Quality & Integrity.

March 1, 2006
It's how a company manages to hold onto and live by its principles, despite the challenges and pressures it faces, that makes it special. Seaman's is special.

Those two simple concepts, brought into razor-sharp focus on the customer, are the guiding principles of Seaman's Air Conditioning - Refrigeration, Inc., Grand Rapids, MI.

However, as any successful commercial contractor will tell you, there's rarely anything "simple" about the business. It's how a company manages to hold onto and live by its principles, despite the challenges and pressures it faces, that makes it special.

"You must always keep your honesty, integrity, and craftsmanship at the highest level," says Randy Seaman. "That means you can't compete on price alone. You can't afford to drop your prices so low that you're forced to compromise any of those elements."

This can be a difficult proposition to meet for a company that operates in Western Michigan, where the economy isn't exactly booming. However, it's vital to Seaman's to hold on to its principles when one considers that most of its business is either repeat customers, or comes through word-of-mouth networking. The company's reputation is on the line every day and nothing is taken for granted.

"Through high quality goods, service, and value — as determined by our customer — we must continually earn and re-earn the right to serve our customer," notes Assistant General Manager Patti VanKuiken. "We do it right or make it right."

Yesterday and Today
Seaman's was founded by Randy's father, Don Seaman, in 1961. Then, as now, the focus was on installing, servicing, and repairing heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems for commercial and industrial customers in and around Grand Rapids.

While growing up, Randy helped his father by carrying tools, sweeping floors and performing other duties around the shop. After graduating from Ferris State University in 1973, Randy spent five years acquiring journeyman status in service and installation. Shortly thereafter, he moved into design and sales, then, five years later with his father eyeing retirement, into management.

The company has grown steadily under Randy's guidance; he is not a fan of growth simply for growth's sake. "We believe in growing enough to stay progressive and to keep the work interesting for our people, but we don't want to 'outgrow ourselves,'" Randy explains. "Just having more trucks isn't important to me. Providing the best value for the customer is. We want to do what we do best, and be the best at what we do."

What the company does best can be found in the first line of Randy's vision statement: "Operate a company that others can see as being high quality, professional, honest, full of integrity, and always willing to do what is right for the customer. That means both outside customers and inside associates."

Welcome to the Family
To accomplish the lofty goals set forth in his vision statement, Randy relies on his talented management team, of Patti VanKuiken, assistant general manager; Patrick Murphy, vice president; Dean Anderson, sales/design engineer; Bob Sevigny, installation manager; and Dave Galbreath, service manager.

"I couldn't begin to operate this company without their input, day-to-day hard work, and under-standing," Randy says.

"Patti is my right-hand person," Randy says. "She is our biggest cheerleader and, among many other things, works very hard to keep all our people happy and understanding our family and core values."

It's a tall task, as Randy's statement of core values runs for nearly two pages and is loaded with references to "team" and "family." Examples include:

  • A team-oriented company where all associates and customers are treated with fair and full respect and integrity
  • A team-oriented company where all associates have solid and true input in decisions for their own well-being and growth
  • A family-oriented company where social events are available for camaraderie and a feeling of belonging
  • A company where we are always learning new skills to better serve our customers and associates professionally and individually
  • A company that provides a good, solid standard of living for associates and families
  • A company that provides a fair wage and better-than-average benefits for associates and their families, including health insurance, optical and dental insurance, long-and short-term disability coverage, and life insurance.

Patti is the point person for these initiatives, and proudly says that they don't just receive lip service. "We expect hard work from our people, but we take care of them in return," she says.

As an example of how it all works at Seaman's, Patti cites the company's health care plan. Like every other company, Seaman's struggles to deal with rising health care costs. Patti constantly reviews all the options available to the company, then presents several plans to the associates at year's end. A company-wide vote narrows down the plan choices, and associates can consult with their families to see which plan works best for them.

Benefits for 2006 include a choice of two health care plans (one featuring 100% company-paid benefits, the other 80/20), prescription drug coverage, and dental and vision plans. Patti points out that an associate who opts for the 80/20 plan receives that plan, plus dental and vision coverage, at no out-of-pocket cost.

In addition, the company pays for $10,000 of life insurance and provides short-term disability coverage for each associate. Long-term disability coverage is available for only $3 per week. Seaman's also funds its associates' 401(k) retirement savings to the tune of 5% of salary, immediately deposited tax-deferred.

It's All About the People
Randy Seaman is a strong believer in the idea that if you want to be the best, you have to hire the best. Candidates for employment are carefully screened through a background check, personality profile, mechanical aptitude screening, and other related skill tests.

Prospects who pass the tests interview two to three more times with the department managers, who look for three qualities above all else: honesty, integrity, and a team orientation. "You can teach anything else," Randy notes.

Once a new associate is hired, training commences — training that at Seaman's never ends. The full company meets monthly, as do the service and installation departments. Topics can include any issue related to the business, such as technical, safety, controls, customer service, and so on. The training is often conducted by Randy himself, one of the company's associates, or by one of Seaman's distributor and manufacturer partners.

In keeping with the company's family atmosphere, the day training is paid, while for the night training the food cooked by Randy's wife, Peggy, is the draw.

"It's always a challenge to build a family atmosphere, but frequent meetings help," Randy notes. "We also get all of our service and installation technicians together each month. That way, they all know each other and understand they're on the same team and working toward the same goal of customer service."

The careful screening and training has paid off. "It can be difficult to find people who share the same work ethic and core values, but we have been very fortunate to do just that," Randy says. "Our people take care of our customers in the same friendly, honest, and respectful way that we live by here at Seaman's, and I'm extremely proud to have each one of them on my team."

Giving and Receiving
Over the years, Randy has been a part of numerous local, regional, and national organizations dedicated to the improvement of the HVACR industry. He has served three terms as president of the Grand Rapids Heating and Air Conditioning Association; two terms as president of the Michigan Chapter of ACCA; a three-year term as the national ACCA Region III director, covering Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky; and has also served on several vocational education steering committees in the Grand Rapids area, most recently as Chairman of that committee at Grand Rapids Community College.

Randy is also a strong advocate of educators and companies working together for the betterment of the industry. In December 2002 and February 2003, Randy took the lead in organizing and sponsoring "mini trade shows" at a local public school's ninth grade campus. Thanks to the efforts of Seaman's people, more than 900 students got a glimpse — most likely their first — into the opportunities available in the world of HVACR during the two events.

Randy is well aware of the tremendous resource his alma mater can be to his company. Many of Seaman's associates graduated from Ferris State's HVACR program, and many served internships at Seaman's. The company is a financial supporter of the school's new Granger Center for Construction and HVACR. By the same token, Ferris State is well aware of what a resource Seaman's is to its HVACR program and students. In 2005, the university honored Randy with the Ferris State University Distinguished Alumnus Award — the highest honor the university's alumni association can bestow upon an individual.

And while we're on the topic of awards, how about this list: In 2001 Seaman's received the national ACCA Contractor of the Year Award, followed in 2002 by the ACCA Excellence in Commercial Contracting Award. This was followed by the company being named the Contractor of the Year by the Michigan Air Conditioning Contractors of America in April 2002 and again in April 2004. In 2003, 2004, and 2005, Seaman's was honored as one of Western Michigan's 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For, presented by the Michigan Business and Professional Association. In addition, Seaman's won a Design/Build Award from Contracting Business in 2002, taking first place in Category C, New Construction Less Than $500,000, for its work at a new Harley-Davidson dealership in Hudsonville, MI.

Following that list, it almost seems like an understatement when Lynn Briggs, executive director of ACCA's Michigan Chapter, uses the word "excellent" three times in describing Seaman's: "They're an excellent company with an excellent reputation and excellent leadership."

The Power of Pride
Randy's focus on quality and integrity not only means good value for Seaman's customers, it also has a powerful positive effect inside the company.

Dean Anderson, who heads up Seaman's eight-person sales/engineering department, says the best thing about his job is the pride he feels in the quality of the company's work.

"We always look to go 'above and beyond' when it comes to design and workmanship," he says.

"That makes it easier to sell projects. Also, we want to service our customers' systems. We don't just sell them and leave them alone. It's a great feeling when people keep coming back because they like our designs and workmanship so much."

He adds that his department, which includes four engineers, is building a strong reputation for Design/Build work in Western Michigan.

Pat Murphy, vice president and part owner, has been with Seaman's for 35 years, and says that it's more fun now than it has ever been. "The people are the best thing about Seaman's," Murphy says. "Their enthusiasm and their drive to be the best is contagious. What will lead the company into the future is its ability to under-stand what customers need, and to find the answers for them."

Galbreath and Sevigny agree with Murphy, but add that in many cases, you have to know what customers want before they know they want it.

"We survey all of our customers, asking what we do well and what we could improve upon," explains Galbreath, a 14-year veteran who leads the company's 11-person service team. "That not only gives us good feedback about ourselves, it also helps us really know our customers, stay close to them, and build long-term relationships that will really pay off."

He also shares two tips for running a great service department: keep your technicians well-trained, so they can solve problems, not just address symptoms, and "treat every customer like they're the best customer you ever had."

Sevigny, who joined Seaman's nine years ago from another HVAC contractor, is proud of the quality of his 14 installation technicians.

"Many of our installers have degrees from Ferris State, and most have been through our five-year apprenticeship program. The knowledge level of our installers is way above average," he says.

The Next Generation
Seaman's role as a leader in the commercial contracting world may well carry on into the next generation.

Randy's daughter, Kimberly, is attending Ferris State with a major in business administration, minor in human resources, and elective classes in HVAC. She has helped out in the office, and has expressed an interest in joining the business when there's an opening. Randy's son, Jacob, who is in high school, has helped out around the shop and in the field, and has had a chance to work with CAD in the company's engineering department.

One gets the feeling the Randy would be proud and happy to see his children join the business — assuming, that is, they could pass through the company's tough screening process.

In the meantime, Randy will continue to steer the ship with a steady hand, focusing on what the company does best, and looking for new opportunities in the Green market and by expanding the company's capabilities in controls.

"I wish I could help other contractors out by sharing a big 'secret of success' with them," Randy says. "But there is no secret. All you can do as an owner or manager is constantly strive to find the best people. Then train them well and treat them well so they'll be technically and personally focused on delivering excellent customer service.

"That's why you have to resist pressure to fall into the low price trap, even during tough economic times. You must be careful about cutting prices so low that you can't uphold your own quality. Some contractors cut their prices so much that they're forced to cut benefits from their associates, so the good associates don't stay.

"But if you keep your prices up by selling quality, honesty, and integrity, then that's going to prevail. Anybody can install heating and cooling. Your reputation and the quality of your work are really all you have to sell."

Those insights may not seem like secrets to Randy, but they have certainly led to success at Seaman's Air Conditioning - Refrigeration, Contracting Business' 2006 Commercial Contractor of the Year.

Seaman's Air Conditioning --Refrigeration

Year founded: 1961, in Grand Rapids, MI
Founded by:
Don Seaman
Randy Seaman
Business mix:
40% service, 60% installation. Service is 70% HVAC and 30% refrigeration; Installation is 65% Design/Build and 35% replacement/add-on.
Gross Sales (2005): $6 million
Number of associates:
Service Area:
50 miles
Management team: Patti VanKuiken, assistant general manager; Patrick Murphy, vice president; Dean Anderson, sales/design engineer; Bob Sevigny, installation manager; Dave Galbreath, service manager.
Major brands:
Carrier, York, Trane, Bryant, McQuay, Aaon, Lochinvar, Marley, Uponor, A.O. Smith, HeatLink
Advice from Randy Seaman:
"Get involved with an ACCA MIX Group. Our company wouldn't be where it is today if it wasn't for the advice, support, and friendship I have received from my MIX Group."
Randy rides a:
1998 Harley-Davidson 95th Anniversary Fat Boy

A Mandate For True Professionalism

One of Randy Seamans' core value for his company is that it will be "down to earth, solid and professional in its demeanor, and not flashy, flamboyant, or egotistical." He expects this professionalism to manifest itself in all aspects of the company, including:

  • Clean uniforms for all field associates
  • High quality evident in our fleet of trucks, building, paperwork and correspondence, tools, and personnel
  • Professional and courteous behavior in the office and on the phones
  • Ability to show customers the information and service history on their equipment
  • Consistently accurate billing
  • Timely response from service technicians — immediately in emergency situations
  • Repair the equipment or system right the first time
  • Repair the real problems, not just the symptoms
  • Send a high quality person to the job
  • Be an easy company to work with for our outside customers and inside associates.
  • Keep customers up-to-date on the latest technology so they can make well-informed decisions
  • Use our engineering/CAD efficiently and for best practices
  • Always be honest, fair, and of high integrity.