Contracting Business Hall of Fame member, Ron Smith passed away this week at the age of 87. It is a sad day for those of us who knew Ron. This is no small number. Ron personally improved the lives of thousands of people in the HVAC industry and many more than that through his innovations, writing, and speaking. Literally, everyone who works in the entire residential service and replacement side of the business has been impacted by Ron Smith. Following is the introduction I wrote to Ron Smith’s landmark book, “HVAC Spells Wealth,” updated.
By the time I first heard about Ron Smith, he was already an icon. In the mid-1980s, I was a young marketing grunt working in the corporate offices of Lennox Industries. Ron Smith was a legendary contractor.
Ron was single-handedly reinventing the business of HVAC contracting. Today, we accept the basic contracting business model Ron created as a matter of course, but when Ron started it was radical.
Prior to Ron Smith, most contractors saw service as an imposition. The replacement market was in its infancy. The action was in new construction and add-ons. Conventional wisdom said the way to build a big, profitable contracting company was to play in the field of residential new construction. Ron turned this notion, and the industry, on its head.
Counter to conventional wisdom, Ron built a big, profitable company through nothing but service, replacement, and add-on work. A $15 million contracting service and replacement contracting company is nothing to sneeze at today. In the mid eighties, it was beyond comprehension. Ron Smith built one.
Not only did Ron build a huge and wildly successful company, he did it in a smallish, one-season market with a transient population that migrated south in the winter. He did it in Ft Myers, Florida. It’s hard to sell furnaces in Ft Myers.
Ron’s ability to forge Modern Air rested on his dedication to processes. Before anyone even considered the notion of a process-centric contracting company, Ron built one.
Building Modern Air was sufficient to make Ron a legend, but not an icon. Freely sharing his innovations, his ideas, his techniques, his processes, and his approach made him an icon. Ron became the industry evangelist for service, marketing, sales, and profitability. He generously told anyone and everyone who would listen how he built his company and how they could replicate his success.
And listen people did. Contractors turned out when Ron spoke. Everything he wrote was widely read. He was the guru. You paid attention to the guru.
It wasn’t only contractors who followed Ron’s teaching, advice, and counsel. Manufacturing executives, trade magazine editors and publishers, and association executives all paid close attention to Ron. I know. I was there.
While I wasn’t present for the start, at Modern Air Conditioning, when it served as Ron’s laboratory for HVAC innovation, I have spent long hours listening to the people who were part of it. It must have been a heady time. Modern’s sales force included Tom McCart and Charlie Greer. The sales manager was John Young. All three went on to become national figures in the HVAC industry and McCart and Greer would be inducted into the Contracting Business Hall of Fame.
Recruiting is one of the key success factors for great leaders. Greer, McCart, and Young were not the only people Ron propelled to national HVAC prominence. Al Roach and Ruth King were two more Ron Smith hires. And there are others, as well.
So what were the innovations Ron introduced? How about the service agreement? Ron literally invented the residential service agreement. Most service agreements continue to be based on Ron’s original design. In fact, it’s remarkable how many of the HVAC sales, marketing, and business forms, procedures, and methods kicking around the industry can be traced to Ron.
Dedicated residential replacement salespeople were another radical concept introduced by Ron. Though they didn’t know it at the time, Charlie Greer and Tom McCart were hired as part of an experiment. The experiment succeeded. At Modern, Tom became the industry’s first salesperson to sell a million dollars of residential replacements, a feat considered impossible before Tom did it.
One of Ron’s most visionary moves was the establishment of Service America. Before consolidation, before contractor alliances, and before all other contractor groups, there was Service America. As the industry’s first franchise, it was also the industry’s first private contractor group.
Service America was the tool Ron first used to disseminate his business philosophy and methods nationally. After Service America, he trained thousands how to sell and market through his Dominant Market Share program. And of course, Ron continued to speak at industry events and write for industry publications.
After the consolidation movement swept through the industry and the initial principals cashed out, someone had to figure out how to make the behemoths profitable. Service Experts turned to Ron. He served as COO of Service Experts through its purchase by Lennox.
Ron has received just about every award and honor HVAC has to give. He was inducted into Contracting Business Magazine’s Contracting Hall of Fame. He’s been presented with the Service Roundtable’s Servant Leader Award. In 2022, every major trade magazine and industry association united to jointly proclaim Ron Smith as “The Father of Modern Contracting Business Practices.”
Given the accomplishments, the honors and awards, and the praise, a lesser man might have succumbed to egotism. Not Ron. He was surprisingly down-to-earth, humble, and approachable. Ron Smith was a genuinely nice person.
Ron retired soon after Lennox bought Service Experts. Well, sort of. He continued to consult on a limited basis. He helped found Service Nation (and served on its Board of Directors until it was sold to EverCommerce). Ron also served as a mentor for a Service Nation Alliance Advisory Board. The program was based on processes Ron created.
In his retirement, Ron did more than HVAC. He started a farm south of Nashville. He bought properties, fixed them up, and flipped them. For years, he and his wife, Betty, participated in mission trips around the world. Ron was more active in retirement than most people are during their peak years of business.
Ron also made time to write “HVAC Spells Wealth” and a number of other books. I was excited when he told me he was going to write “HVAC Spells Wealth.” Contractors needed it. Consultants and trainers needed it. Trade schools needed it. Manufacturer and distributor territory managers needed it. The industry needed it. I bought a copy for every person I employed.
Years ago at HVAC Comfortech, a group of us were sitting around the table brainstorming solutions to all of the industry’s problems under the charismatic direction of Don Kardux. The group included Dominick Guarino, David Holt, Charlie Greer, Tom McCart, Mike Weil, and others. Don asked each us who we considered to be the industry’s best marketer.
It was unanimous. All of us named Ron. He was the guru.
It has been my great honor to know Ron and call him my friend and mentor. I mourn his passing, but take comfort that Ron, strong in faith, passed to a better world.
Rest In Peace, Ron Smith.