Holding Down the Fort

March 1, 2010
The Gillette Air Conditioning Company has carried on a 50-year tradition of quality commercial HVAC installation and service in the heart of Alamo country.

Inspiring historical tales can be found everywhere, and they needn't always involve epic battles, treaties, or inventions. The business world is full of great success stories, and this is one of them.

The Gillette Air Conditioning Company, San Antonio, TX, is celebrating 50 years in business. That's an historic feat, to be sure. And, like much of the history of the great State of Texas, Gillette's is a classic tale of initiative, rugged determination, and success.

Events surrounding the Gillette company's place in HVAC history don't contain the drama of the 1835 Battle of the Alamo, but they feature a worthy cast — that of a pioneering family-owned company that started small and became a leader in commercial HVAC installation and service.

As he ponders the 50-year milestone, second-generation president Vince Gillette, Jr. understands the significance of such extraordinary longevity in a tough and competitive industry.

“We're very proud of all dad and the family has accomplished. My understanding is that only 20% of second generation companies make it,” he says. And make it they have.

Vince Gillette, Sr., and Andy Anderson founded Anderson-Gillette in 1959. Sadly, soon after they started the business, Anderson contracted Parkinson's disease, and died six months later. Vince later purchased Anderson's share of the business from his widow, and renamed it Gillette Air Conditioning. He and his wife Margie buckled up for a thrilling ride, one filled with all the joys and challenges of family and business life.

The business prospered, and Vince and Margie pressed on. She balanced invoicing and multiple other duties with nurturing their four children, while he put in long hours to build the business. Today, she oversees the management of certain key accounts, and issues related to maintenance of the company's 85-vehicle fleet.

Margie Gillette says she and Vince have enjoyed a true partnership in their marriage and in the business. “My husband's always had a passion for the business. That passion drove him to excel back in those first days, and it's what drives him today.”

Vince Gillette Sr.'s management style has always been based on the quality of work performed. “You have to do a good job, period,” he says.

“We do good work, and consequently, we have many repeat customers. Schools, hospitals, boiler changeouts, chiller changeouts, plumbing — it's all quality, all the time. We keep up with the job, and we don't fall behind.”

Blessings of a Family Business

Vince Gillette, Jr. entered the business full time in 1981. His brothers, Tom and Ed, soon followed. All three attended Texas Technical Institute and earned associates' degrees in applied science. Their sister, Sharon Walls, serves on an advisory board that meets quarterly.

“It's been a blessing to work within a family business all these years, to work with dad, for him to teach us all he knows, and to build on our various successes,” Vince Jr. says. He became president of Gillette Air Conditioning in 2000.

The Gillette brothers' individual management roles are clearly defined, and they try to stay in their respective lanes as much as possible. Each has a job to do that's essential for a smooth-running business. “We've established a very good organizational chart that each of us fits into, and we try not to let the lines blur, so that one Gillette doesn't get involved with what another Gillette is supposed to be in charge of,” Vince says.

Gillette Air Conditioning serves customers within a 150-mile radius of San Antonio. Its commercial HVAC construction division is comprised of:

  • a tenant finishing-out group, which handles smaller construction and refurbishing projects in shopping malls, managed by Todd Cabiness;
  • a Federal projects group that includes projects for military bases, Veterans Administration sites, National Guard facilities, and other Federally-funded projects, managed by Kevin Hays;
  • a general construction group that tackles school, hospital, or office building projects, managed by Tom Gillette;
  • ductwork fabrication group, managed by Ed Gillette;
  • a special projects group, guided by 37-year employee Dean Bowen.

Wayne Riddle manages commercial HVAC service, and Dede Gillette, Vince, Jr.'s wife of 25 years, manages the warranty division and billing.

Gillette Air Conditioning works according to Design/Build or Plan-and-Spec methods, as needed. Its retrofit/new construction split hovers around 50/50.

The commercial construction division enjoyed gross sales of $34 million in 2009. It's on track to hit $38 million in 2010, thanks to the growth of the company's reputation, and the addition of plumbing services, which had previously been a fixture solely of the Federal division.

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Well-trained and All Tech'd Out

The company's 200 employees include 20 North American Technician Excellence (NATE)-certified service technicians, 50 piping journeymen, 10 master plumbers, and 50 sheet metal journeymen. The remaining are apprentices, designers, and administrative assistants.

Other training includes certification in Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEED®), training in Building Information Modeling, and various manufacturers' training certifications. The company employs three LEED-AP designers who are schooled in the latest Building Information Modeling (BIM) software tools. It currently has three LEED projects ongoing.

Designers are schooled in Computer-Aided Design (CAD), which is supported by automatic plasma arc metal cutting lines, computer-programmed coil lines, and the most advanced process piping fabrication shop in the region.

Listening, Learning, and Sharing Ideas

Teaching, listening, and learning are hallmarks of Gillette's success. Vince, Sr. taught his sons everything he knew, and his sons earned their technical degrees, and joined the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), and other construction-based associations. They've also formed an outside advisory board to review management issues on a quarterly basis (see “Management Improvements” sidebar).

The advice they've gained through ACCA MIX® Groups is a major element in their success. The company belongs to two separate MIX Groups, each with 10 members in non-competing regions. Vince, Sr. — who was ACCA chairman in 1984 — continues to participate in the original ACCA MIX Group, which was formed in 1975. Vince, Jr. joined an established MIX Group in 1995. He can't say enough about its value.

“As an outside ‘advisory board,’ a MIX Group is a way to share best business practices, bounce ideas off of each other, ask questions, and obtain advice on every kind of issue or problem,” he says.

While the region is engulfed by a steep reduction in new construction, Gillette is going strong, due primarily to the fine reputation it's earned with general contractors. With the lack of work in the area, and many low bids, general contractors aren't necessarily willing to take a chance on an unproven subcontractor for less money. Quality must be evident, from planning to completion. In response, the Gillettes believe in establishing a plan of action, and sticking to it.

“Customers are willing to pay a little bit more for our levels of quality assurance, our knowledge, and our 50 years of experience,” Vince Jr. says.

“They're very customer service oriented,” says Harry Moeller, executive vice president, Bartlette Cocke General Contractors. “We've always enjoyed the Gillette's ‘can do’ attitude. They attack a problem and find the answer.”

Ductwork Right on Time

Gillette believes in strict adherence to ductwork fabrication schedules.

“Pre-fabrication is the key to our success in commercial construction,” Ed Gillette says. “We'll do anything we can in the shop that will save the field people an extra step. We save them time, and we control the quality to the highest standard possible, by building it in the shop environment.”

Up to 90% of the ductwork for any large project is drawn in-house and downloaded to a computerized fabrication system. The ductwork assembly team builds off of those drawings.

Gillette says the accuracy, consistency, and quality is so much better by doing it the same way each time. Piping systems are also prefabbed, right down to the P-trap for an air handler.

A Favorite of General Contractors

The interaction between general contractors (GCs) and sub-contractors is arguably the most important ingredient to success on a new construction site. The Gillette team has enjoyed great working relationships with their GCs. Their 50-year history of quality, integrity, and knowledge precedes them, and they live up to their reputation.

“We've done all that's been asked of us by our general contractors. They know that when we complete the job, it's going to last 30 years; not seven, and it won't be changed out by another contractor of lesser quality,” Vince says.

Improving Service, Connecting the Dots

Service Manager Wayne Riddle joined Gillette after a long career as service branch manager for a leading controls manufacturer. His goal is to improve the company's overall service mindset.

“This is a marvelous company, however, the focus on the service business had been lost over time,” Riddle admits. “The Gillettes are good, hard-working, customer-oriented business people. Construction was taking a lot of the focus, and I'm helping bring some procedural service items back into play.”

Riddle is helping to grow Gillette's Service Agreement renewal process. “By doing so, you gain an opportunity to redevelop relationships, and strengthen others by contacting customers with frequency,” he explains.

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Riddle's innovations have involved developing two separate service teams, each with a dispatcher and leader, responsible and accountable for a vertical piece of business, such as profitability and efficiency.

“Efficiency has improved, and we've gone from having a billing backlog of 21 days to zero days,” he says.

As special projects manager, Dean Bowen makes sure “all the dots are connected.” He says he's thoroughly enjoyed his 37 years at the company, and the privilege of watching the Gillette sons grow to become leaders. He's especially impressed by the company's swift customer response.

“Just the other day I got a call from a customer, thanking us for our quick response to an emergency call on a Sunday. You respond quickly, and that's worth something,” he says.

More History in the Making

Vince Gillette Sr. is a soft-spoken man with a fire in his belly for quality work. His sons, Vince Jr., Tom, and Ed, are worthy heirs to a 50-year tradition of excellence. They're happy and honored to carry out their dad's original mission. The supporting team of managers, fabricators, field installers, service technicians, and office assistants face each day as an opportunity to produce high quality mechanical systems and deliver superior customer service.

“Gillette Air Conditioning began in 1959 with one truck, based on the principals of honesty, integrity and a ‘Can Do’ attitude: Never break a promise or leave a job unfinished. Never! I'm proud that these values are the lifeblood of the company today,” says Vince Gillette, Sr.

Therefore, let history note the fine contributions this family-owned business has made to the quality of commercial HVAC contracting in the San Antonio region.

Happy 50th Birthday, Gillette Air Conditioning!

And, in recognition of its many contributions to the status of the HVAC industry, and for its determined commitment to excellence in commercial HVAC contracting, Contracting Business is pleased to name Gillette Air Conditioning the Contracting Business 2010 Commercial Contractor of the Year!

What is a Contractor of the Year?

The Contractor of the Year represents an elite group, a forward-thinking class of HVAC contractors who are dynamic and professional in every respect, and who constantly seek new ways to improve business through quality contracting and the highest level of customer service.

These contractors strive for recognition by providing superior products and services. They watch for changing market conditions and respond quickly to new opportunities, even in the most challenging of times. They are tenacious - demanding the best from themselves and their people - unafraid to take calculated risks and try new things.

The rising number of contracting companies displaying this high level of professionalism makes our decision increasingly difficult each year. For 2010, Gillette Air Conditioning, San Antonio, TX, exemplifies the qualities and commitment to success that we witnessed in many of this year's candidates. We congratulate Gillette Air Conditioning, for its determination to prosper amid today's challenging economic conditions.

Management Improvements

A successful business has to address and improve on weaknesses that reduce productivity. As Gillette Air Conditioning expanded in the 1980s, some serious reflection lead to the instatement of mid-level managers. Those managers now include a controller, estimators, and project managers for the three main construction groups.

“Our middle managers are really upper-level managers,” Vince Gillette, Jr. explains. “Each person controls their own department, with prescribed goals. For example, sheet metal is one profit center, and piping is another. We watch each of those closely, to see how we're faring. If we need to change something, we do so as soon as possible.”

Another key management improvement was made about six years ago. An advisory board was formed as a way to evaluate prospective ventures and initiatives on a quarterly basis. It's comprised of father and sons, sister Sharon Walls, and four advisors from outside the company — including Bill Bassett of Bassett Mechanical in Wisconsin; Steve Bartlett of New England Air Systems in Vermont; Ted Popp, CPA, a retired partner at Ernst & Young; and Randy Dent, a local business owner.

This approach ensures that new ideas are thoroughly and objectively examined prior to making a final decision.

About the Author

Terry McIver | Content Director - CB

A career publishing professional, Terence 'Terry' McIver has served three diverse industry publications in varying degrees of responsibility since 1987, and worked in marketing communications for a major U.S. corporation.He joined the staff of Contracting Business magazine in April 2005.

As director of content for Contracting Business, he produces daily content and feature articles for CB's 38,000 print subscribers and many more Internet visitors. He has written hundreds, if not two or three, pieces of news, features and contractor profile articles for CB's audience of quality HVACR contractors. He can also be found covering HVACR industry events or visiting with manufacturers and contractors. He also has significant experience in trade show planning.