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Big Hearts & Helping Hands

Deep in the heart of Texas is a company dedicated to excellence in commercial and industrial HVAC service and construction, and devoted to community outreach: Kahn Mechanical Contractors, Inc. of Dallas, Contracting Business magazine’s 2008 Commercial Contractor of the Year.

Kahn Mechanical serves customers in and around the Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX metropolitan area, and its technicians and managers are ready for any task related to commercial service and Design/ Build construction. The company has weathered some storms in its 34-year history, as have many contractors in economically sensitive markets, but for the last 15 years, it has experienced steady growth and become a model community service leader, largely through the pro bono work it dedicates to Dallas Habitat for Humanity.

Josh Kahn, 42, vice president, runs Kahn Mechanical with his mother, Ann Kahn, president. Josh lovingly describes Ann as “the soul of the company,” the person who most looks out for employees’ needs, and spearheads the company’s community service. To Ann, son Josh is “the brains,” the one who keeps the strategic and tactical functions on line with company goals, and keeps the pipeline filled with projects and ideas.

“Ann has an aptitude beyond many people I know in business,” Josh says. “Her personality captivates people, and her principles and values endear clients, vendors, and employees to us. The things I’ve learned about business and people, I’ve learned by watching her example.”

When Ann took over the day-to-day operations, she instituted a motto that explains Kahn Mechanical in a nutshell: “Don’t Stop, Keep Going.”

“Our success starts with our desire to succeed, and a genuine desire to provide the best kind of service we can for our customers, to make them happy, and make them stay with us,” Ann says. “Then, it’s just hard work, from the top down.”

You see plenty of drive and commitment in every corner of the company, garnished with hefty doses of family atmosphere and technical expertise. Team camaraderie, the technical acumen of its 18 technicians, the faithful service of key managers, and Josh and Ann Kahn’s intense desire to make the company better, give it many reasons to open the doors each day.

Dynamic Leadership
If you get a chance to spend a day with Josh Kahn, you’d better bring your running shoes. He’s a bundle of energy, wired for excellence, hungry to implement new ideas, always on the lookout for the next opportunity. Visit a job site with him, and you’d be amazed at his ability to move easily from one technical topic to another. There seems to be no HVAC principle or concept he can’t discuss, or offer an opinion on.

During the mid-80s, he began to study mechanical engineering at Texas A&M, but opted to pursue real-life training within the company. He’s currently enrolled online at University of Phoenix, and is close to a degree in business management.

“The engineering training at A&M was excellent. I learned how to think, research, and solve problems,” Josh recalls. “The beauty of going back to business school now, at age 42, after running a business, is seeing everything that’s been documented related to managing a business: human resources, vendor relationships, client relationships, and business management in general. And the knowledge and experience I’ve acquired by being in the trenches only serves to magnify the learning experience.”

Kahn prefers projects that involve replacements of second and third generation equipment.

“That’s what we love, especially the chance to do some Design/Build on top of the replacement,” Josh says. “The relationship we often have with the engineer is such that if we see an opportunity to improve on the design, he’s open to suggestions. All we’ve got to do is document what we’re suggesting.”

Josh Kahn is a straight talker when it comes to customer relations. “When we encounter a challenge, rather than try to dodge and weave and work our way out of it, we go to the customer and tell them what we’re up against,” he says. “We’re willing to say from day one, ‘here’s what’s going on, here’s the truth.’

“When people ask how we’re going to proceed on a job, my answer is that we’ll know exactly how to do the job when the job’s complete. You can’t know every possible variable a project will bring until you start to work it; you discover so much during the process. Fortunately, we’re able to work nimbly. Being a mid-size company, we’re not so large that we can’t quickly communicate to everyone what’s going on, and we’re not so small that our resources are stretched.”

People Power
The people of Kahn Mechanical are its greatest strengths. Josh Kahn greets his technicians with a friendly “hey, man,” and clearly appreciates their contributions to the organization. In the office, Margie Pannell, Anita Tobias, Denny Rodgers, Charlotte Kahn (Josh’s wife), and Dennis Brisbon keep projects moving forward, and are the center of the company’s daily activity and information. They juggle customer requests, and as the paperwork comes through, capture recommendations or service needs.

“I know it’s a clich, but we work diligently to find good people. We don’t hire casually,” Josh says. “We have a multi-step interview process, and we apprentice every new employee. Even a 20-year veteran rides with another technician for a minimum of two weeks before we send them out on their own.”

Billy Robbins, a new employee in his first year at Kahn Mechanical, agrees. “There’s a strong family environment here. In 12 years, I’ve never worked for accompany that treats employees this way,” Robbins says.

Josh Kahn knows the value of great employees, especially when they’re in short supply.

“In light of the shortage of skilled workers, we’re going to treat them as well as we can,” he says “We’re going to attract the best ones we can afford, pay them well, and provide good benefits packages. As a result, my company doesn’t have a shortage of workers. I also use headhunters, trade schools, and MEP at Work to find them. We’re aggressively seeking and retaining technicians.”

Kahn’s technicians can spring out of the blocks on a moment’s notice, no matter what the day might bring. Every employee is encouraged to attend 32 hours of continuing education each year, and Kahn intends to bring North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification testing into the company alongside certification from the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA).

“An organization’s values are tested on the bad days,” Josh says. “When those bad days occur, we’re able to get people to the task quickly, to find and execute a solution. We’re also able to get our vendors and subcontractors to step up to the plate. When a problem occurs, our employees are empowered to raise the flag and say this isn’t right. We need to do this differently. It’s humbling to have an employee say what’s going on here isn’t proper, we’re going to have to spend some money to fix it. Then, we communicate with the client. Our customers respect us for what we’re trying to accomplish in terms of project integrity.”

Flying High at DFW
One of Kahn Mechanical’s major service contracts involves providing a 24- hour, six-man team to maintain 500,000 sq.ft. of terminal space at DFW Airport, under the authority of FMC Technologies, a global provider of technology solutions for industrial markets. Bryan Hyatt, FMC’s on-site supervisor of airport services — and himself a 15-year HVAC technician — likes what Kahn Mechanical brings to the table.

“Kahn’s strongest asset is their knowledge. They make sure their technicians are educated in every aspect of the air conditioning process,” Hyatt says. “When they started here, while they didn’t know these systems per se, their background knowledge in those types of systems was very helpful. There were existing issues, which they took care of in a very short period of time. Josh is definitely a businessman, very easy to work with and very concerned that they meet our needs. When the contractor says ‘we’re here for you,’ it makes a big difference.”

Airline terminals are tough to keep comfortable. Building pressure must be carefully maintained, to prevent jet fumes and service vehicle exhaust from entering passenger areas. Increasing airport activity only adds to the challenge.

“In the 70s, people didn’t spend much time in airport terminals. Now, with increased travel, more people are spending more time in terminals, and the service business within those terminals has expanded greatly,” Josh explains. “Therefore, the design engineering has to keep pace with loads exerted by more stores, more restaurants, and more people. If the building pressure goes negative, we have to solve the problem. Since we’re on site all day, we can assemble anecdotal evidence, and address issues faster. We’re gradually improving comfort issues here that have been wrong for decades.”

Design/Build the Way to Go
Kahn Mechanical closed out 2007 with a total of 10 major Design/Build projects, and 75 projects in the $5,000 to $25,000 range. “We started 2008 with an excellent backlog, the economy is good, and we’re optimistic about the future,” Josh says of this year’s forecast.

Kahn Mechanical produces three- and five-year business plans, each supported by contingency activity for the slower times.

“Our ability to adapt to a changing business environment means we always have something to do,” Josh explains. “We’re diversified enough that when the economy goes south, something else goes north, and we keep moving.”

Kahn thrives on Design/Build, as a way to flex its inventiveness, and expand into new markets. It won a Contracting Business 2006 Design/Build award for its work on First Baptist Church of Hamilton Park. In that project, Kahn had to redesign the central plant to provide two-pipe flow to the majority of the facility, four-pipe flow for the sanctuary space.

“New systems had to literally be built over the top of the existing mechanical plant, and the existing plant was slid out from underneath, like pulling a tablecloth out from under a fully-dressed table,” Josh says.

Kahn Mechanical appreciates the many possibilities Design/Build offers.

“There’s momentum that can be generated in Design/Build, so we explore how to sell and deliver better,” Josh says. “If I can find a client who’s looking for something a little bit different, something ‘on the edge,’ that’s perfect for us, because we know there might be only five, six, or seven contractors who will want that project. I’d much rather compete against five contractors than 4,000.

“We want to share with the customer that their experience will be different. We share what it costs to procure equipment, the cost of labor, overhead factors, and our desired profit. The more we communicate openly and candidly with the client, the more it helps in the Design/Build process, when they’re looking at options. We tell them we’re a values-based company. I share positive stories in which things worked out beautifully, and also am candid enough to share some of our mistakes. I encourage them to call customers where there were very challenging situations, and how we reacted to the challenge.”

Prospecting by Referral, On-Site Advice
Word of mouth and existing customers are Kahn Mechanical’s most effective marketing methods. “Our service department and the maintenance work we provide generate a bunch of side work,” Josh says. “If we’re maintaining a piece of equipment, it’s not uncommon for us to get the next big job right off the bat. Once we’ve got it in our hands, we work it to death. We deliver, deliver, and deliver.”

“We also empower our guys to make decisions,” service manager Dennis Brisbon adds.” If they call in with a question, and I’m not available, I tell them to take an educated guess. We also teach our technicians to be salesmen and system detectives. Touch it, smell it, listen to it. If you find a problem, tell the customer about it; don’t just make a note on the service form. If they don’t buy an improvement at that time, at least you’ve planted a seed.”

Are there occasional struggles due to economic factors, and not enough projects to go around? Possibly so, but that doesn’t mean Kahn Mechanical sits back and waits for change. It takes action against stagnation.

“There will always be work, there will always be employees,” Josh says.

“And, the companies that situate themselves to be the best, and work the hardest will find those clients, and find those employees, and continue to be successful. If we moan and groan about the woes of the world, I’m going to be out of business. A little bit of faith and a good team can make a lot of headway in a rough storm.”

Expanding the Business
Ann Kahn is pleased by Josh’s integrity and desire to grow the company. She manages the company books, goes with the flow of progress, and offers advice when necessary.

“I love what we’re doing to grow the company,” Ann says. “We try something new all the time. Josh is very creative, and he wants to get involved in various types of projects. I pretty much go along with what he wants to try, but if it sounds like it’s too off the wall, I try to temper his enthusiasm.

“Many companies don’t know how much they can learn to improve their businesses. I feel like the contractor has to have something within him or herself to succeed. You won’t be successful just by joining an organization. You must have the means to use what you learn. Low prices won’t save the day.”

Josh Kahn wants to expand even further into commercial maintenance, as well as health care, high tech environments, data centers, churches and religious facilities, and the maintenance, renovation, and expansion of government facilities.

How would Ann Kahn advise a smaller company to reach the next level? Be on the lookout for opportunities, she says.

“And, turn every challenge into an opportunity. Be aware of what’s going on around you, be willing to take some risks, and be willing to work. We didn’t get here by working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, and I think most contractors know you have to work on your business, not in your business to be successful. All of these clichs make sense. You just have to take them to heart and follow them. Take that one extra step.”

Kahn Mechanical is taking giant steps, to better serve customers, fellow contractors, and community.

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