Dec. 1, 2008
    The best running backs in football may not be the biggest players, but they have other qualities that make them stand out: reacting quickly to obstacles,

    The best running backs in football may not be the biggest players, but they have other qualities that make them stand out: reacting quickly to obstacles, selecting the blockers who will get them extra yardage and keeping their head down while looking downfield for new opportunities.

    Among HVACR wholesale distributors, The Geo. F. Wheelock Co. is like a star running back. It's not the biggest in the game, but the business has mastered the qualities that separate it from its competitors. Seeing industry trends ahead of time, partnering with quality manufacturers and staying focused on what it does best have enabled the business to compete and win with customers for 120 years.

    Today, George F. Wheelock III runs the family business that his great-grandfather started in Birmingham, AL. Wheelock joined the business after graduating from La Grange College in 1975. Wheelock says he had options. “My father always said you have choices in life — do what you want to do.” While Wheelock wanted to join the business, he admits to being surprised when he came to work a week before he was to start and asked where he could find his office. “My father told me, ‘It's out in the warehouse.’”

    So Wheelock learned all parts of the business, and he opened a branch in Decatur, about 80 miles north of Birmingham, in 1977. He moved back to Birmingham in 1982 and became president in 1984. The Geo. F. Wheelock Co. was established in 1888, just 17 years after the founding of Birmingham, with its roots in the heating, sheet metal and roofing business. As Birmingham changed and technology evolved, so has the business.

    Today, there are 12 employees, and the company provides both residential and commercial HVACR products, working closely with contractors, engineers and architects. “Lean and mean” is how Wheelock characterizes his team, referring to the business as “somewhat of a niche wholesaler.” It is a wholesaler that is not all things to all customers. “Because of our size, we had to pick and choose what we do, and we tend to do more complicated things,” he says.

    Wheelock and his employees know the HVACR technology, and they have a good sense of the market trends, a critical element in staying ahead of the competition. “We make sure we read the market accurately,” he says. “I think whatever we do is going to catch on in the mainstream market in a few years. We always have to look a little bit harder.”

    The opposite is also true, and this is something that Wheelock has been mindful of over the course of his 33 years in the business. A wholesaler has to have the products in stock for customers, but the wholesaler also has to be smart enough to know when that product has become obsolete. The trick, he says, is not to get caught flat-footed. “You can be selling a particular product for 50 years, and then someone comes along with a better mousetrap, but you keep on reordering what you have and realize after it's too late that people quit buying it.”

    Wheelock has many examples of how his business was among the first when it came to introducing new technologies and products to customers in the local market. In 1985, the business began selling a mini-split system from Sanyo — the first distributor in Alabama to do so. In the early 1970s, the business began selling wall-mounted units from Bard. “Nobody knew the market was there for this product, and all of a sudden, we found it's a great commercial product for schools and the telecommunications industry,” Wheelock says.

    Because of their strong partnership with Bard, school renovations remain an important part of the business. Full HVACR systems in Alabama schools only became widespread about 20 years ago, Wheelock explains. Once school district superintendents in Alabama realized Bard's wall-mounted heating and cooling equipment offered quiet operation, dependability and multiple configurations, they worked with the wholesaler distributor to bring in the technology. “There's one unit per classroom, so if one breaks down, you don't have to close school,” he says. “There's a great simplicity in the units.”

    The business began selling variable refrigerant flow (VRF) technology from Mitsubishi Electric in 2002. Now selling Sanyo ECOi, Wheelock says he and his staff believe this will be the “product of the future.” VRF zoning technology and inverter-driven compressors, which allow heating and cooling units to deliver precisely controlled temperature in individual zones, is a product line the George F. Wheelock Co. sells across Alabama. “We're really pumped up about it,” Wheelock says.

    The business is also marketing its high-efficiency HVACR equipment. While Wheelock acknowledges that not all customers are on board (“a third think it's great, while half think it's a waste of time”), he sees a growing acceptance as more customers see the energy savings. He is also working with the local chamber of commerce to receive certification as a “green” business.

    With a major slowdown in residential new construction in Alabama (mirroring the slowdown across the country), its commercial side has buoyed the rest of the business. Commercial customers are located across the state. Government and education are two important commercial sectors for the business. With its work for the government especially, the business provides planning and specification bid work. “You've got to have the expertise to be able to take the product off the blueprint and make sure it's what they want,” Wheelock says.

    Providing such service, of course, does not happen by accident. Wheelock says his employees have the technical and customer-service focus that are required in a competitive HVACR market. He credits Joey Henderson, who joined the business in 1998 as a sales manager and became a shareholder in 2004, with bringing in new talent and providing stability. “He's a great salesman, among other things, but he's a great recruiter. He does a good job of getting good people,” Wheelock says. Having Henderson as a second shareholder in the business has provided peace of mind for employees in the event that something were to happen to Wheelock, he says.

    Customer service begins at the service counter and on the telephone. “We offer superior customer service,” he says. “At the end of the day, that's why people come in here. We try to jump through hoops to get people the products they need when they want it.” Hill Dickey and Charlie Saye are Wheelock's two veteran counter salespeople, each with about 20 years of experience in the HVACR business. “They have a good following. People come in because they're here,” Wheelock says. Henderson added, “We are constantly looking for ways to fully engage our customers and make them customers for life. Our goal is for every customer to have a ‘WOW’ experience every time they do business with us.”

    Technology is changing every day, Wheelock says. His sales team attends schools and training offered by manufacturers to stay up-to-date with those changes. Two of his salespeople recently returned from back-to-back training offered in Atlanta, for example. He also takes advantage of training and educational seminars offered by HARDI. “We've sent quite a few people to those,” he notes. Henderson added, “We like to use a three-pronged approach to our business: Attitude, Knowledge and Skill. In order to change our industry, we must transform ourselves, then our dealers will transform our industry.”

    One of the things that Wheelock agrees with his competitors on is the slow residential new construction market. “We try to tell each other that it's not as bad as it could be,” he says. In such an environment, it's critical that a wholesaler runs a tight back office and ensure customers pay their bills. “Collections are critical,” Wheelock says. “There are a lot of people you can sell to, but getting paid is a different story.” He credits his controller, Mitchell Reed, and Gary Neighbors, the purchasing manager, with keeping the business running smoothly. “We try to remain focused on the opportunities at hand rather than falling in the trap of ‘current market conditions,’” Henderson says. “We also realize that our greatest opportunities are still ahead. Now in this downturn is the time for us to be the market leader. We must be innovative and stay on the leading (rather than bleeding) edge in order to succeed.”

    When Wheelock left the Decatur branch in 1982 to return to the Birmingham office, he closed that branch. While they can operate more efficiently out of its one 30,000-square-foot location in Birmingham, some manufacturers may write off the business as too small. They look at a map for the number of locations rather than the sales figures of the one location, he says. Wheelock is proud of the relationships that the business has developed and maintained with manufacturing partners like Bard, Sanyo, Mitsubishi Electric, Nordyne, Sanuvox and RenewAire.

    Wheelock gets the savings of larger HVACR wholesale distributors through his association with Blue Hawk, the buying group of independent wholesalers that combine their purchasing power for competitive pricing. Before joining Blue Hawk in January 2006, Wheelock and 21 other independent HVACR wholesalers were part of the Independent Wholesaler Alliance, which met at HARDI conferences.

    If Blue Hawk helps the George F. Wheelock Co. with pricing, its membership in HARDI has provided the business with valuable industry information and membership services. “We think HARDI is just a great thing,” says Wheelock, who is a trustee on the HARDI Foundation board. He cites HARDI's profit analysis report, which allows him to measure the business against others, as a valuable measurement tool. “It's just great for the industry to have something like HARDI.”

    And it's great to have HVACR distributors like the George F. Wheelock Co. that do right by their customers and provide them with the products, service and advice that they need to run their businesses.

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

    The Geo. F. Wheelock Co. at a Glance

    President & CEO: George F. Wheelock III Vice President: Joel D. “Joey” Henderson Headquarters: Birmingham, Alabama Operations: Wholesale distributor of residential, commercial and applied products (Variable Refrigerant Flow), HVACR equipment and related supplies and fittings, serving the Alabama market Employees: 12 Major Product Lines: Maytag, Gibson, Bard wall-mounts and engineered products, Sanyo ECOi VRF & ductless units, Mitsubishi Electric, Panasonic, RenewAire, Sanuvox, Southwark, Thermaflex, Reliable Products and Diversitech Website: www.wheelockhvac.com Year Founded: 1888

    Best Practice

    Best practice: Sustainability — Now and the future

    Definition and example: Promote energy conservation through the products we sell, and practice being more responsible stewards of our environment in the way we do business.

    Significance: To make customers and our employees aware of the value of safeguarding our environment.

    Benefits: Greener products are generally more profitable products to sell.

    Procedure: We are re-evaluating our product offering line by line and being more energy-efficient in our overall operations.

    People involved: The entire company and our customers.

    Timing: Ongoing.

    Cost: Too new to determine.

    Other considerations: Using electric forklifts, possible truck conversions to CNG.

    Contact: George Wheelock, [email protected]