Service Unlimited’s 50 years of success is tethered to an immovable and total commitment to quality, training, safety, and fairness. You can expect more of the same in the next 50.
Welcome to Carl Wolf’s neighborhood, otherwise known as the state of Delaware, and bits of Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. It’s “his” neighborhood based on the great number of commercial HVAC projects handled by Wolf and his team at Service Unlimited, Inc., New Castle, DE.
At last count, the company was servicing buildings for approximately 600 active customers. And, although there are other quality contractors managing comfort at many buildings in these parts, Service Unlimited, Inc. has established itself as a company with a special connection to the region. Incorporated in 1962, it had a good head start.
Friends Follow a Dream
Richard “Dick” Wolf, an electrical engineer, and Eugene Gaumer, an accountant, worked for the William H. McDaniel company, an oil delivery and burner service company. When work was reduced at the company, they struck out to form a service organization that would be second to none. They appreciated the region’s rich historical past (Delaware, you might recall, was the first state), and were determined to play an important role in building its future, as comfort heating and cooling reached its first real breakout phase.
“My father and Gene Gaumer had an understanding of the importance of promoting the company, and the importance of the HVAC industry. They weren’t planning to be there for just a few years,” says Carl Wolf, company owner and president. “They took it very seriously.” Dick Wolf served as lead technician, service manager, and system designer. Gene Gaumer managed accounting and administrative duties out of a singe-room storefront office in Wilmington. With the purchase of four panel trucks from DuPont, and the hiring of three service technicians, they were on their way. The majority of SUI’s work at that time consisted of HVAC service, hydronic heating, steam, and forced air systems, but mechanical cooling systems weren’t far behind.
Their big break came in 1963, when the Wilmington Dry Goods Company needed to replace a 350-ton ammonia-based air conditioning system with a new, 425-ton Freon-based system. SUI completed the project in advance, thanks to creative planning and organization, which would become a company calling card.
“Wilmington Dry Goods put us on the map,” Wolf’s son and company owner/president Carl Wolf recalls. “They were like a regional Walmart of that era. We serviced their heating systems, and eventually, they wanted air conditioning.”
Additional opportunities and challenges included DuPont’s Hagley Museum and Library, Happy Harry’s drug stores, lots of historical building work for State of Delaware, and many church comfort renovation projects. SUI has retained many of its first customers, including Hagley Museum, Arlon, Analtech, Wright & Simon, and Bethel AME Church.
Between 1962 and 1987, many new and existing commercial properties were being fitted with air conditioning systems. The question for many builders and building managers: who would service it? Answer: SUI.
“Over that period of time, we positioned SUI to be the company of choice,” says Brian Martinenza, Jr., vice president of operations, now in his eighth year at SUI. “We installed it, and we promised to service it and be there to replace it. Combine that with being fair and equitable, and that’s how you forge relationships,” he says.
By 1964, SUI employed 15 people and was running 10 trucks. It moved to a three-story, 9,000 sq. ft. building.
Its second move, in 1982, took SUI’s operations to 3400 Market St., a 15,000 sq. ft. building for 35 employees.
Since 1997, SUI has operated out of a 20,000 sq. ft. facility in New Castle, large enough for a shop, warehouse, and nearly 50 full-time employees,
A New Era Begins
Eugene Gaumer passed away in 1973. In 1986, with the passing of Dick Wolf, Carl assumed full ownership of SUI. With the weight of the business now resting on his shoulders, he began to reevaluate the firm’s offerings, with an eye toward increased growth. This sparked an important change in philosophy, and he gradually moved the business to adopting single-source capabilities, to reduce customer system breakdowns and repair costs.
Moving forward, SUI would provide Design/Build, system testing and inspection, maintenance and service, and HVAC and building management control systems. Service technicians are on call 24/7, to ensure its contract customers receive prompt, around-the-clock response. Larger facilities have web-based control systems, allowing for remote diagnosis and service call resolution.
Carl Wolf was “born into the business.” He would join his father on service calls, and he gradually learned diagnostic procedures for oil burners and other equipment, which formed the basis for the commercial comfort systems of today. It didn’t take long for him to discover his life’s work. Subsequent formal education in mechanical systems and business administration solidified his knowledge base.
“I made up my mind at an early age that this is what I wanted to do. As someone who always wanted to ‘fix it myself.’ I found it challenging,” he says.
Dick Wolf handed down to Carl the philosophy of fairness in pricing, and friendship — valuable advice, and keys to SUI’s continued success.
“I realized that to succeed, you had to develop long-term relationships with good people. As we began to develop our customer base, and customers started to grow, we were always there for them,” Wolf says.
He learned that dependability brings customers back, time after time. The most recent example is work SUI has on the drawing board for the Artisans Bank Building.
“We installed that building’s air conditioning in 1974, replaced it in 1995, and will soon be starting our third project there,” Wolf says.
Growth of Planned Maintenance
SUI’s business relationships are based on its commitment to excellence, and an understanding of business-building basics.
“We weren’t going to wait for the phone to ring,” Wolf says. “We needed to develop maintenance and service programs, which allowed us to develop long-term relationships. We also adapted to acquire customers who need service all the time, such as industrial manufacturing plants that need chilled water 365 days a year. If they don’t have chilled water for manufacturing, they’re out of business.”
The team at SUI has developed a reputation for thinking ahead, as personified by its proactive pursuit of planned maintenance. They believe that anticipating needs, rather than just reacting to emergencies, is the best way to get to know customers’ facilities, and the best way to provide high quality service at a lower price.
“With preventive maintenance, we’re trying to eliminate service calls and eliminate breakdowns. We start by evaluating mechanical systems, operating, and energy costs, downtime, specific problem areas, and customer budgets. Then, we devise a planned maintenance program to achieve their objectives,” Wolf says.
Managing Based on Understanding, Feedback
Carl Wolf is a results-oriented manager who thrives on seeing progress and positive results from his employees’ hard and dedicated work. He’s also a realist, who has changed his management style to better relate to today’s technicians.
“The top-down management style doesn’t work anymore,” Wolf claims. “Relationships have to be built with employees, and be focused on their needs, whether it’s their interpersonal needs, technical needs, family issues that arise, ill children, even a sick pet. I reflect on how I can help them work it all out, including making their jobs easier,” he says.
An open door and attentive ear are essential elements in this approach.
“We listen to our technicians and installers. In response, we’ve changed some procedures, such as how we deliver tools and materials to job sites. We’ve made adjustments in truck inventories based on technicians’ recommendations. We purchased new tools because they told us the old tools were out of date. They want tools that are lighter, quicker, and easier to maneuver, for better productivity. You need that kind of input from your field team,” Wolf stresses.
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In the past, SUI had layers of management, including a purchasing agent, a shop manager, and multiple project managers in charge of only two or three projects. In today’s economy, those positions aren’t feasible, and now a “team leader” approach is used. A field project is assigned to a lead installer with many years of experience in the SUI way of doing things. SUI is empowering its employees.
Adds Martinenza, “We work on developing trust and responsibility, allowing people be autonomous, and come up with their own ways to get it done. When you allow them to do it ‘their way,’ they do it quicker, cleaner, and better, and they’re more comfortable. We communicate the standards, and they work within that framework,” he says.
Offering some proof that the method works, is John Emery, operations manager, Sanford School, a K-12 private school in Hockessin, DE. SUI manages the comfort systems for 16 campus buildings.
“I come from a construction background, so I can tell when the quality of service is very good. SUI has a professionalism that accompanies all of its work. Carl Wolf hasn’t stayed stagnant. He’s willing to change how things are done, and is open to new ideas,” Emery says.
Reputation: Good News Travels Fast
Service Unlimited’s marketing strategy is simple and effective: positive referrals from satisfied customers who testify to SUI’s solid reputation for superb customer service, a high level of technical expertise, and dedicated employees.
Ralph Rose, SUI’s 30-year vice president of construction operations, says the firm wins jobs based on strength of service, Carl Wolf’s reputation, friendship, and honesty, and by being a Design/Build contractor.
“Customers have confidence in us, trust us, and realize they don’t need to get any other contractors involved. That kind of word-of-mouth advertising leads to repeat business,” he says. Because, Rose adds, it isn’t just a jungle out there — it’s an out- and-out bidding war, with as many as 15 contractors chasing one job. That’s something SUI avoids.
“Many contractors are taking jobs at cost, just to keep working. They don’t have the capabilities that we have on the Design/Build end: solutions, equipment, and design. We provide options without overwhelming them,” Rose explains.
“Everyone has loyal customers that we’ll never have, but we can’t rest on our laurels,” Martinenza adds. Our goal isn’t to double our territory. We want sustainable, modest growth.”
“The Design/Build approach is Carl’s legacy,” he says. “It’s helped to establish our credibility, by designing to suit the customers’ needs.” “Whether it’s a retrofit or a completely new install, I have to see in my mind what the job will look like before we start,” Carl says. “What’s best for the customer? What’s the customer’s goal? From there, we proceed to meet criteria within budget and deliver it on time.”
Strength in The Numbers
After graduating from college with a degree in business administration and economics, vice president, operations Brian Martinenza, Jr. wanted to apply his education and interests in a dynamic environment that offered a variety of challenges.
Martinenza prefers to analyze the numbers rather than just “crunch ‘em” — because in-between those lines, he knows he will find service patterns that can lead to customer longevity and improved SUI performance.
“I enjoy getting into the numbers and figuring out why things are the way they are, where we’re falling short, or what we’re doing better. I don’t like to look at the bottom line at the end of the day and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing great.’ I find a way to pull out those items and analyze them, so we can perform better in some area.”
If Martinenza see a growth pattern and loyalty developing with a customer, he’ll work up a plan to lock in a price for the next three years. It’s great SUI job security, should a competitor come calling.
“We can’t be stuck in a framework of, ‘every year brings an increase in prices and that’s that.’ It’s very competitive out there,” he says.
A Lasting Influence
SUI President Carl Wolf insists on carrying on his father’s legacy of professionalism.
“I tell people that when we complete a job, that the first thing the customer sees is level placement of equipment, and straight ductwork and piping. If the piping’s crooked, it indicates general sloppiness. My father taught me to take pride in every job, to take it personally. You need to be able to look at a job and be proud of your work.
“Do it right the first time. It only takes a little bit longer to do it right the first time, and twice as long to go back and fix it. I tell my employees that we’re fortunate to be in this industry, and to have our services be in such demand,” Wolf explains. “They must continue to improve upon their skills as this industry grows. As long as you keep doing that, you bring value to the company and customers. You don’t need to be the low bidder. People will always pay a little bit more to have it done correctly.”
Another Worthy Winner
Many words can be used to describe SUI: friendly, dedicated, professional, concerned, team-oriented, and of course, successful. Its 50th anniversary this year happily coincides with another special recognition: the 2012 Contracting Business.com Commercial HVAC Contractor of the Year Award.
Throughout the award’s history, we’ve bestowed it upon companies that are jewels in the HVAC industry’s crown, and this company is indeed a gem.
Congratulations to Carl Wolf, and the team at Service Unlimited, Inc., for 50 years of success, and for being selected as the Contracting Business.com 2012 Commercial HVAC Contractor of the Year.
Bringing Up New Talent
Service Unlimited, Inc. has participated in a co-op program with local voctational/technical schools as a way to become known to students, and attract them to SUI.
This program typically starts with a summer position that acts as an audition period for students to prove their commitment to HVAC. The summer months of heat, long days, and hard work are a good proving ground for young people trying to solidify their career path. Once the school year begins, the selected students enter into an agreement that allows them to work for two weeks and then attend classes for two weeks on an alternating basis. Students who are successful in the program and prove to be a good fit with Service Unlimited are typically hired to full-time positions upon graduation.
The vocational/technical schools in the region are a tremendous feeder program for emerging talent in the HVAC industry and allow SUI the opportunity to develop students into technicians during their formative years.
Ultimately, the developmental period and commitment from Service Unlimited has resulted in some great mechanicals minds having an opportunity they may not have gotten otherwise.
“There was originally a fear of offering too much training because they’d be stolen for a higher wage. We’ve not had that issue, because we take care of our employees,” says SUI President Carl Wolf.
“We allow them to develop, give them flexibility to learn from their mistakes, and to grow as a person and technician. Building pride in accomplishments is a key reason for our success.”
Evolution of Training
Service Unlimited recently established a revised, comprehensive technician training program, directed by Tony Renda, director of service quality. The program will address technical skills, soft skills, and procedural skills, including the RSES eLearning Portal to supply targeted areas for training. Internet videos, vendor -and manufacturer-supplied information and other written/audio/visual sources will be used, based on the needs of technicians.
Sixty weekly topics for 2012 will include fall protection, customer service skills, safe use of ladders, carbon monoxide dangers, rooftop unit preventive maintenance procedures, defensive driving techniques, and many more.
“We felt it was important to get back to our training roots, which is why we’ve established this training program,” says Brian Martinenza, vice president of operations.
All SUI field employees are OSHA 10-hour trained, and trained in aerial/scissor lift operation.
The company issues all safety equipment, including full body harnesses for aerial lift work. Tony Renda leads safety meetings every Friday for the service team. Construction safety meetings are held on job sites, when they won’t interfere with job completion, or if the team is at a critical juncture that requires a safety reminder.
“We have good safety camaraderie,” company President Carl Wolf adds. “One technician will remind the other to be safe. In any given week, we’ll have two or three rooftop system replacements, and it’s good to see my guys on those jobs, where one knows all the crane lift signals, everyone’s wearing their hard hats, and there are tag lines on equipment. It’s good to know we have a conscientious safety plan in place.”
WHAT IS THE CONTRACTOR OF THE YEAR?
The ContractingBusiness.com Commercial 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. The high-quality management of these companies parallels that of many top corporations in the U.S. today. These contractors follow strategic plans and maximize their returns on investment, and are always exploring new ways to improve their operations. They maintain high levels of communication within their organizations, are aware of changing market conditions, and respond quickly to opportunities. They’re the leaders of our 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 at any time. Visit this link for the entire list of our nomination criteria. Then, nominate your company or a colleague. Send nominations to Terry McIver, executive editor, at [email protected].