When a group of experienced HVACR contractors in the Midwest got together in 1985 to create a more advanced high-velocity, small-duct heating and cooling system, they manufactured the systems for themselves. With its small footprint and flexible small ducts, the system was especially effective in retrofit applications. In fact, this system was so popular that word quickly spread beyond this group of contractors, and the result was the launching of Unico System.
Unico has enjoyed steady growth throughout its 22-year history as homeowners and owners of commercial and multiunit buildings give high marks to the system's gentle circulation that delivers even heat from floor to ceiling and cool air that removes 30 percent more moisture than conventional air-conditioning systems. With such positive word of mouth, the Unico System is used by contractors throughout North America and, increasingly, in South America, Europe and Asia.
Ten years ago, Joseph Intagliata, one of the original contractors who developed the Unico System, bought out the other shareholders of Unico. Today, the family-owned and operated-company, based in St. Louis, MO, employs 80. Joseph Intagliata remains CEO, while his five sons and Dave Page, the company president, run the day-to-day operations.
Shannon Intagliata, vice president of Sales, credits Unico's growth and success to its employees, its distributors and the contractors who install the Unico System. Up and down the supply chain, there is a strong belief that Unico products make a real difference for customers. Unico also employs 22 independent manufacturing agents in North America who share its vision of the high-velocity, small-duct market, Intagliata says.
Unico touts several major differences with conventional HVACR systems: high-velocity, flexible small ducts; modular air handlers and coils that can be installed in small spaces; quiet performance thanks to sound-dampening supply tubes; and an “aspiration” system that gently circulates the air throughout each room rather than dumping air into a room and causing drafts.
The Unico System initially received a strong boost when it was featured on This Old House, the popular PBS television program. Since that initial appearance, the show has featured the Unico System products more than a dozen times. “That's where we made a lot of inroads,” Shannon Intagliata says. But it's been a clear and consistent marketing effort, along with the strong relationships with its distributors, that has created such strong brand recognition for Unico in the market.
Intagliata calls the company's Business Development department “pretty incredible.” The ongoing marketing has created a scenario that other specialty manufacturers would envy. “We've gone from being at shows where people had to ask who we were to people now understanding the product and what we do,” Intagliata says.
Unico has also established niches with professionals in the building and construction industries that have increased awareness of its products and the company. Unico develops separate marketing pieces for engineers, architects and contractors, and as a Cornerstone Partner of the American Institute of Architects, company representatives provide continuing education classes to architects. “We try to do something for everybody,” he says. In January, Unico launched a redesigned website. New features on the website include the new Unico Interactive House CD and numerous videos of Unico on television including This Old House, The Today Show, Michael Holigan's “This New House” and the Travel Channel.
This strong brand recognition has allowed the company to expand beyond its traditional base of the retrofit market to higher-end custom homes as well as apartments and commercial buildings. The smaller size of a Unico System, which is typically one-third the size of a conventional system, has been a strong selling point. “Because of the limited space you get in a custom home, the Unico System fits perfectly into that application,” Intagliata says. “With our system, we're able to give back to the builder of a high-rise project another floor. Instead of 20 floors, they can have 21 or 22 floors.”
Unico relies heavily on its distributor partners to service and supply contractors with products. “We have what we feel are the best distributors in the country who work in lock step with Unico to sell the high-velocity message,” he says. “They buy into the training that we have and they buy into all of our programs. We have solid distributors around the country, and they're great to work with.” Unico recently established a new dealer program, called the Winners Circle, that allows HVACR dealers to sign up with Unico and register to earn points that are redeemable for merchandise. There are monthly awards and quarterly prizes of trips and two grand prizes — first-class cruises — which Unico will award at the ASHRAE conference in January 2008.
Distributors are encouraged to bring to Unico suggestions for improving any aspect of its business. “In fact, we just had one of our very, very good dealer-partners in the Washington, DC, area come up with four innovative suggestions regarding our new stand-alone chiller unit,” Intagliata said. In addition to the informal back and forth among Unico and its distributors, a formal advisory panel meets at least once a year. The Board of Advisors, made up of distributors from around the country who fulfill the role for two years, evaluates all aspects of Unico's business. There are no sacred cows. “It really helps us guide our business because our products need to be distributor-friendly and, more importantly, dealer-friendly,” Intagliata says, “because those are the guys who are selling them and installing them.”
And if any issues arise with the products or their installation, Unico has a dedicated team of professionals who are ready, willing and able to assist. Intagliata talks about the company's “one-hour guarantee.” That is, call Unico with a question during the business day and you'll receive a call back within an hour. He says the quality of Unico's customer service, which Steven Intagliata runs, has high visibility throughout the industry. “To me, that's what makes us so successful,” he says. Bill Brunsen, for example, who Intagliata says is probably the best in the company at installing Unico System products, is on the telephone 12 hours a day answering questions and solving customer problems.
To make all of Unico's employees understand their customers and their needs, newly hired Unico employees — whether you're the CFO or working on the factory floor — are required to spend some of their training with contractor customers on job sites installing Unico products. “You get a real, practical knowledge of our products and how they work,” Intagliata says. “If you're a contractor and it's July 5 and you're in an attic with a question, you want to talk to someone on the phone who's been where you've been. We've found this to be so valuable.” And it also broadens the base of employees who can answer customer questions. “You never know who might have to pitch in and pick up the phone and answer technical questions,” Intagliata says. “And they're capable of doing it.”
Intagliata credits his parents, Joseph and Sharon, with fostering an atmosphere of inclusiveness and generosity among the employees. “We've followed their lead in that our employees are treated as good or probably better than our customers,” Intagliata says. “We're as loyal to them as they are to us.”
Intagliata is also proud that Unico always has what it needs in its factory to continuously manufacture products and then turn around to have it ready for customers, even during the summer months when demand is so high. Shipping time for products is only three days. He credits Manufacturing Supervisor Bob Freund and Head of Shipping Bob Martin, with keeping the operations humming along. “It's careful planning and understanding your customers and their needs,” he says.
To ensure that Unico understands its customers, Intagliata hits the road at least every other week to meet with the company's distribution partners and dealers. He wants them to understand that what they have is a partnership. “It's about saying thank you,” he says. “We are always grateful for their business and we want to thank them for their business. You can't be successful by yourself.” Distributors are often holding training sessions after hours, and Unico reps will do whatever they can to make sure that customers are satisfied with Unico. Intagliata and the Unico management see the effort and appreciate what they do to move Unico forward.
In the high-velocity, small-duct market, Unico counts only one competitor — conventional HVACR systems. Intagliata says the competition is good for Unico's business. “It makes you better,” he says. Unico is confident that the differences between small-duct and conventional are apparent to both the Unico distributor and the HVACR installing contractor. Because Unico is an engineered system — from blower and coil to duct system both supply and return to an outdoor Unico Reverse Cycle chiller — Unico performs at the highest level when installed by a Certified Unico contractor. Unico has six engineers who Intagliata says “do an incredible job” in developing new products and refining existing Unico products. Overall, Unico has a much more inclusionary approach to business that has served the company, its distributors and dealers very well.
In fact, a couple of contractors in Connecticut were instrumental in bringing the Unico System Advanced Control Board (ACB) to market. Intagliata says the contractors developed a concept of such a board, mounted to the air handler, that acts as the “brain” for the system, controlling any combination of the air handler's functions — refrigerant cooling systems, heating refrigerant systems, chilled water systems, hot water systems and electric heat modules. While Unico's people liked the concept, they were not prepared to move forward right away. But the Connecticut contractors insisted that this would be a big help to contractors, and they persisted, even helping Unico to build a model. They field-tested it and turned it into reality. “That's just the sort of partnerships we have with our guys,” Intagliata says, still marveling at their persistence. “They saw what could be, and we were just smart enough to listen to our people.”
Unico operates training facilities in St. Louis, Las Vegas and Chicago for distributors, dealers and contractors. Employees are encouraged to regularly attend training sessions too. The company's manufacturing facility is in St. Louis, and it is expanding its operations there. As it expands, its distributors grow and become more successful as well. “Our distributors have been with us forever, and we don't exclude them from anything,” Intagliata says.
Such continued growth is one of Unico's challenges as it moves ahead. “Growing successfully” is how Intagliata terms it. He says Dave Page, the company's president, has established a solid plan for such growth. “We've got the tools in place so we can grow smoothly,” Intagliata says.
Michael Maynard is a business writer based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at [email protected].
Company at a Glance:
President: Dave Page
CEO: Joe Intagliata
Vice President, Sales: Shannon Intagliata
Headquarters: St. Louis, MO
Operations: The world's leading manufacturer of small-duct, high-velocity central heating and air-conditioning.
Breakdown of Sales & Business: United States & Canada; Europe & the African continent.
Major Product Lines: The Unico System, The Unichiller RC reverse-cycle chiller.
Annual Sales: n/a
Definition and Example: Selective Distribution — selling to certified, product-trained Unico contractors, all adhering to a policy of sales, which maintains Unico quality all the way to the end-user.
Benefits: The end-user has a central heating and cooling system which meets or exceeds the indoor comfort expectations.
People Involved: Unico Training, Sales, Customer Service and Business Development all contribute to these best practices.
Other Considerations: In the short run, it may cost us sales, but long-term, we can ensure that Unico Product is installed properly and is meeting or exceeding the end-users' expectations.
Contact: Shawn Intagliata
Business Development, Unico Inc.