From The Ground Up, Part 1: I'm Fired?

HVAC business owner, Gene Slade Jr. shares his challenges, successes, failures, and fears that he encounters while starting his own HVAC service company in a down economy.

I'm fired. I have $100 spread across four bank accounts. I'm a first-time father of a 10-week old baby boy. I'm the sole breadwinner of my family. My wife works at keeping our beautiful home and caring for our newborn son.

What in the world am I going to do?

That was me, Gene Slade Jr., the first week of January, 2008.

In the fourth quarter of 2007 I was riding high. I was the sales manager/general manager/sales trainer for the largest residential service and replacement HVAC contractor in Tampa, Florida.

I'd just accomplished one of my greatest achievements: with the help of eight new recruits (maintenance technicians), I was able to transform the maintenance department at the company into a profit monster.

In the fourth quarter 2007, the vice-president and I grew the maintenance department 286%, from $43,000 in revenue to $123,000. You can imagine my surprise when the proverbial rug was yanked from beneath my feet.

What was I going to do now? I'd wanted to start my own company, even after seeing my father's HVAC company fail. There was a time in my life when I'd promised myself that I'd never own my own company and go through what he'd gone through. But that was a different time and a different place.

I had marketing training. I'd studied salesmanship and become good enough at it to have had some major successes. I'd had minor financial training, accounting classes; I knew what a profit-and-loss statement and an income statement were. I had great mentors.

The reason I didn't have any money was that I was paying down my debt. The one thing I had going for me was an excellent credit rating.

But could I even start a company on credit cards? Could I afford to pay 20% interest? Could I ever dig myself out of that kind of hole?

Given my situation, however, I figured what the heck. Just do it.

Gearing Up for a Tough Conversation

What would my wife say? The 12-mile ride home from my former job seemed to take forever, but not long enough. How would I present this? Would I be met with resistance? You know that feeling you get when you push all your chips to the center? It almost takes your breath away. It's all or bust.

"What are you doing home?" she asked.

"Honey, we're moving to Fort Myers."

"When?"

"Right now. I was fired. We're all in."

"You were fired? How could they do that? They know you've got a 10-week old baby!"

"They found out that I'd passed my contractor's exam and formed a corporation."

"But you don't even have a license."

"That'll work itself out."

I couldn't even believe I was getting ready to ask her to do this.

"Honey, you've got a 700 credit score. I need you to go online and apply for as many credit cards as you can get approved for. I'm going to do the same, but first I've got to go out and buy two trucks before the banks realize I haven't got a job. I won't need anything larger than a big pickup, because I don't think I'm going to sell air conditioners. I know where I can get a couple of caps with tool bins on the side for our parts and tools.”
Now the assumptive close, "You're in, right?"

"Wow! Okay, let's do it!"

That went a lot easier than I thought it would.

Wait a minute, I need a computer. "Honey, would you call Dell and see if you can get us a computer on credit?"

My plans:I'd planned to live on the credit cards until I got my license. I had about $5,000 in fixed bills and needed money for food. It would be about 30 days before I needed to make a truck payment.

I knew how to generate leads. I'd been doing a radio show for the company I worked for that, pound-for-pound, was better and more profitable than any other marketing I'd used. It was better than any direct mail, space ads, or Yellow Pages.

I started shopping for a radio station to launch my show. It turned out that Renda Broadcasting had a conservative, talk-radio station in Naples, Florida (150 miles south of Tampa) that offered block programming on Sundays, from 11:00 am - 1:00 pm. The cost was $400 per hour for two hours. That's $800 per show. At 10% marketing cost, I needed to generate $8,000 in revenue per show.

My good friend Charlie Greer, who lives in Fort Myers, Florida, and I had already done a cash-flow projection about two months prior, so all I had to do was work the numbers.

I got a call from my accountant four days after I was fired, who informed me that I had a $15,000 tax return coming to me, and a friend loaned me $5,000.

I could start my radio show right away, now that I had some money coming to me.

I signed a three-month $10,000 commitment for my radio show in the parking lot of City Mattress. I'm on the hook now.

The Gypsies Hit the Road

Now comes the part I was dreading. We'd moved five times in three-and-a-half years. We were gypsies. It took us a week to pack up the house. The truck was just big enough.

We headed south.

I would start my show on February 24, 2008.

I had decided to name my company "Air Genie." I went with that because:

• It's a play on my name, "Gene."

• I'm in the "air business."

• The domain name, www.theairgenie.com, was available

• I thought it would make an interesting, eye-catching, and funny logo

• I’ll make customers’ air conditioning wishes come true

• I'd be on the airwaves, via radio.

At this point, I’m fired up. I'm fired up about the HVAC business, indoor air quality, maintenance, profits, helping people lead better lives, improving the industry to the best of my ability, my wife, my son, and life in general. I’m ready to see where this new adventure takes me.


Gene Slade Jr. is the president of Air Genie, Inc. an HVAC residential maintenance company, and the host of the radio show "Air Genie." He can be reached by calling 239/390-0069 or by e-mailing [email protected] Visit him on the web at www.theairgenie.com.

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