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Ripe For Success

Feb. 1, 2012
The Columbia Valley appellation is home to the majority of Washington State’s wineries. At 185 miles wide and 200 miles long, it takes up almost half of the state of Washington. The location is about the same latitude (49N) as the French wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy and is second only to Napa Valley in U.S wine production. The Tri-Cities area of Columbia Valley includes the cities of Pasco, Richland and Kennewick and is known for its cold, snowy winters and long, hot summers. That kind of climate not only makes it a near-perfect place to grow grapes, but it also makes it a perfect place to have an air conditioning and heating business. Mike Campbell, founder of Campbell & Company, thought exactly that 29 years ago when he decided to start an HVAC business in a small garage in Pasco.

Founded in 1983, Campbell & Company started out under the business name Grassi Refrigeration and was operated by three partners. Throughout the 80s the business flourished, and until 2004 the business name Campbell & Bruce was branded throughout the Mid-Columbia region. Mike Campbell has been the sole shareholder since 2002. In 2004 the company’s name was changed to Campbell & Company.

Putting Employees First
Changing the name of the company was more than just a legal formality; it created a major milestone in the company's history. Campbell wanted the employees to be properly represented in the name of the company. He wanted a name that displayed the culture of the company. After brainstorming for weeks and coming up with several different options for a name it was Campbell's wife, Lisa, a kindergarten teacher, who came up with the idea of Campbell & Company. "She said, 'Mike, it's simple, it's Campbell & Company, with the emphasis on company,'" Campbell explains.

"It's really all about the company. If you spend a little bit of time here, you'll realize that our employees are out in front," Campbell explains. "We want our employees to take ownership."

The name change resulted in each employee having an identity in the brand. For example, "Campbell and Pete," or "Campbell and Joe." Campbell worked with a marketing firm and came up with the idea to put the employees' pictures on the sides of the vans, and on business cards. "When I first heard this idea," Campbell shared, "I thought it was kind of out there and pretty expensive. We had about 90 vehicles at that time."

As it turns out, the risk paid off. The company started a marketing campaign that features employees’ photos and names on the company's vans, trucks, business cards, and even thank you cards.

Sherry Sams, vice president of operations and second in command of the company, explains how customers associate the company with the employees. "It's common that people think this is some kind of franchise, that our employees each own their own business."

"Truth be known," Campbell explains, "That's really how I look at it. It's that service technician's business, his clientele, and if he doesn't make the customer happy, it will negatively affect his business."

Campbell believes this campaign has really helped with employee and customer relationships. "We want as many relationships between employees and customers as we can have. Years ago, I used to be afraid of this. I thought if an employee were to leave, then so would that relationship with the customer. I've totally changed my mind on this. You want employees to build those relationships, and you have to treat your employees right so they will build a career path here."

And employees are building career paths. The company still employs its first technician, Clint Young, and has 21 people who have been with the company for 10 years or longer. The longevity of the employees starts with the hiring process, which has been perfected over the years.

"Our tagline and positioning statement is 'The best people in the business,'" Campbell explains. "When we first came up with that line, I was a little hesitant on making such a bold statement. If we were going to say that, I wanted to be able to measure it somehow."

Proving that Campbell & Company has the best employees in the business starts with the hiring process. The process includes several interviews with different managers in the company, a national background check, credit check, Wonderlic personality testing, pre-employment drug screening and a fit-for-duty medical exam. If a prospective employee makes it that far, there will be reference checks and he or she will be expected to attend an employee orientation before the first day of work.

Even though the process is slow, both Sherry and Mike believe that this process is key to their success. "Hiring is the most important job we do. When you hire someone, you want to make that individual a long-term member of the team." Campbell explains. "It's expensive to have a process like this, but hiring the wrong employee is even more expensive."

"We're always looking for new employees even if we don't need anyone at the time. Interviewing and hiring is hard work, and it should be hard if you want the right people. If someone applies and he’s great for the job, we’ll go through the interview process even though we may not have a job for him at that exact time. Keeping your applicant file stocked with good candidates is really important."

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Training For Success
Every service technician must take a pre-employment aptitude test for service. "Most of the guys can get a 75% or above on this test," Campbell explains. "Every now and again you look at a resumé and think 'this is the guy we want' and he ends up getting a 30% on the test. After talking to him you realize that he may know how to fix something, but he doesn’t know a lot of the theory behind the repair. We don't hire off the pre-employment test and we don't not-hire off the test. We use it to figure out where people are in their skill sets and where they need to start their training."

"One thing we've been working on over the last couple of months," Sams explains, "is having a checklist of skills for new employees that can be completed to show that the new employee is ready to go to installs on his own. We now have a list of skills that the technicians need to have and their supervisors can test them on those skills. Our training process was extremely long with our residential service technicians, and this has actually helped us shorten that process. We've mirrored this process with our residential installation technicians. Knowing exactly how much training a technician needs to complete his apprenticeship is very helpful to our training process."

Once an employee is hired, the training begins. "In our residential service department," Sams explains, "we have one employee who does nothing but train. He's a journeyman, a service technician and very good at what he does. He will work with the new person for several weeks to a couple of months."

In addition to working with the trainer, the new employee will rotate with three other supervisors and work with each of them. Each supervisor will sign off on a specific set of skills that the new hire is being trained to do.

Campbell attributes his success to his passion for having a place to train. "We've always carved out a place for training. In early years it was in the living room, then we moved to the corner of the sheet metal shop, and then we built our training room. If you want to develop a culture, you must have a place to come together and work on your values. Every employee who's in the field gets an hour of training and coaching every week. No exceptions."

"When all the work is done away from the office, our employees have to know that they're representing all of us. If they slip even a little bit, it's a reflection of all of us here at the company."

Value Engineering
The team at Campbell & Company has created a buzzword that defines the value that they want to bring to the customer. Sams explains, "Value engineering is what we can do to provide value to the customer. It's things that save money in the long run, but also add value to the customer."

"We have our sales team go for ride-alongs with our installation team to get ideas for value engineering. We've challenged our installation supervisors to review another supervisor's work and then sit down and have a meeting to discuss what they could do to save time and money, and provide a better quality to the customer. We might get to the end of it and realize that it's only a 19 dollar savings, but if we do it over and over again throughout the year, it adds up."

"We had Clint Young, who was the first employee here and started with installations, but is now in sales, go out and work with a crew and do an install, Campbell adds. "Normally the sales team will come back with what didn't go right on the job, but Clint made a special call to me that night to tell me just how well everything went. He explained that a certain technician on the job did a great job and is an incredible craftsman. He explained how impressed he was with the whole operation. Now, Clint has more confidence than ever when he goes in front of a customer and explains the value he or she will be getting with our work. Clint realized that our install staff is top notch, and unless the sales team goes out and works along side of the technicians, they may never realize it."

When Clint started in the business with Mike 28 years ago, they called themselves the 'dream team.' Mike would handle the sale, and Clint would handle the install.

"One thing I'm really proud of," Clint adds, "is how we as a company really take ownership and figure out how each department can run the smoothest. Back in the early days, we just went out and did it and I handled every part of the install. Now we have different departments to handle all of that. That's how life is with Campbell & Company. It's always evolving to something better."

Managing Managers
Starting as a small operation and growing to more than 100 employees is not an easy task, and Campbell has had to deal with some growing pains along the way. Learning to let go and let others make major decisions was a challenge that was overcome by building a strong management team.

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"Mike can't be everywhere all the time," Sams explains. "When he was running a small business, he would make all the decisions. A challenge that we're seeing more frequently now is that he's finding out about issues after they happen. Regular, consistent communication and processes is key to managers feeling empowered."

Campbell continues, "You don't want an organization that is so 'top down' that people feel that they can't do what they think is right at the time in front of the customer. I manage managers who manage people. We've tried in the last five years to become very flat."

Chris Quinton, residential production manager, describes how he manages his team. "100% effort. It's passion. If you really care about what you do and you give 110%, you're going to succeed at whatever it is that you're trying to do."

And success is what the company is seeing time and time again. This is shown on the customer surveys they've received that show customers raving about the work 97 to 98% of the time. The majority of surveys returned mention the employees by name and the number one comment is the use of shoe covers, which customers find very respectful. Employees are rewarded for being mentioned in the surveys by having their names submitted in a weekly drawing for tool gift cards.

The occasional 2 to 3% of complaints that are received are carefully examined. "If they take the time to complain, we have to listen and we need to respond," Campbell says. "You cannot ignore problems. Yes, we have raving fans 97% of the time, but the things that aren't right need to be talked about too. We just need to create a balance of how it's discussed. We can't be talking about the 3% of what we're doing wrong 80% of the time because it creates a bad environment. It's a great challenge and I think it stems from having good leaders and having those leaders know when to talk about it or bring it up in a meeting." Both Campbell and Sams find that most employees are willing to work together to solve any issues and don't have a problem taking ownership.

One employee in particular who takes the ownership of his responsibilities to the next level is Jason Timmins, who is in charge of cleaning the dock and heads up the recycling program. Timmins has an intellectual disability, but he doesn't let that stop his enthusiasm or affect his work ethic. Campbell shares, "Jason doesn't miss a day of work. It's the first time that the recycling program has been successful here at Campbell & Company."

"Jason is a great morale booster for the rest of the guys," Quinton adds. "He's always smiling. It's hard to walk by someone who's smiling and not smile back. When he's sweeping the floors, or taking the trash out, he's got a smile on his face and he's happy to do the work."

It's obvious that Campbell & Company makes the extra effort, not only in customers' homes but in the workplace too. They want to make sure that there is a balance between home life and work. Both Campbell and Sams are very family-oriented and want to make sure that their employees didn't miss valuable time with their own families. They came up with a 'dream schedule' where employees could make their own hours within reason. They have a few employees who come in as early as 6 a.m. to leave in time for after-school games with their children. "I didn't think there were customers that would want us at their homes as early as 6 a.m., but now those are the first times booked when the schedule is made," Sams shares. "Our employees have a much better balance to their work schedule and they don't get burned out."

Like the fine wines of the of Columbia Valley region, Campbell & Company is only going to improve as it ages. Just a year shy of its 30-year anniversary, the award-winning company has proven that it's leading the industry with its customer service and marketing initiatives. They've proven that no matter how large a company grows, putting value and quality as a first priority in the customer's home and in your employees will always result in success. For all these reasons and more, magazine is proud to present Campbell & Company with the 2012 Residential Contractor of the Year Award.


The Contractor of the Year represents an elite group: a forward-thinking class of HVAC contractors who are dynamic and professional in every aspect of their business. They constantly seek new ways to improve their businesses through quality contracting, and they strive to maintain the highest levels of customer service.

These contractors maintain superior treatment of their employees, customers, and suppliers. They establish a reputation as providers of superior products and services. They have an eye on the future, and are aware of changing market conditions as they respond quickly to opportunities in their niche. The high-quality management of their companies parallels that of many top corporations in the U.S. today. These contractors follow strategic plans and maximize their returns on investment, and are always exploring new ways to improve their operations. They maintain high levels of communication within their organizations, are aware of changing market conditions, and respond quickly to opportunities. They’re the leaders of our industry. They’re committed to their businesses and the industry, and aren’t afraid to take calculated risks, and explore new market areas.

We welcome nominations for 2012. Visit: for the entire list of our nomination criteria. Then, nominate your company or a colleague. Send nominations to Terry McIver, executive editor, at [email protected].