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The Man Atop Mount HVAC

April 10, 2024
Ken Haines leads The Wrench Group, which is currently 28 HVAC, plumbing and electrical businesses powered by excellent people and an excellent culture.

If there was a Mount Rushmore-type monument for HVAC pioneers, Ken Haines’s visage would be up there.

He wasn’t the first HVAC contractor, nor would he agree that he’s the best. But in the 20th and 21st Centuries’ long line of service business entrepreneurs, Ken Haines has shown a unique commitment and passion for the comfort business, which he eventually took to a mountainous level of excellence.

You might know Ken as the owner of Coolray, which he had acquired from Blue Dot, the organization behind the HVAC industry’s first consolidation movement of the late 1990s. That ownership took him to where he is today, as CEO of The Wrench Group, which operates 28 HVAC, plumbing and electrical businesses in 15 states.

We spoke with Ken Haines recently for our 2024 series on “The Greats” in the HVAC industry. It was an enlightening discussion.

Once upon a time, Ken Haines, now 62, was a 15-year-old high school student livening on Long Island, NY, and he was already certain that his destiny was in the heating and air conditioning business.

“People ask me, ‘how on earth at 15 did you know what you wanted to do with your life, in terms of a career?’ The answer is, I have no idea. But for some reason, when I was in high school in the mid-1970s, I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I decided in my junior year of high school to get into the air conditioning and major appliance repair business.”

Haines realized that education came first, so he divided his time between a local trade school and high school, which gave him a tremendous career head start.

Ken’s parents, while impressed, were not happy. They wanted him to pursue college, as most parents tend to do. To his credit, he stood firm, and said he would try college once he had a start in a business.

“They agreed to that, however, I excelled so much in trade school and loved it so much that I decided I would not go to college. As a compromise, I agreed to work for someone else’s business for one year and then start my own company.”

He started Haines Air Conditioning & Appliance Repair in the middle of his 19th year and has been in the HVAC business ever since.

Marriage and a Move South

Next came Ken’s marriage to his wife in 1987, and he also decided that New York City was not the ideal location for growing an HVAC business. There were too many apartments and not much potential for growing a residential HVAC business.

He decided that booming Florida was the place to be. “We packed up and moved to the Orlando area, which was expanding like crazy. What a great market to own an air conditioning business.”

He sold his business to a locally owned operator, and he and his wife settled in Florida.

Ken will tell you that advance planning is essential for any business decision, and he applied that belief by first working for another company.

“I decided I would settle in by working for someone so I could learn the Florida market. Ironically, I worked for Service America, owned by RotoRooter. They were the largest plumbing business in the world.”

Ken excelled at Service America, and became such a valued employee that he lost track of starting his own business. But it was an amazing time of learning, especially since he had to report to the CEO.

In 1997, that CEO was pulled away to help start Blue Dot, a major business consolidator based in Fort Lauderdale. From 1997 to 2003, Haines was in charge of fixing, acquiring and overseeing some of Blue Dot’s acquisitions across the US.

Consolidation did not last, due largely to Blue Dot’s habit of changing the identity of acquired businesses. This tended to alienate local customers who felt very much “at home” with the previous brands.

CoolRay & The Wrench Group

In 2003, as Blue Dot started to unwind, Ken purchased Coolray, a $6 million dollar residential service and replacement business based in Atlanta. By 2015, he had taken Coolray’s revenue to over $60 million.

Ken’s biggest step forward came in 2016, when he merged with two other amazing contractors – Paul Kelly of Parker & Sons, and Alan O’Neill of Abacus Plumbing. They got the financial advice they knew was so valuable to this type of enterprise, and offered the three-company business to private equity. It was the beginning of what was to become known as The Wrench Group.

Today, The Wrench Group is comprised of 28 companies across 15 states, with approximately 7,300 employees and more than 400,000 service agreements. A sampling of acquired Wrench Group companies include Service Champions, Plumbline, Lindstrom and Morris-Jenkins.

Not to repeat Blue Dot’s mistake, The Wrench Group brands get to stay that way, with no name changes, and the same team. Owners of the acquired companies are expected to remain, and the rewards for all are great.

We like to say, we pour jet fuel on an already raging fire,” Haines said. “Then we focus on a handful of key enablers to help the business grow.

Wrench Group locations are like-minded, and set on becoming the gold standard for high-performing contractors, providing world-class customer satisfaction.

The Wrench Group’s core values are trust, customer service and safety. From its customer service members, sales team, service and maintenance staff, and all our support personnel, Wrench Group locations demonstrate great leadership and a winning culture.

“Our operating model is designed to foster growth while we maximize investments,” Haines explained. “We want Wrench Group locations to remain entrepreneurial, with a good amount of autonomy,” Haines said. “The owners stay and continue to work hard. It is structured as a partnership. We take rank-and-file managers – service, install, call center and others, and provide them with ‘profits units’ that operate something like stock. They can come along for the ride and make a lot of money. It works very well. It all starts by partnering with well-run businesses with great cultures and great reputations,” Haines explained.

There’s some standardization of financial procedures, but Haines said Wrench Group does not centralize just of its own sake. What is working is allowed to keep on working.

“We like to say, we pour jet fuel on an already raging fire,” Haines said. “Then we focus on a handful of key enablers to help the business grow, and we figure out how to continue to grow the businesses organically.”

Organic growth in Haines’s eyes is based on a number of factors. First is making the phone ring – “We have a good recipe for that,” he said. Next comes speed of service – ‘how fast can you get here?’ “If you’re under-staffed in Phoenix, you can’t tell them you’ll be there in 10 days.”

The others are finance, accounting and marketing. “This industry has always been one of the last to adapt to new technology,” Haines revealed. “Businesses don’t use data to run their companies, but they should. We look for ways to help our businesses find better, real-time insights into their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).”

The Wrench Group’s marketing efforts have been energized and strategized by a data link, in process for the past six years. “We have full-time data scientists that help us connect with the customer and provide a better customer experience.”

The Wrench Group’s current, 28-company team are a model for others. However, many contractors are tops in their fields, and this praise of The Wrench Group is not meant to disparage the many great HVAC brands at work today. But speaking to Ken Haines was an illumination into the endless possibilities that exist within all service companies, regardless of whether they make it to Mount Rushmore.


The previous version of this article contained the following inaccurracies:

  • It stated that Ken Haines began to think about becoming an entrepreneur in the early-1970s. This happened in the mid-1970s.
  • It stated that at the time Mr. Haines purchased Coolray, it was an $8 million business. The correct amount is $6 million.
  • It implied that Ken Haines was responsible for overseeing all of Blue Dot's acquired companies. It was actually "some" of those companies.
  • Blue Dot's headquarters was listed as having been in Sioux Falls, SD. The correct location was Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Contracting Business apologizes for these errors.