A Thriving Enterprise: Commercial Contractor of the Year

March 1, 2011
Enterprise HVAC Service & Control is enjoying great success in servicing existing buildings. Its gateway to the stars: determine customer needs first, then provide the solutions.

Fans of the television series Star Trek™ know that the mission of the starship Enterprise was to "boldly go where no man has gone before." The mission of Contracting magazine's 2011 Commercial Contractor of the Year, Enterprise HVAC Service and Control, is to boldly solve comfort and energy efficiency challenges that no one has solved before.

The company, based in the Cleveland area suburb of Twinsburg, OH, occupies a rarefied niche in the commercial HVAC world: Enterprise does no new construction work, and the focus is never on selling equipment. Instead, the company operates exclusively in the existing building service market, and assesses and analyzes customers' needs before presenting the solutions that will address them.

"We know the steps our customers need to take to get their buildings to where they want them to be," says Richard (Dick) Starr, LEED AP, president of Enterprise HVAC Service and Control. "We always know the next step, and we're there for our customers when they're ready to take it."

The company prides itself on taking a "360-degree view" of a building, thanks to expertise in three key areas: mechanical systems, controls, and air and water distribution.

"What we've seen is that most contractors simply rush to address the one area they know," Starr says. "We like to think we bring all three together, like a fine orchestra."

Bad Baseball Leads to Big Break
If an orchestra is only as good as its conductor, the music being made by Enterprise definitely springs from the baton of Starr, who is referred to by almost everyone as a forward thinker, or even a visionary. If he sees himself that way, it doesn't show: the modest Starr doesn't ever forget his big break came only through his ability to sell season tickets for a very bad baseball team.

Prior to graduating from Cleveland's John Carroll University in 1970 with a business administration degree, Starr learned that the local branch of a large national controls company was seeking sales engineers in its building controls group. As part of the interview process, Starr took mechanical aptitude tests and was ultimately paired up against another competitor for the job in a role-playing scenario. The two men were assigned to attempt to sell something to each other.

"The person I was paired with tried to sell me radiation mitigation technology for televisions," Starr recalls. "I thought the people doing the hiring would be very impressed because it was a technical product and they were a technical company. When it was my turn to sell him, my presentation was the sale of season tickets to Cleveland Indians baseball games. At that time, the team had been bad for 15 years and there was little hope for improvement."

As it turned out, the interviewers were impressed by Starr's ability to sell a challenging and intangible product, and he got the job. He spent three years with the company in Cleveland, then accepted a promotion to branch manager and moved to Toledo, OH. Family ties brought him back to the Cleveland lakefront, and he worked for two years as president of the systems/service division of a large Northeastern Ohio mechanical contractor.

Time to Lead
By 1977, Starr knew that he wanted to run his own company. His experiences in the commercial HVAC systems and controls world had helped him identify the niche that needed to be filled, and provided him with a vision of the quality work he wanted to provide. That year, he purchased assets of "a little snot-nosed $50,000 company," called Enterprise Heating and Air Conditioning.

The company provided mostly residential and some commercial services. After attempts to sell the residential customer list were unsuccessful, Starr simply liquidated the residential side of the business so that he could focus on building the company he wanted.

Three Turning Points
As with any company, there were a number of milestones along the way, some compelling, some challenging. Starr points out three significant events in the company's history that shaped Enterprise into the company it is today.

"The first was the decision to get out of the plan-and-spec market and focus entirely on service and controls," he says. "The second was becoming a certified air and water balance contractor, which provided us with that '360-degree view.' The third was getting out of the manufacturer-specific controls market, and educating customers about open protocol platforms."

Enterprise is a certified testing, adjusting, balancing agency in both forced air and hydronic systems, with the National Environmental Balancing Bureau (NEBB). The company is a Tridium-authorized systems integrator, and has been a LINC Service® Contractor since 1998. In addition, Enterprise has been designated as both a STAR® and a GreenStar contractor by the Mechanical Service Contractors of America (MSCA). Enterprise is one of only 38 companies in the nation to hold the GreenStar designation for environmental stewardship.

The company won a Contracting Business Design/Build Award in 2001, for its work at a 650,000 sq.ft. office and manufacturing facility — a project that focused on control system integration and air balancing, to solve the customer's energy efficiency and comfort challenges.

A Foundation of Loyalty and Expertise
Enterprise HVAC Service and Control is far from being the largest commercial HVAC company in the market: the company had sales of $5+ million in 2010 and has 28 employees. But it's sized to be flexible and agile, and boasts a tremendous amount of diversified expertise. That expertise has been built over the years by the loyalty that Starr engenders in his co-workers, and the team environment that permeates the company.

Success here is built both from the bottom up and from the top down.

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"This is a rock-solid company. It's reliable and stable, and everyone here genuinely cares," says Field Foreman Joe Azara. "We're built on the idea that when we take on a job, we're going to solve it and we're going to make it right, period. That comes from the top, and everyone here has that mentality."

Field Technician Terry Antosh says he appreciates the diverse opportunities and challenges provided by the type of work that Enterprise does, and he constantly strives to convey that to the "young guys" at the company.

"There are tremendous opportunities to grow here, and the guys have a chance to really develop and mature," he says. "Dick Starr is always ahead of the curve, and with the controls work we do, the air and water balancing, the retrocommissioning, and the LEED® work, I think our guys see more in eight or nine years here than they would in 20 at most other companies."

No one has seen more than Frank Wilde, who has worked at Enterprise since 1978, in multiple field, engineering, and office leadership roles. "If you want to learn here, you can," Wilde, who is now semi-retired, says. "I came here from a large company, where they basically pigeonholed you and gave you one thing to do. I've always been impressed by the versatility of the jobs here. And the people here are great. Over the years it has become like a family to me, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way."

Dave Busa, field technician, was a long-time customer of Enterprise's when he worked at a chemical manufacturing plant, and he was thrilled when the opportunity arose to join the team. "Everybody knew that Enterprise always had the best people," he says. And Dan Bosworth, field technician, may best sum up what Enterprise is all about when he says, "I don't know how many times we've gone into a building and heard, "You’re the first company that has ever really looked at this."

Dick Starr describes his wife, Patti, human resource manager, as the glue that holds everything together at Enterprise. She joined the company in 1988, when the last of their four daughters turned 11. Her contributions to the company are wide-ranging, and invaluable.

"She always knows where to be at what time," Starr says. "She's a total support to everyone here. Her primary expertise is in human resources, but she helps out in any way that she can. At meetings, I used to listen to other contractors describe the issues they have with their HR departments, but we don't have any of that. There's not a person who doesn't trust her totally, especially when it comes to payroll. She's the most trusted person in the world."

Professionalism Draws Praise
Enterprise's people are happy, and they in turn keep the company's customers happy.

One of those happy customers is Laurie Hughes, director of administration at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, Beachwood, OH. The 24,000 sq.ft. museum has been open for five years, and had comfort and energy efficiency challenges from day one. A mechanical contractor serving on the museum's board of directors recommended they bring in Enterprise to solve on-going problems, and the rest (as they say in the museum world) is history.

"Enterprise came out here and really figured out what was going on," Hughes says. "They have a great service department and no turnover — you always get the same guys. They've really built a trust-based relationship with us."

Hughes added that, in addition to solving the initial comfort and energy problems that were "built in" to the museum's original system, Enterprise steps up to the challenge when the museum has exhibits that require special care.

"We recently had an exhibit that included one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and we had to have the humidity in our exhibit space set and controlled at a very precise level 24 hours a day," she says. "Enterprise handled it with no problem."

Bert Diehl. P.E., CFM, director of facilities management, Lakeland Community College, uses the "V" term to describe Starr: visionary.

"Dick isn’t a typical HVAC service contractor," Diehl says. "He has a big picture grasp of where facilities are going, both with building management systems and on green and sustainability issues. He's a visionary in that he's always looking at the direction that the industry and facilities are moving. And, the people who work for him are consummate professionals."

Enterprise's desire and ability to take on unique initiatives earns the company praise from Terry McCafferty, business manager, Pipefitters Union Local 120.

"Mr. Starr's workforce is very steady, and his employees are very loyal to him," McCafferty says. "I think a large part of that's because of the varied and interesting initiatives that the company takes on. Those initiatives open more doors for my members, and allow them to gather additional skills. Enterprise also provides in-house training. My members appreciate the opportunity to develop a broad knowledge base."

Tom Wanner, executive director of the Mechanical and Plumbing Industry Council of Cleveland, states quite simply that, "the entire service industry is further ahead now than it would have been without Dick Starr.

"Dick has always pushed hard to change the conditions and improve the situations for the mechanical contractor. He knows how to motivate his employees — and for that matter, everyone else in the industry — with his positive thinking. And he has always pushed for training and education of any kind," Wanner says.

Starr is active at the national level as well. He is a long-time member of the MSCA board of directors and recently became one of a select number of service contractors elected to the national board of directors of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA).

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"He believes what he professes, and his company is living proof of that," says Barbara Dolim, MSCA executive director. "He's always been ahead of the curve in recognizing the value of energy services and sustainability to the industry and to the customer. He was one of our first members to become LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accredited. He really jumped on the LEED bandwagon very quickly, and he truly helped MSCA become one of the leaders in the green movement. In fact, Dick was a part of one of our first meetings with the U.S. Green Building Council, and helped foster our relationship with that organization." (See sidebar, "Dick Starr and CB Team Up to Educate USGBC." at the end of this article)

"Dick is not only leading his company, he's also leading the industry as a whole," adds John Gentille, CEO, MCAA. "His appointment to our board of directors is an indication of the extent to which our organization and the industry value his talents and expertise."

King for a Day
Given all that his company has achieved and continues to achieve, what's left for Dick Starr? For one thing, constantly working to gain more national respect for vocational education.

When he was chairman of the Cleveland chapter of MSCA in 2001, Starr spearheaded a "school-to-work" program in conjunction with two local vocational schools and Pipefitters Local 120. Through the program, students work at mechanical contracting companies during their junior and senior years of high school, then begin their apprenticeship after graduation. Students must be 16 years of age, and record a 95% attendance rate at their classes. They must maintain a 'B' average, and receive a recommendation from at least one teacher, related to trade essential dexterity, to ensure the safety of others.

Pipefitters Local 120 takes the responsibility for drug testing, and the school carries the responsibility for the liability of the student. To date, Starr estimates about 50 talented young apprentices have entered the HVAC service workforce thanks to the program.

"If I were king for a day, I'd emphasize the value of vocational training to every board of education and politician in the nation," he adds. "I'm amazed that vocational education fails to get the respect it deserves. What we do in this industry takes a great brain, physical fitness, and mental toughness. Add to that the fact that the country quite simply couldn't do business without properly functioning HVAC systems, and that's a strong endorsement for vocational education."

Ultimately, that's what it comes down to for Starr: he is enough of a forward thinker to realize that the future is built upon the same thing that has always made companies successful in the past: great people.

"I'm a baseball fan, and I recognize the importance of having a strong minor league system if you want to have a successful big league club," Starr says. "You need a good feeder system to develop tomorrow's talent.

"I can have all the big ideas in the world, but it comes down to having the right people to carry them out," he adds. "I want good people with positive attitudes, and I absolutely beam when a customer tells me that we have the best technicians in the industry."

Dick Starr and Contracting magazine's 2011 Commercial HVAC Contractor of the Year, Enterprise HVAC Service and Control, are not only boldly going into the future, but helping to shape it as well.

It's the best companies that truly care about the future of their industry and colleagues. They look beyond the here and now, and wonder what's to come. If what they see is a less than ideal world, they strive to improve it, for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

That's Dick Starr. That's Enterprise HVAC Service & Control.

Dick Starr and

Dick Starr, president of Enterprise HVAC Service and Control, was one of the first member contractors of the Mechanical Service Contractors of America (MSCA) to become LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accredited. Enterprise is an MSCA STAR® contractor, and is one of only 38 companies nationwide to have earned MSCA's GreenStar designation. Barbara Dolim, MSCA executive director, praises Starr for helping foster an outstanding relationship between MSCA and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Contracting is also proud to have played a small role — through Starr — in furthering the industry's knowledge of green and sustainability issues.

As Starr tells it: "At one of the first meetings we had with USGBC, we tried to educate everyone what retro-commissioning was. Ultimately I brought in an article that I put together with Contracting a few years ago (Why Retro is the Wave of the Future, CB, December 2006). The USGBC used that article to show their rank-and-file what retrocommissioning was all about. They ended up copying it for 200 of their employees. They took that article and soaked it up like sponges."