobs. Then, focus on your customers' needs and wants.”

In spite of the national economic downturns expected in 2009, Morris-Jenkins is poised for a great year. Not surprisingly, Dewey Jenkins is very optimistic about the future.

“I think it will be a challenging time that can become positive and important for good companies. These downturns force you to look at your procedures and ways of doing things. That's when you can get much better. When the good times come back, you'll be that much stronger,” he says.

Unlike the NFL, the HVAC season is a year-long test of endurance, in which every day is like a big game.

Morris-Jenkins came to play.

Congratulations to Morris-Jenkins, the 2009 ContractingBusiness.com Residential Contractor of the Year.

Ed. note: Dewey Jenkins will be a featured speaker during HVAC Comfortech 2009, Sept. 23-26, Nashville, TN.

Morris-Jenkins, Charlotte, NC

Owner/Founder: Dewey Jenkins.

Years in business: 18 as Morris-Jenkins.

Services: Residential HVAC replacement and service.

2008 revenue: $23.5 million.

Total employees: 140, with 53 service technicians and 22 installation technicians.

Management team: Anne Gannon, general manager; David Smith sales manager; Dave Hearne, installation manager; Tim O'Brien, service manager; Kent Buckalew, training director; Kent Weaver, finance manager; Kelly Jenkins, director of marketing; Tookie Harto, human resources manager; Alli Todd, support services manager; Yelena Shishkova, director of operational analysis.

Core Values: “To abide by an absolute commitment to honesty, integrity, fairness, and respect for each individual. To help employees by encouraging their personal growth and helping them realize their full potential through opportunities for achievement.”

Core Purpose: “Helping Ordinary People Achieve Extraordinary Things.”

Core Philosophy: “Turning Talent Into Performance.”

Community Service: The Warm Heat Fund, a voluntary contribution by employees to help needy citizens pay their heating bills. The company has also participated in builds for Habitat for Humanity. In June 2008, Morris-Jenkins agreed to donate $50,000 per year for 10 years to underwrite the Levine Children's Hospital's Special Recognition Program.

What Makes a Contractor of the Year?

The Residential Contractor of the Year represents an elite group: a forward thinking class of residential HVAC contractors who are dynamic and professional in every aspect of their business. The high-quality management of their companies parallels that of many top corporations in the U.S. today. These contractors follow strategic plans and maximize their returns on investment, and are always exploring new ways to improve their operations. They maintain high levels of communication within their organizations, are aware of changing market conditions, and respond quickly to opportunities. They're the leaders of our industry. To nominate a company for the 2010 Residential Contractor of the Year Award, contact Terry McIver, at [email protected].

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