Setting Standards for Maintenance

Setting Standards for Maintenance

Husband-and-wife team meets a need for commercial refrigeration equipment service and sales.

Eric Smith entered the commercial refrigeration industry with a clear goal in mind: to improve the state of preventive maintenance in and around Greenwood, SC. He found it to be a goal that would only be achieved one customer at a time. It would require patience, persistence, and dependable, trustworthy employees.

Since its beginnings, JES has made steady progress in reaching that goal. It’s also kept in step with the times, by taking advantage of the benefits of social media and Internet commerce. Smith started in restaurant equipment service in 1998, as a part-time service mechanic. Two years later, he founded JES Equipment Sales & Service, with $8,000 and one service vehicle. It was a Ford 350, painted metallic orange. He wanted a vehicle that would get noticed.

“I looked like I knew what I was doing, even if I didn’t always know what I was doing,” he recalls. “But, I presented a very good image. And with my personality and the image I was presenting, people were more than happy to give me a try,” Smith says.

Change in Plans
Smith, 49, had been working for 21 years as a superintendent of a textile plant. But when new management came on board, he could sense that a change was coming. The new owners had a less than ideal approach to employee relations.

“The management philosophy changed with the new ownership,” he recalls. “They treated people like a number. I put up with that till I couldn’t put up with it any longer.”

It was a two-year wait. During that unsettling time, a restaurateur friend had asked Smith if he would help her maintain the equipment in her four restaurants. It was a challenging offer, but Smith was ready for a chance at a new beginning. For two years, he serviced the restaurant equipment part-time, during his off hours from the textile plant.

Filling a Maintenance Vacuum
Smith noticed early on that the local restaurant community knew little about the value of preventive maintenance. “In the industrial world, if you spend $100,000 for a piece of machinery, you’re going to maintain it. Restaurant people had never fathomed that. They would spend $3,000 for a reach-in refrigerator, turn it on, and just let it run,” he says.

Seeing a greater opportunity, Smith established the business on selling restaurant equipment preventive maintenance contracts, which would of course generate repeat business. He obtained a degree in HVAC from Piedmont Technical College, and nurtured the business, from two, to five, to 20 customers and more. Two years later, confident that he could succeed, Smith quit the job at the textile plant. He hired his first technician in 2001, and JES (Smith’s initials) was off and running.

Service kept them hopping, but as the business developed, they encountered more and more rundown equipment that wasn’t worth repairing. It motivated the Smiths to form JES Restaurant Equipment. That global business sells everything from ice machines and coolers, to fryers and slicers.

“The business evolved on its own. We saw a need, met that need, and tried to make a dollar on it,” he says. And, they had dependability and integrity on their side. Today, JES is a $1.5 million service company, with six trucks and six well-trained technicians.

JES services commercial refrigeration and light commercial HVAC systems, with restaurants as its bread-and-butter niche. JES technicians serve upstate South Carolina. When it’s the middle of July and 95F, the service phone rings off the hook with calls from restaurants and other commercial facilities with refrigeration problems — many of which Smith says could have been prevented, he asserts. That’s when the message of preventive maintenance is best communicated.

“The key to helping customer profits go further is to limit repairs, not just ignore the cause of damage, which is neglect,” he says. Smith manages service and installation projects, while his wife, Vivian, has taken charge of the company’s online equipment sales. She’s built it up to be a valuable destination for JES restaurant customers.

“Eric and I wanted to have a quality website from the very beginning of the business,” she says. “We realized times are changing, and more social networking will help you pick up more customers in the future.”

Visit jesrestaurantequipment.com, and you’ll find a site that’s jam-packed with restaurant equipment of every kind, with links to replacement parts and blogs. A restaurant equipment blog contains information for customers on the importance of preventive maintenance, and articles on various featured products. The “Now Ya’ Cookin’” blog is a social media site with company news, customer feedback about products and services, and tasty recipes from a company employee, “Chef” Phil Clark.

Solving The Employee Puzzle
As perceptive as he was in noticing the need for equipment PMs in the region, Smith was also aware that the biggest challenge to running a business would be in finding and retaining a solid base of quality employees.

“The biggest problem in this or any other business is not that you don’t have the tools or knowledge to do the job, but it’s in finding the people that you need to do the job,” he says. “If anybody can ever solve that problem, then we’ve got it made as contractors and businessmen. “Each person is different, and you’ve got to be smart enough to get the most that you can out of people on a case-by-case basis.”

Hard Work, Plain and Simple
Smith credits his success to bare-knuckled hard work, and honesty. He works 12 hours a day minimum, and strives to provide the ultimate in customer care. “They know we look at their equipment as if it’s our own,” he says. “We make follow up calls after a repair, and if there’s a problem, we respond to it as fast as we can to make sure they’re okay.”

What’s missing today, he says, is the personal touch. “Everyone’s gotten away from personal contact. People are in too much of a hurry to send emails. I never want to have a big company. I can’t see myself doing that. The personal touch has made me successful.”

Eric Smith is confident that there will always be work for quality technicians who want to learn and grow in a career filled with opportunity. The trick will be in finding them.

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