The Hope in HVAC

March 24, 2010
It was difficult to understand the voice on the other end of the phone. “I haven’t been able to work for six months,” he said. “My jaw’s wired shut.”

It was difficult to understand the voice on the other end of the phone. “I haven’t been able to work for six months,” he said. “My jaw’s wired shut.”

The contractor called me out of the blue after my phone number was listed in a magazine article. I think he called me because he was lonely. He relayed his story. The contractor was involved in a serious automobile accident. His truck was totaled and he wound up in intensive care. After he was released from the hospital he still couldn’t work.

As a single truck operator, he owned a job, not a company. When he couldn’t work, neither could his company. His wife was forced to refer his customers to a competitor. Goodbye customers. Goodbye business. In an instant, this contractor lost his business, much of his wealth, and most of his hope.

The phone call haunted me. Twenty years later I still think about it. At the risk of going “Bill Clinton,” I can still “feel his pain.”

I wondered how other contractors could avoid his fate. The answer to me seemed obvious. Grow! Build a business, not a job. Create a company that can exist without you. Anything else is not really a business.

Who wouldn’t want to build a business? Who wants to work in 130 degree attics or crawl under pier and beam houses at age 60? At some point, working in air conditioning is better than working on air conditioning.

Of course, some contractors have no option. The guy who operates a company in rural New Mexico may provide a much needed service, but the sparsely populated community can barely support one technician.

Most contractors, however, operate in communities where they can grow, where it is possible to build a business. So why don’t they?

Some probably work for themselves because they are unemployable by anyone else. Just as they find it difficult to work for another, others find it impossible to work for them. These are single truck operators by temperament, if not desire. They don’t grow because they won’t grow up.

Others are selfish. They don’t consider the needs of their dependents or the continuity of service for their customers. They only consider their personal freedom. They love the freedom of no boss and no employees too much to hire others and deal with the burden of management. Yet their freedom comes at a price. They can take off for a day or two, but not for a week or two. Single truck operators are the company and the company doesn’t work without the owner. Instead of empowering, their self-employment ultimately enslaves. Like a dog tethered to a stake in the back yard, they have complete freedom but only within the length of the leash. They don’t grow because they set self-limitations.

Still others want to grow, but don’t know how. These are the contractors with big dreams and big ambitions who have yet to develop big ability. The potential’s there, but it’s raw. If they keep at it, they will become the future leaders of their communities and the industry. These are the contractors who read Contracting Business cover to cover, attend HVAC Comfortech, and join the Service Roundtable. Because they are constantly reaching and stretching, they are continually extending their reach and growing. They grow to match their visions.

One of the great things about the industry is the promise is always present. The contractor who limits his own potential can change in an instant, with a little shift in attitude. It’s never too late. Some of my biggest industry inspirations are the contractors who have created successful companies by anyone’s measure, but who continue to learn and grow.

Even bad economic conditions are only so much friction. It can slow you down, but need not stop you if you’re determined and persistent.

All contractors share the good fortune of providing a service that most people cannot or will not live without and that cannot be outsourced to China or India. The promise of the industry is ever present for those who seek it. The greatest limitation for most contractors will always lie between the ears. Even the contractor with the jaw wired shut was fortunate. One day his injuries would heal and he could take up his tools again. His road would be difficult, at first. But if his injuries led him to see beyond himself and his need for self-gratification so that he emerged from bedridden status determined to build a business, and not merely a job, the road would eventually smooth.

There would still be bumps and potholes. There always are. There would still be times when the road would go uphill, but not always. Sometimes the road would be level and smooth. Sometimes it would slope in the right direction and gravity would yield added momentum. The nice thing about building a business is that even when the road is bumpy and uphill, others on your team will help you pedal, push, and progress.

As long as you can heal, you can hope. And in our industry, even when you cannot heal there’s hope.

A year ago, I wrote a column in Contracting Business about Joe Groh. Joe, I noted, is the son of a contractor who was the son of a contractor. He is a child of the industry who grew and matured in the industry. Then, Joe had an accident, from which he can’t heal. Joe is a quadriplegic. He won’t get up. He also won’t give up.

Joe has created the Joe Groh Foundation, a 501(c) 3 public charity. Joe wants to accomplish three goals:

• Serve as an information clearinghouse through the website, for those dealing with life altering injury or illness, particularly those with spinal cord injury.

• Financially assist members of the HVAC/construction industry and their families, who have suffered life altering injury or illness.

• Encourage contractors to hire the handicapped.

As Joe puts it, “This charitable organization is staffed by members in the industry, who are working for the industry.”

Now, his foundation needs support from the industry. Check out their charity golf tournament and see if you can assemble a team to play in the tournament. Send Joe an email if you are aware of anyone associated with the industry who has been permanently affected by an injury or illness. Finally, if you or your local trade association is able, contact the foundation and make a financial contribution. It doesn’t have to be much.

The letter, H, in HVAC may not stand for “hope,” but given the nature of the opportunities and support within the industry, it very well could.

Matt Michelis the CEO of the Service Roundtable, HVAC’s largest business alliance. The Service Roundtable helps give contractors faith in a positive future with highly effective business, sales, and marketing tools, peer-to-peer contractor support, and special discounts and rebates. For more of Matt’s writing, visit his blog at Comanche Marketing. To contact Matt about speaking for your organization, call toll free 877.262.3341, call him direct on his mobile at 214.995.8889, or email him at [email protected]. Connect with Matt on Facebook, Linked In, and Plaxo, become a Facebook Fan of the Service Roundtable and follow Matt’s Tweets on Twitter.
About the Author

Matt Michel | Chief Executive Officer

Matt Michel was a co-founder and CEO of the Service Roundtable ( The Service Roundtable is an organization founded to help contractors improve their sales, marketing, operations, and profitability. The Service Nation Alliance is a part of this overall organization. Matt was inducted into the Contracting Business HVAC Hall of Fame in 2015. He is now an author and rancher.