Jerry Hurwitz is not Superman.
The president of J&J Air Conditioning, San Jose, CA, is proud of his company, and is excited to have it named the 2013 Contracting Business.com Commercial Contractor of the Year. But he wants the industry to see his company as an inspiration rather than a paragon: if J&J can achieve this honor after weathering all the ups and downs, ins and outs, and battles won and lost of 35 years in the commercial HVAC marketplace, then any company can.
“Sometimes you can read a Contractor of the Year article and it makes you feel inadequate,” Hurwitz says. “It’s like, ‘Whatever these guys do is successful, and they never have any struggles.’ Meanwhile, you’re very aware of all the struggles your own company is going through.
“I can tell you that we’ve had some hard times over the years, and that’s part of our story, too,” Hurwitz adds. “It’s not as if we never make any mistakes, and never go through difficulties. We’re humans — for better or worse.”
It is that very humanity that permeates the atmosphere at J&J and makes it what it is: a small company that thrives in a big market by taking great care of its (also-human) customers. And Hurwitz will be the first to tell you that he could not have achieved the success his company enjoys today without the help of many people along the way.
A Company is Born
J&J was born in 1978 when Hurwitz and his partner, John Jones, decided to leave their "real jobs” and buy a small contracting firm in a slowly growing area that was about to undergo tremendous changes, having just recently been dubbed “Silicon Valley.”
Jones was working as a mechanic at General Electric, and Hurwitz was teaching at San Jose City College. Another teacher at the college was moonlighting as a consultant to a general maintenance company. Part of this company’s concept was to do everything, including residential and commercial HVAC and refrigeration, along with janitorial and maintenance services. The owner wanted $10,000 for the HVAC part of his business, which was grossing about $40,000 per year — mainly thanks to a contract to take care of all the Bay-area branches of a regional bank.
Fortunately for Hurwitz and Jones, the fact that the bank had recently canceled its contract with the company came to light at the last minute, and with a re-negotiated price of $6,000 (which included a used Dodge van), the two men were in business and J&J was born.
“We were really novices,” Hurwitz says. “I remember thinking, ‘John’s really smart and good with his hands, so I’m sure we can get the job done.’ Meanwhile, John admitted later that he was thinking the same thing about me. In reality, we were both leaning on the other and scared to death.”
J&J went on doing all types of HVAC and refrigeration work for about two years before it became clear that the two men — who remain on friendly terms to this day — were ready to go in different directions. At that point, Jones took the residential side of the business and Hurwitz the commercial.
“I never felt good about the residential business,” Hurwitz says. “This was before the days of flat-rate pricing, and it seemed like there was a sense of distrust on every residential job we did. Either we or the customer ended up feeling as if we had somehow been taken advantage of.
“I didn’t like feeling that way. It’s really important for me to make people happy and leave everyone feeling good about their experience with J&J. I need that kind of appreciation from customers. So the commercial side of the business really fit my personality.”
Applying the Golden Rule
Today, Hurwitz has 55 employees to aid him in his quest to keep J&J’s customers happy. They have picked up on the tone Hurwitz has set, and take pride in themselves and in the company.
“Jerry has spoiled us,” says Richard York, director of business development. “We wouldn’t want to work anywhere else after working here.”
“The company’s culture starts at the top,” adds Roxanne Klein, who handles the service department’s billing and has been with the company for almost 16 years. “You expect high standards of behavior from yourself and your people. You conduct yourself ethically and treat your customers with respect.”
“Jerry not only enables us to practice the ‘Golden Rule’ of treating others the way you’d like to be treated yourself, he demonstrates it and insists upon it,” says James Sandoval, a 17-year employee who spent 15 years in the field and is entering his second year as the company’s service department manager.
“We also take pride in communicating effectively,” Sandoval adds. “I feel strongly that the technicians should be informed about the decisions we make, whether those decisions apply to a single customer or company-wide. It’s important not only to keep our people informed, but also to ask for their input and let them know we’re listening.”
Ken Kellman, the company’s construction manager and an employee of 15 years, displays some Star Trek roots when he says, “Our reputation is our prime directive.”
The directive is met by ensuring that the company’s face — its service and construction technicians — are personable, knowledgeable, and well-trained. “We don’t believe in throwing our technicians in over their heads,” Kellman says. “Providing great training and support is good for our customers, and it’s good for our technicians’ confidence.”
Sandoval admits that it gives him great personal and professional pleasure when customers compliment the company’s technicians. “It makes me feel good to know that our guys are making a great impression on our customers,” he says.
Technician Independence A Key To Success
It’s apparent on a visit to one of the company’s daily technician meetings that a large percentage of the company’s techs are Hispanic. That’s not exactly by design, but it’s not pure happenstance, either. Hurwitz merely sees it as an evolution of the labor market, one he’s proud to be a part of.
“Our diverse workforce is one of the stories here at J&J,” Hurwitz says. “Our workforce is largely Hispanic — some first-generation. We’ve found that our employees tend to see this country as a land of huge opportunity, and I can tell you that our technicians are hard-working, proud, and appreciate their jobs.”
When it comes to the technicians, J&J differs from many other contracting firms in that the company assigns the technicians accounts and lets them take ownership of those clients. As Hurwitz points out, both the customers and the technicians like this arrangement.
“I want the customer to feel cared-for. That’s what drives me in this business,” Hurwitz says. “That’s why we don’t have a salesman between our customers and our technicians. Our techs are responsible for maintaining their customer base and keeping their customers happy. Our men relate to their customers and develop relationships with them. Those kinds of relationships are what our company is all about.”
This arrangement might fly in the face of the traditional wisdom that warns against allowing technicians to build relationships with their customers because they’ll eventually go off on their own and steal them. Hurwitz dismisses that type of thinking as “paranoid.”
“You should be confident in your men and in your company as a great place to work,” he says. “Encouraging technicians to develop relationships with customers creates an emotional connection and an emotional accountability that really motivates the men because they don’t want to fail their customers.”
It would appear that Hurwitz’s strategy works: its clients verify that J&J really does pride itself on doing the right thing by its customers.
Scott Pritchett is executive vice president of Woodmont Real Estate Services, a real estate management company in San Mateo, CA. The firm manages 11,000 apartment units and more than 8 million square feet of commercial space.
Pritchett says Woodmont is very happy to have J&J as a member of its core vendor program; J&J services nearly 40% of the company’s entire portfolio.
Pritchett, who has known Hurwitz for 25 years through both men’s activities in the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), relates a story that illustrates J&J’s commitment to customer service.
“J&J installed three rooftop units for one of our clients, and they were going to come back on Monday to install coil protection guards,” Pritchett says. “Over the weekend, thieves got up on the facility’s roof and stripped the copper from all three units.
“I got a call from Jerry personally. He told me what had happened, and said, ‘I don’t feel right about this, we knew that facility was in a challenging area, and we should have had the coil guards installed at the factory in this case. So we’re only going to charge our wholesale price of the equipment — we’re comping the labor and the guards. And I’ve already put a rush on the equipment.’”
“Those are the kinds of relationships we try to build, and they don’t get built overnight,” Pritchett says. “It takes time, mutual trust, mutual respect, and loyalty on both sides. That’s the kind of service we hope to get from our core vendor partners, and it’s definitely the kind of service I know I’ll get from J&J.”
Helpful Friends and Dark Times
Hurwitz credits not only his employees and management team for J&J’s success, but also the assistance he has received over the years from his Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Management Information Exchange (MIX) group.
“My MIX group has always been very helpful to me even though I may be the only Democrat in the HVAC industry,” he says with a laugh.
The company’s membership in the Unified Group has also played a large role in its success and growth.
Taking advantage of the help that’s available to your business through organizations such as ACCA and The Unified Group is one of the secrets of success Hurwitz would like to share with other contractors. He also wants other contractors to remember that there is more to life than their companies — a lesson he learned through difficult experiences.
Several years ago, Hurwitz relates, his company was going through a tough time. Business had taken a downturn, his employees were involved in several accidents over a period of a few weeks while driving the company’s trucks, and the company dealt with a tragedy when an employee fell through a skylight on a jobsite. Hurwitz was deeply shaken by these events and became depressed.
“You try to find a way to manage when events like these happen, but the shock can be incredible,” Hurwitz says. “It makes you realize how fragile life — and your business — are.” Hurwitz ultimately reached depths where he considered selling the business, but at the urging of his wife, Susan Borkin, who is a psychotherapist, he sought help instead. The unlikely combination of a psychiatrist and an accountant helped him through the dark times.
“The psychiatrist prescribed some antidepressants, and my accountant talked me out of selling the business,” Hurwitz says. “They both advised me to step away from the business for a time and let it run itself, to regain my perspective. Ultimately, they helped me see a door to exit that room of anxiety and depression that I was in.”
The lesson of not trying to be a superhero is one that Hurwitz wants other contractors to take to heart. “Running a business is tough, and it can take a toll on you,” he says. “If you need to step back, step back. If you need help, get it.”
Ensuring an Excellent Future
Although he can’t imagine being away from the business entirely, Hurwitz is beginning to consider semi-retirement. However, thanks to a constant program of mentoring, he has no fears about the viability of the company and its ability to continue its tradition of excellence into the future.
“I have a young service manager in place, and my construction manager is going to be turning the management duties over to our lead estimator, who’s only in his 30s,” Hurwitz explains. “It’s something we discuss upfront with any new employee: we think mentoring and training our own replacements is crucial to our ongoing success.” He adds that this is done without “pushing out” the more experienced employees, who understand the process and typically stay with the company in new roles.
No matter at what point employees are on the J&J spectrum, they can always count on being given the tools and latitude to do their jobs.
“The best advice I can give any contractor is to hire intelligent people who are good human beings and who have initiative, and then let them do their jobs,” Hurwitz says. “My job as president is to keep the company on the road to success, and I’ve found that is easiest when the road is a wide one. Give your people the tools and support they need, and let them run with it.”
Jerry Hurwitz may not be Superman, but to his employees and customers he’s a superhero nonetheless. Congratulations to the team at
J&J Air Conditioning, the 2013 Contracting Business.com Commercial Contractor of the Year.
AIR TRAINING HELPS THE INDUSTRY FLY HIGH
An essential characteristic of every Contracting Business.com Contractor of the Year is a willingness to give back to the industry. J&J Air Conditioning has been doing this in a big way since 1983 when the company initiated its AIR (Air Conditioning Instruction and Research) training program.
Working in a highly competitive and largely union market, J&J President Jerry Hurwitz knew he would need the best-trained technicians in the area if his company was going to survive. He began an in-house training program, then decided to open it up to anyone and everyone in the industry, even his competitors. Since then, it has become J&J’s signature program, providing training to hundreds of technicians every year.
The instructors are J&J’s technicians and managers. They not only provide excellent technical information, but serving as instructors boosts their confidence and credibility in the marketplace. “The only way to find out your people’s full talents is to give them opportunities,” Hurwitz notes.
The 2013 AIR training schedule includes electrical troubleshooting, airflow and duct design, computers for the HVAC technician, and more. Visit www.jjair.com/schedule.php to view the full schedule.
It’s said that a rising tide raises all boats, and J&J Air Conditioning’s AIR training program is a great example of how one company can be that rising tide in a city or even an entire region.