Air Conditioning Contractors of America's 2023 Conference & Expo convened at the New Orleans Marriott hotel and conference center, and there were indeed some good times to be had by all. The show was blessed by good weather, good attendance by contractors eager to learn, and business-building messages from many fine presenters. The event’s content was an example of ACCA’s commitment to contractor business management excellence, as well as maintaining awareness and involvement in industry legislative issues. In addition to keynote presenters of national renown, plenty of contractor presentations showed the knowledge ACCA contractors always bring to a show to share with their peers.
Presenters and topics included but were not limited to: Jim Bergman on proper procedures, feedback tools and third-party verification. Scott Nelson and Scott Andrew Nelson, a father & son ownership team, described ways to give employees an ideal work/life balance. Aaron Ruddick on how to root out a rotten employee, and then determine where your processes failed. Derrek Hofrichter on understanding Generation Z. Branka Minic on working with organizations to overcome “the great resignation.” Bryan Dodge spoke on how to eliminate “limiting beliefs” that restrict progress in life and business.
Panel discussions were again a major part of the conference, with sessions that featured leading HVAC contractors, manufacturers and ACCA award winners.
During a kickoff session for first-time attendees, Keith Paton, Lanny Huffman and ACCA CEO Barton James encouraged contractors to take advantage of the many opportunities the show offered, from networking to getting plugged in to an ACCA MIX Group, to active participation in the issues.
“Seventeen states don’t have a licensing requirement to be an HVAC contractor, and to put that into perspective, every state in the country has a licensing requirement to cut hair, and we need to do better,” James said. “That’s part of ACCA’s job on behalf of contractors, whether it’s on the regulatory level in DC, and helping at the state level. If you’ve got some challenges you’re running into, let us know about those, because it’s our job to work for you. Thank you for investing in ACCA, and for sharing your most valuable resource, which is your time.”
“Contractors always have a lot coming at them. It's amazing what you face every day. But over the next couple days we'll be talking about a lot of those challenges and how to get through them and how to make the most of those limits.James shared news about ACCA’s strong financial position as an association, and the appointment of three new employees, as well as the message that it would
Talent-based Cultures Rule
Dee Ann Turner, a former human resources executive with Chick fil-A, who now runs a consulting business, spoke on “The Secret Sauce of a Remarkable Organizational Culture,” and how culture is the square one for attracting “talent” rather than “people.” That recipe includes a meaningful purpose, a challenging mission and demonstrated core values.
“Many organizations struggle with focus,” she said. “They want to focus on 50 things to help them find and keep and grow their talent. But talent is looking for remarkable culture. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and to do something that makes a difference. It’s not just earning money or in Chick fil-A’s cases, making a great chicken sandwich. They want to know that it matters. They’re looking for leaders who will care, and develop them both personally and professionally.”
Turner’s presentation included tales of near legendary Chick fil-A employees and customers who are examples of the cause and effect of a fantastic company culture.
Turner said a remarkable culture, plus extraordinary talent, plus amazing customer experiences will bring yield legendary customer service, and that the three essentials for selecting talent are character, competency and chemistry.
Sound Advice from Award Winners
Tony Polendo, regional service manager for Hiller HVAC, ACCA 2023 Residential Contractor of the Year said the company’s secret weapon for success is its combination of focus and commitment to customer satisfaction.
“I think if Jimmy Hiller were here today, he would tell you that his first priority is our customers. Second priority is our customers, and third priority is our customer. He’s laser focused on I'm ensuring that every customer is completely satisfied. That empowers us all to do what is needed, and what it takes.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in next few years?, asked discussion moderator Sarah Michelle.
“For us it’s staffing, having enough people on the team to support our customers," said Polendo. Dee Ann Turner brought up the fact of just hiring people, without finding the right talent. I think a lot of times we get in that position where we're just hiring to fill a position somewhere versus taking the time to select the right talent. And it just leads to more disruption needs more turnover when we don't take that time and that step to, to find the right talent versus hiring. It leads to more disruption and turnover when we don’t take the time to find the right talent versus hiring bodies. I feel it will continue to be a problem, finding qualified employees who care."
Katelyn Machen, human resource manager for, for Gillette Air Conditioning Co., San Antonio, Tex., ACCA 2023 Commercial Contractor of the Year, said the company always wants to be doing the right things for customers, employees and company families, for all the right reasons. "The constant change of delivery dates for equipment has also been a struggle, as well as making sure we have the right people in the right seat. And that’s not only about where they start in the company, but where they could finish, what’s their career path?
Justin Lauten, vice president of Total Air and Heat, Carrolton, Texas, winners of a 2023 Federated Insurance Star Award for prioritizing safety, teamwork, accountability and responsibility, said the team at Total Air is often energized by employees who are eager to share an idea. “Enthusiasm from somebody in the office who reengages the [safety] discussion and reminds us that it’s not just about minimizing risk, or using ladders correctly, but it’s about what doing things the ’right way’ involves.”
Dean Perez, 2023 ACCA Service Manager of the Year with CroppMetcalfe, said it was gratifying to receive the award. He said his success is based on the way he leads. CroppMetcalfe preaches service-based leadership, and as long as people are following procedures, they know that I’ve got their back. I want to inspire their confidence in me but also in themselves. I want them to feel empowered to make decisions in the field, that they don’t feel hamstrung, and can serve our customers to the best of their abilities.”
Katelyn Machen said Gillette AC has been focused on company culture to find employees. We can absolutely teach the skills, but we can’t teach the willingness to learn, to be part of our family, to put safety first. To do those intangible things. Who fits our team, and who wants to be on the team?
Perez said companies have to stop poaching from each other and find people whose character fits our culture. You want to serve in some way. We can teach you the tech skills, but a willing ness to serve and be part of the culture comes first. I hired a young man who worked at a local sub shop.I asked if he thought about doing anything else, told him what we do and he said he’d love to come chat with us. He’s been a great maintenance tech for us and is getting ready to go on to service. They’re out there, you have to go out and find them.”
Stack also emphasized being able to show a career path, so they can see where they can go, that they’re not stuck in one job. Stack and the team in Avon, Ohio also work on soft skills, as in being able to speak with customers professionally, not just repair or install equipment.
“We’ve shifted our focus to finding people outside the HVAC industry,” Polendo said. “Finding the people with the right desire for the work. We’ve started a training program for the technical aspect and soft skills. Communicating and explaining our process to the customer.”
Other topics discussed by the panel included battling disruptions and selling more service agreements.
Chad Gillespie, sales manager of performance construction for Mitsubishi Electric Heating and Cooling, said Mitsubishi has moved much of its production from China to Mexico. “We now have about two to three percent in China. We’re learning lessons on how this all works together. We feel we’re past it. Production is ramped up, all the barns are stocked, so we don’t feel as if we’re going to see much more [supply issues] in the near future for us.”
Braden Cook, director of product management and training for Carrier, said the last few years have been very tough. We work with our supply chain a little differently now, to be able to address issues quickly, and it’s gotten much better. This year, there will still be some miscellaneous things that come up, but our supply chain team is very good at diving in, correcting those and I think you will see more of the products you want readily available.”
Mark Bills, vp/gm of commercial HVAC products for Emerson, said Emerson sees some stabilization taking place. There are some spot challenges here and there but we’re largely out of the woods. There have been efforts in the supply chain across the industry. Things are largely stabilized.
“Supply chain challenges have certainly made us better,” shared Brandon Franks, vice president, sales and marketing for Johnson Controls. “We’ve improved our capabilities to support the industry, both component suppliers, and ourselves as an OEM, and we’ve integrate more technology to help mitigate some of those risks.”
On the topic of the economy and HVAC, Randy Roberts, vice president, residential business development for US air conditioning for Rheem, said they’re watching the markets closely. “I think we’re all a little nervous when you see where interest rates are and inflation. We’ve seen a little slowing in some sectors, but overall it’s relatively strong in most of the markets we serve. You’re prepared and ready, but you continue to invest where you need to in order to be ready to handle it either way.”
With what we’re looking at, what crushed us in 2007-2008 was the housing crash and the recession that followed. There we had several million homes in inventory. Now we’re looking at a decline in family formation by 3 or 4 million housed, but the need for housing is always a driver; even though interest rates are high, we’re looking at about 900,000 units, which was the same number we had in 2019, which we considered to be a good year. The industry thinks we can have a slight recession but the next year will be driven by the need for homes and the Inflation Reduction Act. There’s a lot of money for manufacturing and incentives for heat pump replacements and other products.”
Nathan Walker, senior vice president, environmental business development for Daikin Comfort Technologies, I separate the question into two: how do I feel about the economic situation and what might happen on a macro level, and then HVAC equipment demand. They are related, but I would describe the demand side as, since 2007 - 2008, the demand has been resilient against macro factors that I thought might effect demand, such as the tariff situations, price increases during COVID and COVID itself. Yes, the economic situation and interest rates are worrisome, but I think HVAC demand can remain resilient through those.”
Additional topics included the refrigerant transition and electrification.
What Will the Market Bring?
Leadership from Service Champions, Goettl, T.R. Miller and Petermans, held court on a variety of topics, including economic issues.
Is a market correction coming? If so, these contractors are cautious, but not scared.
“I would say you can't be naive to not see that clearly, there's things going on. The Fed's dealing with the rate, the macro environment's uneasy. As we try to acquire businesses, the money's more expensive. And so you feel that pressure," said Frank DiMarco, Service Champions. "I think from a consumer standpoint, we haven't necessarily felt that in any of our businesses in different parts of the country. but we keep our eye on it. We don’t say it’s never going happen. For the last six months, you wake up and hear that there’s going to be a recession. Maybe in some markets, but not in the markets I travel to. People are still spending money. I think we’ve had more of a headwind in terms of what’s going on with climates than anything. But we’re prepared for it, and if it happens, we view it as an opportunity.”
“Financing approval rates are an important metric. Make sure you track that metric and understand it,” said Ken Goodrich, CEO of Goettl, Inc. “In 2011, we thought we were heading the right way, but financing rates dropped almost 20 percent. There’s some things going on, and there will be some pressure on our type of business now, that anybody who is dependent on using financing for their business.
“We don’t know if a recession will happen or not,” said Chad Peterman, “but the way you safeguard yourself, as I tell my team, we are not participating in any sort of recession. Do what you need to do to keep your business growing. It’s not being hunkered down in a hole hoping that it passes by”
Why Standards Matter
In a session titled “Can You Prove It?” Jim Bergman, president of measureQuick and HVAC Genius explored the value of procedures and technical feedback tools that can change hope into proof. Bergman illustrated ways to confirm a service teams efforts and that newly-installed systems are performing as designed and measured. He also showed hot to properly use third-party verified data to prove your value to the customer.
“Standards define the industry’s agreed-upon, minimum technical requirements, procedures, guidelines and instructions for -how to confirm your team’s efforts and that the newly-installed systems are performing. - how to use third-party, verified data to prove your value to the customer. How to boost customer satisfaction and revenue. with Jim Bergman, president of measureQuick and HVAC Genius. Standards define the industry’s agreed-upon minimum technical requirements, procedures, guidelines and instructions for engineers, designers and technicians. They also establish the industry’s minimum standard of care.
HVAC Training for Veterans
There are currently 110,000 unfilled technician jobs across North America, and 23,000 technicians leave the industry each year.
Trane and American Standard are now part of a program designed to help military veterans enter the HVAC industry. The "Trade WarriorsTM HVAC Training Program in partnership with Orion Talent and RightTek HVACTraining, provides eight weeks of training at a learning lab outfitted with equipment at military bases. The program is designed to bridge the gap between transitioning military veterans and Trane/American Standard dealers nationwide. Veterans earn EPA 608 and NATE Ready-to-Work certifications. Unfortunately, these classes are not covered by the GI Bill.
Contractors, please consider helping. VISIT tradewarriors.com to learn more and/or register to participate.
ACCA 2024 will be held March 11-14 at Universal Orlando's Sapphire Falls Resort.