Williams Comfort Products is the leading manufacturer of gas-fired wall furnaces and related comfort products in the United States. What began as a business founded by Jesse Williams that produced gas steam radiators under the name of Williams Radiator Co. has grown into a multifaceted product line of gas and electric wall furnaces, space heating, dehumidifiers, hydronic fan coil and air handlers.
Such gas steam radiators were perfect for the burgeoning California real estate market of the early- to mid-20th century as developers built 1,200-square-foot homes that required a single-heat source without ductwork. Following World War II, Williams developed the gravity wall furnace. As the business expanded nationally, counterflow, fan-type wall furnaces were introduced.
Today, when consumers look for ways to save money, they take a hard look at their energy bills. For those on tight budgets, this can be a pretty scary sight. They'll often turn to something smaller to keep them warm and their heating costs down: space heaters and wall furnaces to heat only the spaces they need. As a result, Williams has seen double-digit increases in sales, says Ruth Ann Davis, vice president of sales for distributed products.
These sales increases are part of a larger trend in space heating. “Those products become that much more attractive, and they lend themselves to today's homeowner,” Davis says. “In the last 10 years, there's been a shift to area heating or area cooling — space comfort — because you have the mini-splits, for which sales have gone through the roof, and that's driven by the economy.”
For consumers, there are a wide variety of energy-efficient, compact and inexpensive options of HVAC products from which to choose. For Williams' distributors, the depth of product line and the strong product and sales support make this a manufacturer that's easy to do business with.
Being successful is about taking away pain points, Davis says. When Williams can satisfy its distributors, it can eliminate many of the issues that they face. “It's about listening to the distributor and what their needs are,” she says. “I'm a big believer in taking away pain. If you can figure out what is causing pain and negativity for a business owner and be a source that is easy to do business with and give them what they need when they need it, then you keep your customers happy.”
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Davis discovered firsthand some of the key pain points when she joined Williams 20 years ago, such as requiring them to load up on large quantity orders before the start of each season. While Williams was hardly alone among manufacturers in this practice, Davis says they listened to their distributors and eliminated such requirements.
“We carry large amounts of inventory throughout the year,” she says. There's a two-way street of loyalty between Williams and its distributors that gives the company the security that its distributor customers will be there for them — just as Williams will be there for its customers. “We count on the fact that our distributors are going to stay with us and do business with us and base our manufacturing on our history and anticipating what the customers are going to need.”
Because Williams continues to manufacture its products from its headquarters in Colton, CA — outside of Los Angeles and not far from where Jesse Williams established the business — it has the advantage of shorter lead times for ordering and shipping products. “We ship same day or next day 12 months a year,” Davis says. (The Williams factory is also a union shop, which helps Williams win public and commercial projects.) Distributors like the fact that they don't have to tie up their money in inventory and can instead rely on Williams to ship them what they need, when they need it. Williams also operates a bonded warehouse in Memphis and is looking to add two warehouses this year. “We feel that this is something that we can do to enhance our business. We shouldn't have to count on our distributors to be our warehouse.”
Williams is also attractive to its distributors because it allows them to make many different purchases from one company — from its gas heating products, humidifiers, air handlers and fan coils to evaporative coolers that are produced by its sister company, Phoenix Manufacturing Inc. “These can all be grouped together for freight. For customers who may have been doing business with multiple vendors, this is a way to consolidate their vendors,” Davis says. “The demand on our customer base to be really scrutinizing their money and their cash flow has brought business our way.”
As a leading manufacturer of wall furnaces and space heaters, Williams must serve as an advocate for its products. Take the question around energy efficiency. These products have an efficiency rating of between 68 and 73, which are lower than its high-efficiency counterparts. But what's lost in this comparison, Davis says, is that Williams' products have no ductwork and, thus, no heat loss. “When you consider that the loss related to ductwork is about 15 percent and you add that to the efficiency of the wall furnace or space heater, then you have a very high efficiency rating,” she says. “All of that heat — the efficiency — is kept in the house.”
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On the commercial side, Williams' Lanco brand is well-known and highly regarded for its air handlers and fan coils. Williams discovered the power of the Lanco brand after it rebranded the air handler and fan coil products as Williams Fan Coil shortly after it purchased the business in 1986. It went to market as William Fan Coil through architects, engineers and specifying reps, while it went through its manufacturing reps and its own sales organization for the distribution side of the business.
About 10 years ago, Davis saw that the HVAC industry was gradually shifting to hydronics. At industry shows and trade association meetings, topics and products related to hydronics were attracting more interest. With Williams' pedigree as a steam radiator company, the business saw a “real opportunity” to bring the Lanco brand back to the distribution side of the business. “It wouldn't compete with what we were already doing on the Williams side of it, but we had this opportunity to market our air coils and fan handlers through the Lanco brand through our existing customers, and that's what we've been doing,” she says.
The response to reintroducing the Lanco brand was terrific, she adds. Not only did it give added exposure to the Lanco brand, but there were jobs that had been previously specified under the Lanco name that were now ready for replacements and the customers wanted Lanco. “They had been very pleased with the quality, how long they had lasted and the way that they were built in terms of the engineering and design,” Davis says. “That was a great move for us to bring the Lanco name to distribution.”
Davis says this story also demonstrates the power of listening to customers. The suggestion to bring the Lanco name back to its distribution channel came from a customer who had relied on Lanco products for years. “This customer said you really need to change the name to Lanco for distribution because that is the name that is well-known, especially in the Los Angeles and Las Vegas areas,” Davis says. Many projects had the Lanco name, and keeping the name has helped to keep the brand strong.
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Another key to the Williams growth story has been its ability to bring new innovations to its products, particularly as it relates to controls (Williams' products feature factory-mounted valves and controls). Williams has worked hard to make it easy to install its products, which Davis says is a direct response to the shortage of skilled labor in the HVACR industry. “Anything you can do to take the labor out of the installation is the key to securing the job,” she says. While Williams may change the look and features of its products, it has kept the cutouts and space requirements the same to make it easier for the contractor.
The same is true of its fan coils and air handlers. Its design allows for the separation of the motor and coil portion of the fan coil, thus reducing its weight and increasing the flexibility to get the fan coil into a small space. This allows one person to do the installation rather than two. Williams also tags its air handlers and fan coils by the floor on which they are to be installed so the contractor doesn't have to handle them several times. “We build them the way they're going to be installed so when you're at a job site, you're not going to have to sort through it all and figure out what goes where,” Davis says. “We're always looking at what we can do to have labor saving in the installation,” Davis says.
Such features go back to Davis' philosophy of taking away the pain of the customer. She says the Williams teams visit job sites, analyze the needs of the contractors and ask questions. “When you find things and hear commonalities, then generally what's good for a few is something that everyone would like to have, but they just didn't think to ask for it,” she says.
Even as Williams looks to make it easier for its distributors and their customers, Davis and her team are forging new relationships to bring more customers to its distributors. This means developing ties with gas utility companies so they better understand what Williams products can do and how they operate to avoid potential red flags during installations. Closer ties also provide Williams with deeper insights into the utility industry so they can stay abreast of rebates that utilities may offer, for example.
Through its manufacturers' reps, Williams also works closely with public housing authorities and low-income weatherization programs to keep the Williams brand name top of mind. While Williams sells through its wholesale distribution channel, Davis says it's about pull-through. “They know your name and they know your product and they know that you provide training to them so when there's a job that's out there or a need that requires your equipment or an opportunity for a project, then you're right there in front of them,” she says.
Anticipating the needs of its customers and the industry is part of what Williams is doing to build greater value for its brand. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and we will keep getting more and more creative,” Davis says. “Whatever is happening with the economy and whatever the needs of the consumer are, we will continue to deliver. The survivors will be the ones who keep their finger on the pulse of what's happening.”
Michael Maynard is a contributing editor based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at [email protected].