Contracting Business/Kelly Faloon
Contracting Business/Kelly Faloon
Endeavor Business Media
Contracting Business/Kelly FAloon
Kelly L. Falloon
Terry McIver
Chananifosterbenninghoff 621e762e5cdcf

Faces in the AHR Expo Crowd

March 1, 2022
Editor-in-Chief Terry McIver interviewed three innovators during the 2022 AHR Expo.

I had the opportunity to speak at length with three AHR Expo exhibitors and industry innovators: Dick Foster, ZONEFIRST, Alok Chanani, BuildOps and Rich Benninghoff, Malco Products, SBC.

Dick Foster: Still Innovating

ZONEFIRST's history of HVAC industry innovations extends back to the 1960s, when Richard Foster developed the first automatic, thermostatically controlled dampers, registers and diffusers. He marketed these products under the trade name Zone-a-Trol with another company, and in 1964, he founded Trolex Corporation and introduced the trade name Trol-A-Temp. 

Trol-A-Temp was acquired by Honeywell in 1999. By that time, Foster's son, Richard "Dick" Foster had assumed leadership of the company.

In 2004, Trolex re-entered the HVAC market as ZONE-A-TROL, which was changed shortly thereafter to ZONEFIRST®

ZONEFIRST was also the first company to zone heat pumps in the early 1970s. 

Much more recently, ZONEFIRST became the first company to offer new, EZ-Wire controls and dampers. These color-coded, push-in wiring terminal make wiring thermostats, transformer, sensors and HVAC equipment fast and easy.

For 2022, ZONEFIRST has reinvented how people can use the thermostat itself, with BLISS™, the first and only wireless, WiFi, app-based combination light switch and thermostat. BLISS solves the problem of rooms that are too hot or too cold due to bad thermostat placement. BLISS also provides for what ZONEFIRST says is the ultimate in room-by-room temperature control, and overcomes the obstacle of running wires for thermostats because WiFi stats need power and sensors need battery changes. 

BLISS fits into a standard 2-in x 4-in. junction box with a standard rocker switch plate. 

Dick Foster explained how wireless thermostats are great for zoning applications.

"Let’s say I want to put zoning in a house, and need get a thermostat upstairs. I could put a wireless stat up there, but these days, everybody wants to work everything off their phone. But there is no such thing as a wireless WiFi thermostat. This kind of plagued me for awhile. So I thought, ‘where is there power in every room? At the light switch.’ So why don’t I just combine them? We can easily house the electronics in a box the size of a thermostat. The touch screen can also be used to make manual changes to room lights and temperature.

The BLISS product can also read the airflow temperature inside the ductwork, and duct pressure.

"Since we’re zoning, obviously we need dampers to control the airflow, so we have
damper sensors which contain a probe. You put these into the ductwork to  measure temperature and pressure. So if I call for 'cool' on the app, I will see the temperature in the duct system rise or fall as the heating or cooling come on. If it doesn’t, I can signal an alert, and call the contractor if needed," Foster explained.

"We're basically replacing a light switch and eliminating the thermostat. Everybody likes the look; people don't like a big, obnoxious thermostat on  the wall."

Over the years, Foster has faced the perpetual challenge of explaining the benefits of residential zoning to contractors who have misperceptions of zoning as expensive, difficult to install and complicated. "The truth is totally the opposite," he said.

And so, the more Foster can enhance zoning systems with technology, the better it will serve contractors and their customers. 

"My goal is to try to zone every home," he said.

Alok Chanani: Software Game Changer

U.S. Army veteran Alok Chanani returned home from military service in Bagdhad intent on providing a state-of-the-art software platform for the construction industry. One of his duties overseas brought him into frequent contact with contractors working on various building projects, and he found many concepts could apply to a new product, and the product is BuildOps. 

"We believe we have the best solution in the world for commercial contractors, spanning from service to project management," Chanani said, during our visit to the BuildOps booth.BuildOps is an HVAC software package built by and for commercial contractors. Designed to keep your entire team on the same page, BuildOps features assist contractors in scaling their project operations with improved communication and coordination. It's used by contractor members of ABC Tech Alliance, MCAA, MCAC and Paragon Electric Corporation, among others. BuildOps software manages HVAC scheduling and dispatching, invoicing, and customer

BuildOps software integrates scheduling, dispatching, inventory management, contracts, workflow and accounting into a single software package for commercial real estate contractors with staff ranging from a few dozen to several hundred employees.

"I think it puts you at a huge disadvantage if you have a technology tool that doesn't allow you to compete," Chanani said. "I think if you want to grow your business, and maintain a sustainable advantage, there’s not better investment you can make in my opinion than to invest in the best possible technology.           

"As to whether or not BuildOps is the best technology platform for a particular contractor, I think that will depend on the particular operations and the way that business is organized. That would be determined by that particular business. But as a whole, we’ve seen a massive emphasis on upgrading technology, which has accelerated our business. BuildOps has grown by 400% in the last 16 months. That’s both head count of employees as well as an acquisition. AHR has been a significant part of our success.

Chanani said he was pleased by the amount of booth traffic during the AHR EXPO.

"We’ve seen a lot of our existing customers come by the booth, and new customers. I think we were a little concerned about what the turnout would look like since there was no show last year. I don’t know if this is now a post-COVID world or not, but we’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the traffic this year. We feel incredibly positive from what we’ve seen. Demand for our business is going through the roof, and I think it’s a reflection that we’re growing 400% + annually," he said.

Rich Benninghoff: Tradition & The New

Malco Products, SBC is bringing a premium locking handle plier back to the HVAC industry, and the launch date is approaching. The pliers will be a forged tool, which CEO Rich Benninghoff says is a new process for the company, now in its 72nd year.

"We’re learning the process, the engineering, and the technical side of that process," Benninghoff said, during our AHR Expo booth visit. "We did a few soft launches and got strong reviews from folks who we were kind of channeling and doing a soft launch through. We think there’s potential for American-made locking handle pliers. So, in the next six to nine months we’re building up inventory so we can hit the ground running."

Benninghoff assumed the CEO role in April 2021, following the retirement of Mardon Quandt, who had serve as Malco's president since 2013. Benninghoff has 22 years of technical sales and business leadership experience with engineered products and solutions in the industrial and commercial markets. Prior to joining Malco, Benninghoff served as the executive vice president, industrial for DeZURIK, and has held various commercial and general management positions at Tyco, Pentair and nVent.

Malco’s corporate headquarters and manufacturing facilities are located in Annandale, Minn., and in 2018, Malco opened a second manufacturing facility in DeWitt, Nebraska, where it produces the Eagle Grip line of American-made locking handle tools. 

Malco's first product was a pipe crimper founder Mark W. Keymer invented in 1950 for installing sheet metal ductwork used in forced air heating systems, a new and
growing application at the time.

Benninghoff wants Malco to continue innovating, but they're going to keep their eye on the products that made its name.

"With the locking pliers, we're offering a premium product that’s differentiated from others, but we’ve gotten away from the stuff hanging on the clips here at the booth, which is really what built the company. So, anytime we see somebody who is familiar with the brand, their first question is, ‘what’s new?’ because they’re used to seeing products come out. Malco is a solutions-based company and contractors and other trade professionals who are using our products have a channel of communication with us," Benninghoff said.

We need to get back to making improvements to existing product, or [release] new products every six months. So if somebody asks me, ‘Where’s your North star?’, it’s back to that. Back to basics." 

Malco tool categories include HVAC, fence/deck/rail and roof/gutter/siding.  

Premier Malco products on display during the AHR Expo were the saw-tooth reversible hex driver, and C-RHEX,  a dual-sided magnetic hex driver.  

Malco relies on traditional distribution channels, and is investing ecommerce capabilities, "but we won't vacate any spot; we'll only find different approaches," Benninghoff shared.

Benninghoff has a special respect for HVAC and plumbing professionals. 

"HVAC technicians have an advanced skill set, one that's very specific. You have to match that expertise when giving them tools to use. There’s a level of expectation there versus that of other trades. There’s a craft to the HVAC and plumbing worlds, and their personalities are involved in what they’re building or installing. I think we differentiate those two trades more than any other. I think there is a real difference in terms of the skill set."  - Terry McIver

About the Author

Terry McIver | Content Director - CB

A career publishing professional, Terence 'Terry' McIver has served three diverse industry publications in varying degrees of responsibility since 1987, and worked in marketing communications for a major U.S. corporation.He joined the staff of Contracting Business magazine in April 2005.

As director of content for Contracting Business, he produces daily content and feature articles for CB's 38,000 print subscribers and many more Internet visitors. He has written hundreds, if not two or three, pieces of news, features and contractor profile articles for CB's audience of quality HVACR contractors. He can also be found covering HVACR industry events or visiting with manufacturers and contractors. He also has significant experience in trade show planning.