More Than Sales: Service and Expertise Make Refrigeration Sales Corporation a WholeServer

June 1, 2008
For Refrigeration Sales Corp., the wholesale distribution business is not so much about sales as it is about expertise and service for the customer. That's

For Refrigeration Sales Corp., the wholesale distribution business is not so much about sales as it is about expertise and service for the customer. That's why Refrigeration Sales President Warren W. Farr III has proudly trademarked this third-generation, family-owned company as a “WholeServer” to better represent the sum total of what his company brings to customers throughout Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

Farr takes enormous pride in the quality HVACR brands that he carries — names like Carrier, Bryant, Payne, Heil, Heatcraft, Manitowoc and Copeland/Emerson, to name just a few. But Refrigeration Sales, which is headquartered in the Cleveland suburb of Valley View and has 10 branch locations throughout Ohio, may be best known for the advice and conversations that its people have with customers. “We're really no different from a consulting firm that sells its time and expertise,” says Farr. “We happen to facilitate product sales as well. We're making margins on those products because of the service that we provide.”

Tom East, Refrigeration Sales' executive vice president, had that point driven home to him three years ago when he joined the company. An industry veteran with 29 years of experience in the HVACR manufacturing and wholesale business, East spent time in the field with customers to get a better sense of the company that he had joined. “We are seen as the authority,” East says, whether it's designing a cooler or a refrigeration system or recommending a certain HVACR system. “Customers told me that when they make that call to us, they can take confidence in what our people are telling them.”

Although Refrigeration Sales is a family-owned business founded in 1945 by Farr's grandfather, Warren Wightman Farr Sr., his grandson did not join the company until well after he had established a career for himself in the computer industry. In the early 1990s, Warren “Hap” Farr Jr. asked his son if he wanted to come into the business. Farr agreed to join, but only after he returned to school for an MBA, which he received in 1993 from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Farr was well-versed in business, but he knew virtually nothing about the HVACR industry. So he immersed himself, interviewing customers, employees, suppliers and industry veterans. He took copious notes, and from those, he compiled a few key points that crystallized what Refrigeration Sales was all about and served as the basis for the WholeServer concept. By the time that Farr took over as president in 2000, he was prepared to grow Refrigeration Sales based on its many strengths. “It is a gem of a company,” he says.

What makes Refrigeration Sales work so well comes down to the three key components that Farr articulated in the company's mission statement — service speed, expertise and relationships. “What does it mean for the customer? That's what everyone is focused on here,” Farr says. “We don't do anything if it doesn't benefit the customer.” Adds East: “We're entrenched in our mission. There's no one here not familiar with service speed, expertise and relationships.”

Farr built what he characterizes as a “very strong team” to direct that mission. The six building blocks that built Refrigeration Sales consist of the mission statement, its people, the use of technology, its relationships with vendors, training and empowerment. “Everything we do fits into this building block strategy,” East says. “Warren has set a culture of collaboration here.”

In a sense, the WholeServer concept represents the roots of Refrigeration Sales, which began as a service and repair company. In 1949, four years after its founding, Willis Carrier approached Farr Sr. about establishing a wholesale distribution partnership with Carrier in 23 Ohio counties. In 1964, Refrigeration Sales opened its Cleveland parts and supplies store, followed quickly by locations in Akron and Youngstown. Hap Farr became the president in 1985, and Refrigeration Sales grew through the acquisition of Bryant Northern Ohio, a Bryant distributorship in northeast Ohio, and the opening of several other locations around the state.

Refrigeration Sales occupies a unique place in the HVACR world with an expertise in both refrigeration and HVACR, and carries a full line of products in both areas. “Being both a Carrier distributor and a full-line Emerson wholesaler gives us a lot of opportunity,” Farr says. “We have different customer bases.” Such a diversified portfolio is especially valuable when there are downturns in certain markets. “We're always doing something,” East says. Yet there are plenty of opportunities where the divergent products can come together, whether through cross-training or selling parts that are in common.

In a competitive market area where there is little population growth and the building market is flat, Refrigeration Sales knows that it takes a multifaceted strategy to retain and attract customers.

Expertise continues to be a key building block of Refrigeration Sales' strategy to remain the leader in the Ohio market. “We train the industry here,” East says. “We take a lot of pride in the fact that when our customers call in, they can get accurate information from our counter folks and service managers.” Refrigeration Sales' expertise goes hand in hand with its training programs for its customers as well as noncustomers — both in the development of business acumen and the building of technical skills. Refrigeration Sales has two training facilities in Columbus and Cleveland that feature complete walk-in refrigeration boxes, installed HVACR systems, test stations and a stand-by electric generator.

“Our training is by far the best that this area has to offer,” East says. Refrigeration Sales offers a number of different training opportunities, including a full curriculum of courses that can last from 12 to 36 weeks. “We're writing a curriculum like a vocational school would write it,” Farr says.

Refrigeration Sales technicians as well as outside experts teach the classes. East notes with pride that one of the company's technical service managers recently developed a class on heat exchangers. “We thought it would be important to dive into this subject and better understand what it is the industry needs to know about heat exchanger products,” East says. “He developed the class, wrote it, and we filled the class up to the max. It's things like that that we try to stay abreast of.”

Building on this culture of training, Refrigeration Sales also provides a robust internal training program. Its purpose is twofold: build the knowledge within the company and have the reputation as the company of choice when it comes to hiring new people. “We have people represented here from some of the other companies in the area,” notes East. “We certainly have folks who call us and want to come to Refrigeration Sales and be part of the team culture.” To further bolster its employees, Refrigeration Sales looks to promote its talented employees, something that Farr calls a “priority” in its hiring practices.

A cadre of knowledgeable and motivated employees enables them to serve as “brand ambassadors” for the company, perhaps the most powerful marketing tool a business has in its arsenal. “They live it and breathe it and can pass it along to others,” East says. Refrigeration Sales maintains an ongoing marketing program that incorporates sales promotions, training and advertising. “We look at all of our promotions through the eyes of the customers and their customers, and where and how it benefits everyone in the sales channel,” East says.

With Farr's background in technology, it should be no surprise that Refrigeration Sales has become a much more technically adept company than it ever was before. But he is quick to point out that it is not just about the technology for technology's sake. “We buy technology for our customers' benefit, so we're technologically enabled in that the technology enables us to service our customers,” Farr says. For example, an electronic answering device could easily answer the telephone at Refrigeration Sales, but instead people pick up the telephone. “Our customers were very clear that they wanted to talk to a person and interact with them and have them answer their questions,” Farr says.

To see how technology enables Refrigeration Sales to better serve the customers, visit its distribution service center at its Valley View headquarters, new in 2004. The first thing you would notice is its system of bar coding. “There is no product that gets touched or moved without getting scanned,” Farr says. “We know where every product is in the warehouse, including products in the will-call area.” The employees in the distribution service center are equipped with headsets to service the customers who come to the branch on the premise that they need to get their product quickly and on their way to the job site.

Employees can view inventory at any branch location in real time. When someone places an order at the Canton location, for example, it's pulled as fast as if the order was placed at the headquarters itself. Similarly, Refrigeration Supply's website,, allows customers to place orders and take care of business when it is convenient for them. Refrigeration Sales' salespeople are equipped with laptop computers and air cards so they can have access to real-time information when they are visiting customers. “They need detailed information as to what customers are doing,” Farr says. “This helps them anticipate any customer issues.” Refrigeration Sales weaves the relationship with customers throughout everything it does. “It's what we all work very hard on,” East says. “With each sale, we're building upon the loyalty. That's the essence of our total customer network, and it keeps them coming back.” Farr says Refrigeration Sales will always do the “right thing and do what's fair” for the customer. Whether it's anticipating their needs or providing service, its customers have come to expect that partnering with Refrigeration Sales will make them a stronger and more competitive business.

Michael Maynard is a business writer in Providence, RI, who writes on issues related to HVACR, construction and architecture. Contact him at [email protected].

Refrigeration Sales Corp. at a GlancePresident & CEO: Warren Farr III Vice President: Thomas J. East Headquarters: Valley View, Ohio Operations: Wholesale distributor of Carrier, Bryant, Payne and Heil heating and cooling products, and Heatcraft, Emerson and Manitowoc refrigeration products, serving markets in northeast, middle and southern Ohio. Providing a broad range of heating and cooling products, refrigeration products, services, parts and supplies. Concentration on both residential and commercial products and services. Employees: 120 Major Product Lines: Carrier, Bryant, Payne and Heil heating and cooling products and an Emerson full line distributor. We also carry a full line of Heatcraft and Manitowoc refrigeration products and many associated products and parts. Website: Year Founded: 1945

Best Practice

Definition and Example: Improving the technical competence of the HVACR industry in the markets we serve, accomplished through several extensive training programs and a technician development, retention and recognition program named ProTecs.

Significance: Business, management and technical training designed to develop, test, certify and assist at retaining technicians.

Benefits: Enables us to improve the technical skills of the industry. Ensures that we are involved in the changing business demands, and the new and existing products of the industry.

Procedure: The Product Training classes include Carrier, Bryant, Heil, Copeland and Manitowoc. Our technical service team members conduct these classes. The HVACR, Refrigeration & Commercial Technology programs are 12 weeks, 24 weeks or 36 weeks (depending on the class requirement and lab time). Instructors for these classes include both inside personnel and outside experts. We distribute sign-up forms throughout the market, and classes fill quickly. Twice a month, we conduct skills classes that are topical in nature with the aim of improving veteran technicians.

People Involved: RSC Technical Service managers and outside HVACR experts.

Timing: The training programs are conducted September through May each year.

Cost: The cost of the classes varies with the type of classes we conduct.

Other Considerations: Training is one of the strongest building blocks of RSC. Our training keeps us in touch with our customers' needs and aligns us with the changing environments affecting our industry.

Contact: Jack Tobik, 216/525-8100, [email protected]