Contractor panelists took to the stage during the recent Air Conditioning Contractors of America conference, April 2-5 in New Orleans. Topics discussed were as varied as the Mississippi River is long.
Tips from Award Winners
Tony Polendo, regional service manager for Hiller HVAC, ACCA 2023 Residential Contractor of the Year said the company’s secret weapon for success is its combination of focus and commitment to customer satisfaction.
“I think if Jimmy Hiller were here today, he would tell you that his first priority is our customers. Second priority is our customers, and third priority is our customer. He’s laser focused on I'm ensuring that every customer is completely satisfied. That empowers us all to do what is needed, and what it takes.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in next few years?, asked discussion moderator Sarah Michelle.“For us it’s staffing, having enough people on the team to support our customers," said Polendo. Dee Ann Turner brought up the fact of just hiring people, without
Justin Lauten said the team at Total Air is often energized by employees who are eager to share an idea related to safety.
Katelyn Machen, human resource manager for, for Gillette Air Conditioning Co., San Antonio, Tex., ACCA 2023 Commercial Contractor of the Year, said the company always wants to be doing the right things for customers, employees and company families, for all the right reasons. "The constant change of delivery dates for equipment has also been a struggle, as well as making sure we have the right people in the right seat. And that’s not only about where they start in the company, but where they could finish, what’s their career path?
Justin Lauten, vice president of Total Air and Heat, Carrolton, Texas, winners of a 2023 Federated Insurance Star Award for prioritizing safety, teamwork, accountability and responsibility, said the team at Total Air is often energized by employees who are eager to share an idea. “Enthusiasm from somebody in the office who reengages the [safety] discussion and reminds us that it’s not just about minimizing risk, or using ladders correctly, but it’s about what doing things the ’right way’ involves.”
Dean Perez, 2023 ACCA Service Manager of the Year with CroppMetcalfe, said it was gratifying to receive the award. He said his success is based on the way he leads. CroppMetcalfe preaches service-based leadership, and as long as people are following procedures, they know that I’ve got their back. I want to inspire their confidence in me but also in themselves. I want them to feel empowered to make decisions in the field, that they don’t feel hamstrung, and can serve our customers to the best of their abilities.”
Perez said companies have to stop poaching from each other and find people whose character fits each company culture. "You want to serve in some way. We can teach you the tech skills, but a willing ness to serve and be part of the culture comes first," said Perez. "I hired a young man who worked at a local sub shop. I asked if he thought about doing anything else, told him what we do and he said he’d love to come chat with us. He’s been a great maintenance tech for us and is getting ready to go on to service. They’re out there, you have to go out and find them.”
“We’ve shifted our focus to finding people outside the HVAC industry,” Polendo said. “Finding the people with the right desire for the work. We’ve started a training program for the technical aspect and soft skills. Communicating and explaining our process to t
Team Development Advice
During a discussion of team development, Justin Lauten, vp of Total Air & Heat, Carrolton, Tex., said a "farm system" helps to determine a person's work ethic and dependability.
"Service in our world is 'one man in a van' so we get them [helping with] installations, to let them see how the culture is, what the work is like, where they're not in any danger of hurting your reputation or the customer's expectation of you being there that day. It helps us see how they pan out over a long period of time, how their aptitude is when learning new skills. We then select those persons to train in the service department, and spend the offseason developing their service skills. It's nice for us to 'test drive' them and they us."
Brian Stack, president of Stack Heating & Cooling, Avon, OH added thoughts on showing prospective and new employees the career path.
"Have that laid out for them so that they know where they can get to. It's on them how fast they can get there, and we'll provide training, but at least they know they're not 'stuck' here. They can have a career plan. We also teach soft skills. We hold roundtable discussions every Wednesday, where our service technicians get together and talk about things they've experienced over the last week, how they dealt with it and how they talked to the customer. So they're learning from each other and figure it out together."
"We haven't given up on experienced employees, but we've shifted our focus to find folks outside of the industry who have the right desire." - Tony Polendo,
"We haven't given up on experienced employees, but we've shifted our focus to find folks outside of the industry who have the right desire," said Tony Polendo, regional manager of Hiller. "When we started thinking through that, we also realized we needed to have a training program for those individuals to come on-board, for both the technical aspects and for soft skills. We also hold a three day class that all employees take, that has nothing to do with technical, but it's about where you park, how to knock on the door, wearing booties, explaining our process to the customer, everything."
Want to sell more maintenance agreements? Then be certain that everyone on the team understands the plan, believes in the plan, and can communicate it to the customer in a way that is genuine, that we want them to be part of the family, suggested Dean Perez, service manager, CroppMetcalfe.
Perez said the "family" approach can be more persuasive than purchasing an agreement because "it's the right thing to do," because frankly, they might not care about having it. I think if you offer the agreement confidently with that approach, most of the time, you'll hit the KPI on that, by offering it to everybody."
Katelyn Machen said Gillette AC encouraged others to capitalize on the ongoing "work from home" trend, as many more people will be at home, offering more more opportunities to grow a maintenance agreement business.
Want to develop leaders? Great leaders get someone to do something they might not want to do. Make them think it's their idea, get them to own it, verbalize it and be responsible for it.
"It's also important to trust them. You don't hire people if you don't trust them. If you do trust them, let them have an opportunity to 'fail forward.' Everyone can learn from one person's misstep."
"Personal growth involves connecting with employees, understanding their motivations and personal values, making sure values line up and being sure they see how they fit into the company accomplishing its goals. It goes back to a personal connection and personal accountability," said Dean Perez.
"No Recession" Attitude
Chad Peterman, CEO, Peterman Brothers, refuses to participate in a recession, should one ever be officially declared. Business owners must focus on growth, and what needs to be done to combat potential economic downturn."At the end of the day we're not closing 100 percent of our calls right now. Our average tickets are not where we want them to be. So, what do we need to do? Where
"And to that point, there will be competitors that get scared, who tend to retract. That's when you push the throttle full forward and double down on your market and take more business," responded Ken Goodrich, CEO, Goettl, Inc. who shared proactive ways to respond to a recession.
"Are you driving the right behavior for your service business to hit the efficiency and productivity metrics that your pricing formula demands?" - Ken Goodrich
"During the robust years of 2020 to 2022, we operated as if we were in a recession. We focused on our costs, we focused on efficiency, we focused on every innovation we possibly could to drive every bit of [unnecessary] cost out of the business. You should be playing that game, whether it's a big fat market or a recession market. Now if a recession comes, we're ready, and we don't have to make big changes. It's difficult to turn the ship around on a moment's notice."
Goodrich asked, "are you priced right? I can't tell you how many contractors come to me to talk about their business, and I ask how are you pricing your service, which will be very a important component to the economy, if you have to rely on service [revenue]. And are you driving the right behavior for your service business to hit the efficiency and productivity metrics that your pricing formula demands. That's an important game we should all be playing, in the fat times, too."
"Watch your costs and follow spending and pricing models. Be data-driven and metrics-driven," advised Frank DiMarco, chief operating officer, Service Champions Group. "We're always thinking of how we can capitalize on what's happening in the markets. We came in to 2023 not thinking there would be a recession, but I added money to the marketing budget for marketing, in case I needed it. I wanted to have enough drive power if I needed it. The first thing privately-owned businesses do in tough times is retract.
"But even if you're running your business efficiently, you still have to be on it all day, every day. View the economy as an opportunity," DiMarco said.
What do contractors need to better compete with other service industries who are going after the same new employee candidates? That was a question posed to a second panel of leading contractors. Martin Hoover, owner of Empire HVAC in Decatur, Ga., spoke to the contractors' level of importance when compared to other services.
"We're not just crawling under houses, getting dirty and turning wrenches. We're responsible for people's property, health and safety and we have to take that message seriously and drive it home. These are things that give people a purpose and mission in life."
"Train them and keep training them, and not just as a technician but train them to be a leader." - Matt Marsiglio
What must HVAC businesses do to improve the flow of new employees into the HVAC industry, keep them effective after they're hired and entice them to remain with a company?
"Train them and keep training them, and not just as a technician but train them to be a leader, said Matt Marsiglio, director of academy operations, Heartland Home Services.
"Pay them. Hit 'em in the pocketbook. We also have to start fighting back with the message of zero debt training and a great standard of living. We have to tell that story."
The Culture of Your Company
Ray Isaac, president of Isaac Heating, completed this discussion with remarks from a presentation he's given previously, "Never Work a Day in Your Life."
"Here we are, the leaders of our organizations and can control anything we want to do, and we don't love going to work every day? And then we expect our employees to come in with bells on, jumping for joy and excited to be there.
"You've got to have that passion in yourself every single day. If you love what you do, you're never going to work a day in your life. That's one thing my dad (the late Jim Isaac) beat into our heads as kids. We were passionate about it. If you don't love it, you can't expect your employees to love it. When people walk into the building they have to see the excitement on your face about working in heating and air conditioning."
"At Isaac, the what is HVAC but the HOW is creating an enjoyable experience for the client in everything we do."
The WHY is improving the quality of life."
“Here we are, the leaders of our organizations, who can control anything we want to do, and we don’t love going to work every day? And then, we expect our employees to come in with bells on, jumping for joy and excited to be there." - Ray Isaac
“We’re trying to find people that are passionate about heating air conditioning,” Isaac continued. “When we put out a job posting we list all of the ‘whats’ they’re going to do. And sometimes we throw in a ‘how,’ but very rarely do we put a ‘why ‘ in the posting for a position.
“But you can be debt free [v. college debt]. If you like bass fishing, we offer ‘flex chips’. We offer the ability to see the seasons change, to be your own boss on a day-to-day basis, to accomplish things that nobody else is accomplishing. To make sure that you’re bringing comfort to the world to improve the quality of life. Those are the things we should be putting into our job statements,” Isaac said.
Bringing people into an organization involves true engagement.
"There are three things we provide as a company," Isaac shared. "We engage our people, we educate our people, not just train them. and we emmpoower people to make decisions.
"We train people on what to do, how to do it, and educate them on the why. We need to have educated workforces, not 'trained' workforces. You can have both, but we always put an emphasis on education and empowerment. We empower people to make decisions.
Isaac emphasized the error owners or executives make when they have "the trappings of life" all over the office.
"Telling someone they can't park by the front door because that spot is reserved for the owner's Jaguar sends a very bad message to any potential applicant in your organization," he said. "I suggest you have someone go around the office and take pictures of the halls, your offices, your shop, your warehouse and trucks. Then you and your team review those pictures and try to pick them apart. Look for the things those photographs are saying about the culture in your organization."