Tools. A simple word that many never give serious thought to until they need them. Yet, one way to measure the progress of civilization, from prehistory to modern times, is by the tools it creates or improves. This sense of progress exists even today when examining the HVACR industry, as one new tools company, hilmor, has created dramatic advances through its diligent and thorough research.
The hilmor brand started nearly 90 years ago in the United Kingdom as a tubing bender company, founded by Mr. Moore. He came up with the idea after watching a friend of his, who happened to be a plumber, struggle with bending copper tubing. He invented the first tubing bender that could bend copper tubing without having to heat it up. That idea of ‘observing, then improving’ is what the hilmor brand has held onto all these years as it’s taking tools that already exist and improving them. “It’s not about bells and whistles,” says Emily Bavaro, director of marketing, hilmor. “It’s about taking parts off and making the products more intuitive and easier to use. That’s our goal in retooling.”
Research and Development Process
In 2010, hilmor put together a dedicated group of engineers and marketing professionals to study HVAC technicians’ every move. “The first process that we went through with our research was observing,” Bavaro explains. “We studied over 80 HVAC contractors on 45 job sites. We did ‘truck logs’ where the contractors showed us everything on their trucks. We found out the brand of tool used, how long they owned it and what they paid for it. We asked what they would change about the tool, if given the choice. We really wanted to understand what tools were important to the HVAC contractor.” The research team also visited many distributors to get an understanding of what merchandising would look like for the hilmor brand.
The team brought their findings back to the office and developed dozens of product concepts that would make the tools better for the HVAC technician. Those ideas were put back out in focus groups around the country to find out if the changes really made the tool better and in turn made the technician’s job easier. “We’d get even better ideas from there,” Bavaro explains. “We’d bring all the new ideas back to the developers to find out if the product ideas were still feasible. We also did price testing to find out if what was available today, versus what we were going to create, was still something that contractors were willing to buy. That really helped us add value for our distributors.”
Almost 1,700 HVAC technicians and HVAC distributor employees were involved in the research process. They helped hilmor with packaging concepts and marketing ideas. By the end of the research process, hilmor had spent millions of dollars on research and development. “We wanted to make sure that we got it right and that contractors were getting everything they needed in a tool from us,” Bavaro says.
The first range of products from hilmor is completely dedicated to HVAC tradesmen. “We started in two categories,” Bavaro says of the product rollout. “The first category is manifolds and gauges. We see these products as the lifeblood of the HVAC technician. It’s their partner when they are all alone on the job and they need tools to be accurate in order to diagnose a system.
“The second category is hand tools. In many cases, hand tools are thorns in technicians’ sides. Some are cumbersome products that we thought we could make easier to use. We watched technicians work in tough spaces like crawlspaces and attics. When we saw technicians holding their flashlights in their mouths, or with tools pressed into their sides to do their work, we thought, ‘We can make this easier for them. They shouldn’t need a third arm to complete their work.’”
The product range at launch is almost 150 different tools. “It’s big, because we wanted to be comprehensive,” Bavaro says. “That means we have every available refrigerant in our different gauges, and products to bend, flare and swage every different size of copper tubing. We also have every size of nut driver imaginable; it’s a full range.”
The marketing department at hilmor spent countless hours identifying the challenges that HVAC technicians face with their hand tools. “The equipment has changed, the technicians’ business has evolved, but the tools the technicians are using haven’t changed much at all,” Bavaro says. “Our idea is to show contractors that there’s a better way of doing things. The campaign is called ‘Retool and Conquer.’ If technicians retool and buy hilmor products, it will allow them to conquer any jobsite challenge – from being in tight spaces to having to carry fewer tools. It will allow them to elevate their trade.”
Contractors can go to hilmor.com and cross-reference their current tool or read product reviews from their peers. Color was a big factor in the marketing of the tools as well. “We picked unique colors for our tools so they look different. The green and black motif will be a theme throughout the marketing campaign,” Bavaro says. “Some of our tools glow in the dark so a technician doesn’t leave behind a $150 manifold if they are in a tight, dark space. The green and black color of the tools really stands out visually.”
Wholesalers and distributors will have a lot of retooled elements to the merchandising approach that hilmor is taking. “Our merchandising is a very innovative, flexible system that turns any wall into a pegboard,” Bavaro says. “The distributor can put it up as a big block, or have it as small as two feet by four feet. Distributors have come to love our LENOX solutions and we’re bringing the same innovation to market with our hilmor ‘green wall’ merchandising.”
The product packaging will have QR codes that will bring anyone who scans the code to the hilmor website for a video of a product demo. The product marketing will also take to the streets with the hilmor RETOOL Team. “A fleet of six dedicated hilmor vehicles will go across the country and will be manned with experts on our products that can train the distributor staff and sales staff,” says Sam Fedewa, director of sales. “They will conduct product demos for the technicians and provide diagnostics for some existing tools. If someone has a tool that isn’t working correctly, the team can test and diagnose the issue right on the spot.”
The marquee product that hilmor is releasing is an electronic gauge with vacuum sensor that’s meant to compete with digital gauges on the market today. “More than 40 percent of the technicians that we studied owned one of these gauges,” Bavaro says. “But, when we did the truck logs, the technicians couldn’t even find this tool because they never took it out of its protective case. Manifolds are something that technicians are supposed to use every day. We wanted to give them a tool that they could actually use, especially for the amount of money that they spend on these tools.
“What we did, that’s unique to the hilmor brand, was give the gauge two displays. There’s an electronic LCD in the center that measures the temperature and pressure and calculates superheat and subcooling. On the outside of the gauge, there’s an analog gauge so technicians can watch a needle just like they are used to doing with their typical gauges,” Bavaro continues.
“What’s nice about digital gauges versus analog is that a lot of data can be stored in the gauges. We have 39 different refrigerants stored with their pressure temperature charts. Technicians can just turn a knob and pick the refrigerant they need. The outside gauges actually change color to the EPA standard color for that refrigerant.”
The gauges feature stainless steel components and replaceable parts. Instead of throwing out the entire manifold when a part breaks, technicians can just replace the part and not the entire manifold. There are also rubberized gauge boots with air pockets around the outside of the gauge to protect it in case it’s dropped.
The hilmor brand is introducing a dual-readout thermometer that sits on a hilmor aluminum manifold. “If a technician is using analog and they don’t want to make the investment in digital, they are still going to have to measure temperature on every job,” Bavaro says. “We’ve given them a tool that snaps right onto the hook of their hilmor aluminum manifold and will read two temperatures at once. It’s the first of its kind to be able to integrate into any manifold.”
Another tool being introduced is a compact swage tool. The hydraulic-based tool comes with several different-sized heads. Technicians can swage everything from 5/8-inch tubing to 1-5/8-inch tubing. The tool is a pistol-shaped design that fits on the end of the tubing and can be pumped with one hand. “When we put this tool in field testing or had it in focus groups, technicians didn’t want to put it down,” Bavaro says. “I was in a
focus group with one technician who put it under the table and showed me that he could use the tool without looking, which was unheard of.”
“A quick-change nut driver is another tool that feels very simple in its concept, but it’s really where the brand promise comes into play. HVAC technicians seem to use 1/4-inch and 5/16-inch nut drivers every day, sometimes on the same piece of equipment, so they are carrying two nut drivers in their pocket every day,” Bavaro says. “When we were out working with them, we asked why they didn’t use multitool screwdrivers. The answer we found was that the technicians didn’t like using multitools because they have to carry around a handful of bits, and they’d prefer to use magnetic drivers. Hilmor took the multi-tool and simplified it by putting just the two popular nut drivers on it. We also made it magnetic. It really reduces the number of tools that technicians have to carry in their pockets.”
Partnering with the Wholesaler
The hilmor brand has put a lot of focus on the HVAC technician and the HVAC distributor. “We’ve done a lot of research in this market and we know that more than 79 percent of HVAC tool purchases are made at HVAC supply houses,” says Fedewa. “It’s important for us to partner with the HVAC distributor and focus our effort not only on the HVAC technician, but the distributor as well. We have strong relationships with HVACR distribution through our long history with LENOX tools. The hilmor brand just allows us to expand our relationship with these partners and provide as many services as possible to help them sell the product.”
The folks at hilmor are looking forward to a long history now that the tools are being introduced in the United States for the first time. “We’re looking to make a big impact in the HVAC market in 2013,” Fedewa says.
HVAC technicians should plan on seeing the hilmor brand for a long time to come. “The commitment is significant and long term,” Bavaro adds. “From a product development side, we’re already working on our next phase. We want this brand to be around as long as it’s been in the U.K. We plan on coming out with something new every season.”
hilmor at a Glance
|President & CEO:||
Mike Polk, CEO, Newell Rubbermaid
Rich Wuerthele, president, hilmor
Rich Matthews, senior vice president – marketing,
tools business segment
|East Longmeadow, MA|
|Employees:||Newell Rubbermaid – 19,900|
|Major Product Lines:||
Dual Readout Thermometer, Aluminum Manifold –
4-Valve and 2-Valve, Electronic Gauge with Vacuum Sensor, Compact Swage, Quick-Engage Flare and
Swage Kit, Compact Bender Kit
|Annual Sales:||Newell Rubbermaid annual sales – $5.9 billion|
|Year Introduced in the U.S.:||2013|
Kate Kelly is an associate editor with Contracting Business. Contact her at 216/931-9755 or [email protected]