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The Sigman Story: Building Geo, Hydronics Business from the Ground Up

Dec. 1, 2011
Sigman Indoor Climate Solutions, LLC hasbuilt a reputation as the company of choice for geothermal and hydronic systems in an area stretching 50 miles in any direction.

When in doubt, diversify. It's not exactly a motto at St. Louis, MO-based Sigman Indoor Climate Solutions, LLC, but it could be. And, in the "Show Me State," it’s that much more appropriate that this company's diverse customer base demands a lot from their mechanical contractor of choice. Of course, their return on investment is well rewarded.

The parent company, based in Belleville, IL, just over the Mississippi River and 20 miles to the east, was founded by John Sigman in 1988. Immediately after graduating from trade school in 1971, John worked for a Carrier dealer for 17 years, and apprenticed at the local plumbers and pipefitters union.

It was during the last years of the 1980s that John’s entrepreneurial drive moved him toward company ownership. Today, the firm has 29 employees, 15 trucks, and greatly expanded skills and capabilities. Along the way, they’ve also built a reputation as the company of choice for geothermal and hydronic systems in an area stretching 50 miles in any direction.

"Our entry point and fascination with geothermal systems wasn't a strategic goal from the beginning by any means," John says. "We struggled through a first job with 'geo' in '96 – three water-to-air systems in a home with a total of 12 tons — but it was my son Joel's passion for the technology that moved us in that direction. Our gradual involvement with it became a very important part of our growth and key areas of expertise today."

Foundation for Growth
Joel, now the company's vice president — and whose role has grown to include greater involvement in most facets of the company's management — found opportunity and fascination in the "geothermal arts" in the St. Louis area, but also in the new home boom of the 1990s, in neighboring Missouri. In 2008, John and Joel made the decision to open the branch in St. Louis. Enabling the expansion is a solid and diverse market and an infrastructure noted for some of the best roadways in the country.

"With our highways, our territory [of operations] is readily accessible," Joel says. "We can be at most jobsite locations within 20 minutes, and yet we cover a broad area because the shops are so well located.

"We gravitate toward the larger, more complex and involved jobs because we can, and typically the referrals lead us in that direction, too," Joel continued. "But on the other hand, we're careful not to allow that to limit us, so we do our best to balance the job load."

The firm does a lot of replacement sales and service work. The service pros outnumber installers. And, in the turmoil of a down economy, while new installations fall, most of their installers show interest in learning the art of service work.

Projects Uniquely Sigman
Today, Sigman Indoor Climate Solutions and Sigman Heating & Air dissect the combined $4.5 million revenue into three parts. Service work makes up about 40%, with 80% of that work, residential, and 20% commercial. New installation work has dipped to 20% with the softened economy. Replacement work brings in the balance at 40%.

Overall, Sigman'’s residential work — with many installations equal to or perhaps more complex than commercial jobs — makes up about 80% of the revenue.

If you've been reading Contracting for most of a decade or more, you may have tracked the news of Sigman's growth. Repeatedly, they win CB Quality Home Comfort Awards. Their award stories have included many photos of the mechanical art that's helped build their success.

Sure, there are the 30,000- to 50,000 sq.ft. stone homes with indoor pools, grand floor plans, and multizone geo-to-radiant systems. But you'll also find jobs — like nearby St. Peter's Episcopal Church — where geothermal water-to-air systems have replaced massive, gas-burning behemoths, thanks to the expertise of the Sigman team.

At St. Peter's Church, the natural gas guzzler that served the older, main section of the building was an enormous, six million BTU, cast iron sectional boiler coupled to a 40-ton air handler. Together they occupied an impossibly cramped room that now seems spacious.

Sigman's challenge, after subcontracting the drilling of 22 300-ft. piped and grouted boreholes, was to install 24 tons of geothermal heating and cooling to the sanctuary and a mix of water-to-air systems to condition all other spaces within the space vacated by the old mechanical systems. Nine ClimateMaster systems (mostly five- and six-ton, 27 TSVs) now handle the load quietly and efficiently, saving the church many thousands of dollars in utility bills each year.

Sigman technicians have also developed an affinity and skill at higher-end home installations. At one home, towering oak trees dwarf a 15,000 sq.ft., seven-bedroom brick home in Clayton. The home’s stack rock foundation provided a solid backdrop to another mechanical masterpiece. When the homeowners added on and remodeled the entire home three years ago, Sigman crews brought borehole-activated geoexchange into the home for extensive geo-to-radiant and water-to-air comfort. Good referrals followed.

In another nearby 15,000 sq.ft. home, the homeowners recently remodeled its interior and added an enclosed pool house, also tapping geothermal energy to heat and cool both buildings. The challenge for Sigman crews: provide high-temp geo for the home’s many cast iron baseboard heaters and lower-temp heat for an extensive, multi-zone radiant retrofit of the home that a bevy of Taco circulators and components now manage effortlessly.

The basement mechanical room includes ClimateMaster THW geo systems, Bradford White indirect water heaters, and a bank of Taco components. Joel says most Sigman jobs — if they include hydronics — also include radiant heat, often playing an important part of the firm's overall comfort and efficiency equation. And, of course, there's geothermal — now a mainstay at Sigman.

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Joel points to the quality of their technicians' work. "They're the ones who get the designs right. We make sure that they get lots of training and jobsite responsibilities so that, when it comes time to lead installations, they're up to it," he says.

It comes from the top. John’s known as a bit of a neat freak. His insistence that a certain order and neatness are expected now connects all facets of the company. It's a tidy shop. Trucks and jobsites are orderly, clothes are spic n' span.

"We also emphasize the need for all employees to understand that we're in the business of providing 'comfort solutions,'" explains Joel. "Size doesn't matter in this business. We bring our intelligence, skills, and abilities into any jobsite or challenge. That plays into another part of the company's philosophy: treat customers with full respect."

Loyalty to Suppliers, Manufacturers
"We're loyal to our suppliers and the manufacturers who've stood behind us through the years," said Joel. "We’re glad to have Bradford White as the supplier of choice for direct and indirect water heaters, favoring them because of their reputation for reliability.

"We also use Watts valves and backflow assemblies, and Taco pumps," he adds. "We have excellent results with their products every time, and the quality of our local supplier relationships are amazing. For geothermal and commercial water-sourced heat pump applications, we've used ClimateMaster equipment from the beginning. The quality and diversity of their product offerings, and manufacturer support through Rich Hiles carries a lot of weight here."

An Inspirational Leader
John Sigman is a quiet man who, even at 62, hasn't noticeably slowed down. According to Joel, the company has become an extension of who John is: fair to a fault, quick to praise good work, and always setting his own needs aside to attend to the more important needs of others: employees first; customers next in line.

"Employees see this every day," Joel says. "My father is consistent and very deliberate in what he does. His motivation and work ethic are an inspiration to everyone, especially to me."

John sets an example of solid work ethic for all staff and employees. And though he's often first in and last out, when he needs to recharge, he powers-up the motorboat, a motorcycle, or play some baseball with zeal. When he's not on the job the staff will smile, knowing that he'll return fully-charged, ready to lead or to help.

So there, in the Gateway to the West, the Sigman company's all-American goodness and ingenuity provides indoor comfort solutions to an appreciative customer base.

To parapharase the late commentator Paul Harvey, "Now you know the rest of their story."

John Vastyan is a freelance writer with Common Ground Communications.