CHICAGO, IL — The skyline of Chicago is one of the most recognizable in the world. It is comprised of architectural masterpieces as well as simple, functional buildings, and includes three of the five tallest buildings in America. Each building has its own story, but it’s the skyline as a whole that stands as unique and distinctive. The Chicago skyline has evolved over the years, reflecting changes in society and technology, but it has retained its unique identity.
Much like the city’s skyline, there’s a company in Chicago that has stood the test of time, endured changes over the generations, and retained a distinctive identity of its own: Air Comfort.
Air Comfort was started in 1935 when a gentleman by the name of Dr. Willis H. Carrier visited Chicago seeking a company to sell, install, and service his new air-conditioning products in the Midwest.
As fate would have it, several young engineers had just formed a company in Chicago to design and build power plants. The stars aligned for Dr. Carrier and the young engineers, the new mission was undertaken, and Air Comfort was born.
Air Comfort grew, and as it did so it created and developed many services and procedures that would become the standard for the HVAC industry. The company, initially founded on the strength of its design and installation capabilities, quickly recognized the importance of quality maintenance programs and service. The company became an early pioneer of preventive maintenance programs and developed an outstanding service department.
In 1945, the current ownership family joined Air Comfort when James J. Smerz was hired in as a project engineer. He quickly became a top sales engineer and developed relationships with many of Chicago’s leading companies. He eventually became executive vice president and a part owner. In the 1960s, his son, James T. Smerz, was hired, eventually purchasing majority ownership and leading the company through the 1970s and 1980s as it made the transition from an equipment distributor to a full service mechanical contractor. In the early 1990s, upon Jim’s untimely death, his wife, Nancy, stepped in to run the company and led it through a difficult turnaround. Today Nancy still is involved as chairperson of the company’s board of directors, but it is her son, Tim, a third generation, who leads the company as president.
Tim has a simple philosophy that guides the company: building relationships through teamwork. “When you get really good people working together, that attracts other good people, and that attracts good customers,” he says.
A Winning Team
An important part of the culture of Air Comfort is teamwork. According to Tim Smerz, “Our success is determined in large part by how well we work as a team. Whether it’s service and construction, or the technicians working with the sales engineers, our ability to work together is what results in the best solutions for our clients.”
That approach starts at the top, with the management team of Air Comfort. “We really lead as a team. We collaborate and work together to make decisions and execute our plans,” Tim Smerz says. “It’s a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.”
Jim Bartolotta, executive vice president, has been with Air Comfort since 1981. He says, “In the service business, it’s all about your personnel: who is on your team, their level of expertise, and how are they empowered and supported to meet clients’ needs.”
Over the years, Air Comfort has expanded its capabilities to include sheet metal work, building automation systems, energy-recovery technology, and national service to complement its core competencies of service, preventive maintenance, Design/Build and retrofit projects. In 2013, the company did about $17 to $18 million in service work, $20 to $22 million in construction (primarily Design/Build), and $2 million in national accounts business. The company has 48 full-time technicians, two professional engineers, and seven sales engineers on staff.
Hardships Lead to Successes
Like any company that has been in business for nearly 80 years, Air Comfort has been through some ups and downs.
“We’d be hard-pressed to think of a hardship we have not endured,” says Nancy Smerz, with a wry laugh. “But whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
One of the company’s darkest times came during the recession of the early 1990s. Business was down, and then Jim Smerz fell ill. After his untimely passing, a bank called in the company’s line of credit.
Nancy Smerz and Jim Bartolotta were left to make some difficult decisions. The company was revamped and downsized (at least temporarily) as it sought to refocus itself on what it did well: service. Construction was still a part of the picture, but the decision was made to avoid plan-and-spec work and limit new construction to a select few projects. Within a year the company was back to turning a profit (albeit a small one), and the way had been paved for its future success.
Nancy Smerz says that a turnaround specialist — who still serves the company as a member of its board of directors — helped stabilize the company during its turbulent period in the early 1990s. Once it was stabilized, she made the decision to turn management over to Tim.
“One event that greatly determined the course of the company was when I stepped out and Tim stepped in, “ she says. “It’s important to empower the next generation and then get out of the way so there’s no doubt who’s making the decisions.” Nancy now refers to herself as “the company cheerleader.”
Bartolotta makes it clear that the lessons Air Comfort learned during the difficult turnaround continue to serve it well to this day.
“It’s important to identify what you do well and not to try to be something that you’re not,” he says. “At this company we check our egos at the door. We’re not about big ‘brag’ jobs, but about making good, sound judgments about what is best for the company in the long term.”
Tim Smerz says he learned something during that time, too. “I saw how important it was to my mom that we all stick together, both as a management team and as a family,” he says. “That meant a lot to my mother then, and it still means a lot to everyone here today.”
The Culture of Caring
One of the things that has endured at Air Comfort, through both tough times and good times, is its strong culture. According to Jim Bartolotta, “Everything starts at the top. The management here creates a ‘culture of caring’ that applies to both our customers and our employees.”
Lynette Mantey, chief financial officer and treasurer, says Air Comfort is a very humanistic company that finds caring about its employees pays the huge dividend of creating employees who, in turn, truly care about the company."
“When people care, the culture becomes self-policing,” she says. “There are always a lot of eyes out there — our own people’s eyes — making sure we’re doing things right.”
Jack Baer, vice president of construction, adds that the company’s family atmosphere is highly valued by management, to the point that the company will put the brakes on too-fast growth that might alter the culture.
“We’re in a good place right now,” Baer says. “We’re strong financially yet still family. That can get lost as a company grows. We follow the ‘pyramid’ model: a strong, solid base topped with steady, manageable growth. We have never been proponents of ‘Get the work and then we’ll figure out how to get it done.’ We’re very selective about the work we pursue on the construction side. That may not work for everyone, but it has certainly worked for us.”
Slow growth doesn’t mean no growth, however: new construction was about an $8 million part of the business when Baer took over the department in 2005 — meaning it has grown about 200% in eight years.
Walking the Walk
Air Comfort is a preferred supplier to property management giant Jones Lang LaSalle, and services several Jones Lang LaSalle-managed buildings on the headquarters campus of McDonald’s in Oak Brook, IL. Don Bethke, chief engineer of Jones Lang LaSalle, says the fact that Air Comfort has been servicing the McDonald’s campus for more than 15 years is a testament to the company.
“Jones Lang LaSalle and McDonald’s have total trust and confidence in Air Comfort’s ability to get things done,” Bethke adds. “All their people are wonderful to deal with, and that doesn’t just happen — it comes from what they’re doing within their company,” Bethke says.
Bartolotta is quick to turn the praise back around to McDonald’s and (not surprisingly) Air Comfort’s people.
“We’re very fortunate to have a partner like McDonald’s,” Bartolotta says. “Frankly, they’re a contractor’s dream. They’re committed to their campus, understand the value of maintenance, and listen with an open mind when we propose upgrades or replacements.”
He notes that McDonald’s is in the good hands of two of the most experienced members of the Air Comfort family: Sales Engineer Chuck Albrecht, who is celebrating his 30th year at Air Comfort in March, and Service Technician Denny Jungmann, who, in August, will celebrate his 48th year with the company.
A Star in the Industry
Air Comfort has been recognized by the Mechanical Service Contractors of America (MSCA) as an MSCA STAR contractor. This achievement of service excellence is awarded to a select group of mechanical service contractors that meet strict criteria for technical proficiency, safety, and business practices.
Air Comfort also sees the value in being involved in the industry and contributing to it. The company has long been an active member of the Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA) of Chicago, (MSCA), and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). The company is also proud of its long association with Local Union 597 pipefitters, and Local Union 73 sheet metal workers.
Air Comfort is also a proud member of The Unified Group, a select group of HVAC contractors across the country, who collaborate to improve their level of service, share best practices, and even work together on business opportunities.
An Enthusiastic Look Ahead
To other commercial contractors seeking to emulate Air Comfort’s quality work, family atmosphere, and high level of customer satisfaction, Tim Smerz offers a simple piece of advice: don’t become complacent. “Always look to get better,” he says. “And if you want to know how to get better, ask your people for ideas. Include them in the decision-making process and they’ll help you be successful.”
Among the initiatives to improve operations, Air Comfort has recently equipped all of its technicians with ipads to improve communications and efficiency. The company is embracing other emerging technologies such as building information modeling (BIM) and pre-fabrication techniques for construction. And, it’s experiencing generational changes, as many of Air Comfort’s senior technicians will be retiring, and the next generation will step up. According to Tim Smerz, “It is a challenge for us as a company to transition through, and an opportunity for the next generation to fill some big shoes.”
Air Comfort has evolved over the past 80 years, and it will continue to change and grow in the future, just like that magnificent Chicago skyline. With a strong culture and a great team in place, the company looks poised to continue its winning tradition.
Congratulations to Air Comfort,
2014 Commercial Contractor of the Year.
THE UNIFIED GROUP: A PATH TO EXCELLENCE
A trademark of Contracting Business.com’s Contractors of the Year is their willingness to give back to the HVAC industry by sharing their knowledge with their peers. Air Comfort does that in a big way as a founding member and headquarters location for The Unified Group.
The Unified Group was started by Air Comfort President Tim Smerz and Executive Vice President Jim Bartolotta in 1998. Its mission is to provide training and resources to promote the success of the quality independent HVAC contractor, to raise the standards of excellence in the industry, and to ultimately increase the value provided to customers. The Unified Group provides training, business opportunities, and sharing of best practices for independent commercial contractors. The group has more than 50 members nationwide, and its three-person staff operates autonomously as a separate L.L.C out of a dedicated area within Air Comfort’s offices. theunifiedgroup.com.
WHAT IS THE HVAC CONTRACTOR OF THE YEAR?
The ContractingBusiness.com HVAC Contractor of the Year represents an elite group: a forward-thinking class of HVAC contractors who are dynamic and professional in every aspect of their business. They constantly seek new ways to improve their businesses through quality contracting, and they strive to maintain the highest levels of customer service.
These contractors maintain superior treatment of their employees, customers, and suppliers. They establish a reputation as providers of superior products and services. They have an eye on the future, and are aware of changing market conditions as they respond quickly to opportunities in their niche. These contractors follow strategic plans and maximize their returns on investment, and are always exploring new ways to improve their operations. They also maintain high levels of communication within their organizations.
Contractors of the Year are leaders of the HVAC industry. They’re committed to their businesses and the industry, and aren’t afraid to take calculated risks, and explore new market areas.
We welcome nominations for 2015.