From left Lee Caulder operations manager PresidentCEO Richard Luhm and Shane Steed director of sales and construction lead the team at Memphis Mechanical Services Photos Terry McIver

From left: Lee Caulder, operations manager; President/CEO Richard Luhm; and Shane Steed, director of sales and construction, lead the team at Memphis Mechanical Services. Photos Terry McIver

'Bluff City' Superstars of Refrigeration

Richard Luhm is a career refrigeration man, with more than 40 years in the trade. Over the past 15 years, Luhm and his team of service specialists have applied their diverse skills to meet a wide range of needs in the Memphis region's commercial refrigeration industry.

Successful business owners help to make cities great. These are the individuals who took some of the biggest risks, and are now contributing to the growth and development of a region, through employment, career development, and by providing essential goods and services.

Richard Luhm is one of those people, and Memphis Mechanical Services, Inc. is the full-service commercial refrigeration service firm he started in 2001, to provide refrigeration service to outlets of all sizes — from the largest national chains, to the smallest locally-owned firms.

Richard Luhm: Total knowledge of the technical side is paramount.

Richard Luhm is a career refrigeration man, with more than 40 years in the trade. A lifelong “Memphian,” Luhm has been in the refrigeration business since the age of five, when he would tag along with his father in his residential air conditioning business. After graduation from high school, and while attending The University of Memphis in the early 1970s, Luhm became intrigued with the “low temp” side of the business. As a result, he ultimately joined the staff of Memphis-based Maynard Food Store Equipment.

Over the past 15 years, Luhm and his team of service specialists have applied their diverse skills to meet a wide range of needs in the Memphis region’s commercial refrigeration industry.

In 1984 Luhm was part of a group that purchased the Memphis branch of Maynard Food Store Equipment. The company was rebranded and the name was changed to Systems-Plus Refrigeration, Inc. and Luhm was named president and general manager. In 1990 the company focus was pared down to service only, and was ultimately acquired by Sibley Services, a local mechanical contractor, becoming its low-temp division. During this time, Luhm improved his business skills and continued to develop relationships with customers while managing this division of the national company.

Ready to serve: the Memphis Mechanical Team believes store customers are also their customers.

A decade later, in 2001, Luhm struck out on his own to form Memphis Mechanical Services. It was so successful so fast that it was incorporated three months after its founding, and had to move to a larger, 15,000 sq.ft. location in 2011.

Since 2012, MMS has also been doing business in Little Rock, Ark., as Two Rivers Mechanical.

Customer-Focused Team
Over the past 15 years, Luhm and his team of service specialists have applied their diverse skills to meet a wide range of needs in the Memphis region’s commercial refrigeration industry. Its skilled management team has an average of 15 years experience in commercial refrigeration, and is fully customer-focused.

Of its 35 employees, 27 technicians are dedicated to service, and, since 2014, to the installation of many types of commercial refrigeration systems, including supermarkets, convenience stores, cold storage facilities, blood plasma storage, and food and drug distribution centers. Their average length of service at MMS is eight years, and there’s nothing they can’t handle.
J.T. Barnett, project manager. Memphis Mechanical Services.

“The people at Memphis Mechanical are like family. We truly care about each other and we all share a common belief that the customer is why we are here,” Luhm says. “Everything we do is so that in the end, the customer realizes the value in having professionals that care, to service their equipment. That’s what makes it so great — we all believe it,” he says.

Of the firm's 35 employees, 27 field technicians are dedicated to service, and, since 2014, to the installation of many types of commercial refrigeration systems, including supermarkets, convenience stores, cold storage facilities, blood plasma storage, and food and drug distribution centers. Their average length of service at MMS is eight years, and there’s nothing they can’t handle.

Memphis Mechanical Services’ list of customers is a testament to its capabilities: Whole Foods, Sprouts, Kroger, SuperValu, The Fresh Market, Costco, Target, and Walmart, are just some of the leading entities whose refrigeration systems are maintained or installed by the MMS team.

Dawn Brown, lead dispatcher. Memphis Mechanical Services.

That Word: QUALITY
One of the determining factors we use when selecting the ContractingBusiness.com Contractors of the Year, is one that might seem to be overused, but it remains the cornerstone of excellence: Quality. What is the quality of service, installation, and follow-up a company provides each day that means so much to so many?

MMS ranks high in the quality department, and each day the team finds a balance between its varied projects as it strives to meet a host of quality requirements imposed by customers.

Perfection is a high mountain to climb, but MMS does all it can to reach the summit of perfection, despite increasingly more complicated technology, and reduced availability of the best qualified technicians, which has grown to become a national challenge. To its credit, MMS has the best refrigeration talent in the mid-south.
Sweating cases require a look at the Emerson Einstein E2.

“We have our idea about quality, and our customers have theirs, so you have to meld them together,” Luhm says.  “Quality to us is not a thing, it’s a process. In thinking about how it relates to the technician side: customers want everything running in ideal conditions. They want all the valves and pressures set exactly the way they’re supposed to. They want the floor swept, the dust off of it, so their extreme has gone from, ‘let’s get it working good enough’ to, ‘let’s get it working perfectly.’”

Perfection is a high mountain to climb, but MMS does all it can to reach the summit of perfection, despite increasingly more complicated technology, and reduced availability of the best qualified technicians, which has grown to become a national challenge. To its credit, MMS has the best refrigeration talent in the mid-south.

Ann Caulder, administrative operations manager. Memphis Mechanical Services.

Memphis Mechanical Services’ mission of quality has required it to change and improve some processes, such as billing and dispatching. Then, an added challenge popped up when some key accounts also changed their own billing and dispatching methods, resulting in a duplication of effort, which MMS is working through. And they’re always on the go and ready for anything.
“Our work is physically demanding. It’s hot sometimes, cold sometimes, and the hours are long,” Luhm says. “Unlike HVAC, if I have a service call that gets on the books at 8am, and there are 10 emergencies in front of it, and this is a produce case, we have to prioritize our calls. But it ‘s still an emergency to our customer.

MMS field employees average a mere six hours per week in overtime, because an always-important preventive maintenance schedule helps the team avoid great peaks and valleys of field time.

“We start at 8am and work till the last emergency is off the books.  Some can be rolled over to the next day. But in the heat of battle, it doesn’t do you any good to roll something over to the next day, because 20 new emergencies might come in.”

MMS field employees average a mere six hours per week in overtime, because an always-important preventive maintenance schedule helps the team avoid great peaks and valleys of field time.

Bill Tilson, human resources and accounting. Memphis Mechanical Services.

Reputation is a Great Billboard
This company has never advertised, due to its stellar reputation. As many will agree, a great refrigeration company is hard to find.

“Most of our business is acquired through our reputation, starting with me — this is my 42nd year in refrigeration,” Luhm says. “As large as the refrigeration and supermarket industry is, it’s a pretty small market compared to many others. It’s a tight knit group.”

“We hold the lion’s share of the service work in the area. The only way for growth in our company is to expand our territory, so we expanded our service radius, to what we felt we could do competently and efficiently to about 150 miles of Memphis,” adds Luhm’s trusted vice president of operation, Lee Caulder, himself with almost 20 years of experience in the refrigeration trade.

Once MMS got fully up to speed on its installation division, the work poured in. They’ve done two new Whole Foods stores in Memphis, with two more on the starting block. They are now in the beginning stages of a 10,000 sq.ft. cooler/freezer distribution warehouse project for Douglas Companies of Conway, Ark. They completed a new Sprouts store from the ground up, and perhaps another will be starting soon.

Unlike the very diverse Memphis client list, the firm’s Little Rock customers consist predominantly of large, national accounts.

“We decided to set up in Little Rock for variety of reasons” Caulder says. “First, we were doing some installation work over there. Then, I know the main players in the refrigeration contractor side. One had totally decided to get out of service altogether, which left us with one real competitor. And third, I had serviced about 50% of the accounts they had been doing. So we had something of an ‘in’. It was a stepping stone to see how putting ourselves in a different market would go over.”

Luhm wants to grow the Little Rock division strategically, in a way that makes good business sense. But even in the Memphis region, they can only move so fast due to the shortage of the best talent across the region.

“We would love to have a growth plan, but we’re limited by personnel. I have a banker who wants to know when we want to expand, but we’re so limited in finding people who know what they’re doing,” Luhm says.

“This year, we have about $4 million in projects signed off as of November 2015, which we were hoping to start in January. The first one didn’t get started until end of March due to weather and construction delays. So we had a dry period the first three months trying to find stuff for folks to do. Now, we could use 18 more technicians. We have projects signed and ready to start in Arkansas and Tennessee and Alabama.”

'Do it All' Means High Demand
Demand for Memphis Mechanical Services’ expertise could be described as a “sky’s the limit” scenario, as it can now be labeled as a true ‘do it all’ provider.

“We’re the only company within a several hundred-mile radius that is an equipment distributor, service agency, and installation specialist. On the service side, there are many Memphis companies that do service work, however the biggest of those has three or four technicians. There’s really not much competition from companies of our size,” Luhm explains.

Problem Solvers, Decision Makers
Operations Manager Lee Caulder is one of Memphis Mechanical’s best talents. He was born near Greenwood, Miss., but grew up in New Orleans. After high school he moved back to Mississippi. After a stint in a Heatcraft assembly factory, he decided he wanted to learn how to service equipment rather than build it.

The many supermarkets, restaurants and other facilities serviced by Memphis Mechanical Services, Inc. can rest assured that they’ve got it covered. Regardless of what the future may bring, this team will be there to answer the call.

Caulder earned a degree at Mississippi Delta Community College, then then worked for  the McCarty/Holman organization, famous for the South’s “Jitney Jungle” store chain. Later, a job with Broach Refrigeration in Little Rock was his first introduction to low temperature systems. He was then an engineer for Reddy-Ice in Arkansas, where he gained much experience with ammonia refrigeration. He joined MMS in 2003.

“Lee is absolutely my go-to guy,” exclaims Luhm. “If I got run over by a bus tomorrow, I would not be the least bit concerned that Memphis Mechanical Services would continue. He will do whatever is needed whenever it’s needed. He is Mr. Reliable, and a Pro’s Pro. He has a very high bar for quality and customer service.”

Caulder describes himself as a “problem solver,” for both customers and technicians.

“The refrigeration side of the business is for the guy who is more emergency driven, unlike in comfort cooling, where they can sweat a bit until the next day,” Caulder adds. “But if I have $50,000 in fresh meat that’s fixing to spoil, that’s an emergency that has to be addressed. It’s always a challenge. Your diagnostic ability has to be sharp. You can’t be a ‘parts changer’. You must be able to diagnose problems quickly, and be a decision maker. You call the shot on what has to be done, and stick with it.”

“I told Lee that we’re both service guys at heart,” Luhm says. “We like to take something that’s not working, and make it work. We both value our industry because we serve a greater purpose in life, that of providing good quality food to people. Without that, people would have sickness and poor health.”

Ask for the Order
In prospecting situations, the approach is simple: “We ask for a meeting, tell them what we do and how we feel about doing it, and that we can do the best job for them, based on our knowledge and experience,” Luhm says.

Helping to procure those orders is Shane Steed, director of sales and construction. He has more than 20 years in construction material sales, and is leveraging that vast experience to win more installation projects.

“Shane is the kind of guy, who if you don’t have it nailed down, he’ll sell it,” says Luhm with a laugh. “He’s developed a knack for talking to store personnel, letting them know that this is our field of excellence, and they’ll never be left out in the cold; we’ll take care of them. In a short period of time, he’s learned so much about refrigeration merchandizing equipment, so he’s good at finding something to meet the customer’s equipment needs.”

“I think I’m pretty persistent, able to dig into areas we might not have worked in before,” Steed says. “I believe my background in sales and management will be a key to building a better sales department and program. I bring some years of good experience to the table. This is a different scope of work, but it involves dealing with largely the same type of people, with the same deadlines and expectations.”

Once MMS got fully up to speed on its installation division, the work poured in. They’ve done two new Whole Foods stores in Memphis, with two more on the starting block. They are now in the beginning stages of a 10,000 sq.ft. cooler/freezer distribution warehouse project for Douglas Companies of Conway, Ark. They completed a new Sprouts store from the ground up, and perhaps another will be starting soon. They recently finished a Restaurant Depot build, four rack conversions for two Costco stores (R-22 to R-407F), and remodels for Kroger.

“If we can meet with someone in the financial or technical division, we usually come out of there with the business,” he continues. “We talk the language on the technical side, and we can talk to the financial guy about the great energy savings, such as a store we recently saved 82% in energy costs. Forty-two percent of that figure is projected just for the medium-temp cases converting from open, multi-deck to frameless glass door style cases.

That store was an Arkansas Food Giant, operating on 70,000 sq.ft. of equipment in a  42,000 sq. ft. store.

“We wound up changing every case and the mechanical systems (from Hussmann) in the store, and converted the air conditioning to a super high efficiency dehumidification unit designed for supermarkets (from CES). We cut the horsepower in half, and the store now averages about 35% humidity at 72F.  That’s good for the integrity of product packaging, and the cooling load is reduced,” Luhm explains.

In another success story, they were faced with the challenge of remodeling a a Safeway store that had been built in the mid-1970s. It had two 25 hp compressors on each of its four Hussmann twin racks, for a total of 200 hp. The customer was having problems with leaks, oil failure issues, and problems caused by old cases.

“We did a complete remodel. We rebuilt the current racks, and changed every valve and control,” Luhm recounts. “We went with all Bitzer compressors, CPC Einstein E2 controls, and reengineered the systems in the store when they changed to new Hussmann cases. We had more energy efficient cases with frameless glass doors. The store had added seven conventional units on the roof, totaling 82.5 hp., We were able to turn those seven units off. It’s currently showing an $8,000/month utility savings.”

Caulder says Memphis Mechanical always thinks about the shoppers —the true end-users —in search of a pleasant shopping experience.

“If you go into a store and a woman is freezing to death and every door is fogged up and they can’t see in the case, that affects the shopping experience,” he explains.

Providing Training
Five years ago, with an eye to its own future, and the future of the refrigeration service industry, Luhm began a technician apprentice program.

“We decided there weren’t going to be any mechanics coming out of a technical school anytime soon that we could put into a truck right away, so the best thing we did was start an apprentice program. We take a guy out of a trade school or one who has not been through a trade school, who has some mechanical ability, and put them into our apprentice program.

We tell them if they have some mechanical ability, and if they go through the program, within five years they can be playing with the top dogs.”

Key to Success
What does Richard Luhm say it takes to be successful in commercial refrigeration?

“Like any other customer-centric business, it takes service, customer care and all that other ‘stuff.’ But you’ve absolutely got to know what you’re doing. It’s too technical and too widespread in the different types of systems we deal with. Having total knowledge of the technical side is just paramount.

That’s where we’ve talked all morning: about the industry getting away from that, as far as the number of talented people. The requirements get stiffer, the equipment gets more complex, new rules continue to be added, but the knowledge of the guys in the field are getting smaller.”

Luhm sees commercial refrigeration developing into a market in which only existing contracting firms, with sufficient resources, can survive.

“From the technical side of the business, the technicians’ required knowledge base, to the financial and insurance-related requirements, it is very hard for someone to accomplish that as a start-up today.”

The many supermarkets, restaurants and other facilities serviced by Memphis Mechanical Services, Inc. can rest assured that they’ve got it covered. Regardless of what the future may bring, this team will be there to answer the call.

CONGRATULATIONS TO MEMPHIS MECHANICAL SERVICES, INC., THE 2016 CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM COMMERCIAL REFRIGERATION CONTRACTOR OF THE YEAR!


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