The team at 5Star Refrigeration amp Air Conditioning39s Brooksville FL headquarters They39ll be joined by more soon as the company continues to grow Group photo by Jonathan Herrington

2015 Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year: 5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning

May 4, 2015
Based in Brooksville, FL — about 50 miles east of Tampa — 5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning has earned a shining reputation as one of Florida’s leading providers of low- and medium-temperature refrigeration service and installation.  
Logo design by Ashley M. Doles

5-Star: A Name and a Standard
Anyone who has guided a commercial refrigeration company to a position of leadership in its market will attest to the importance of continuity. They know what it means to have a cohesive team that’s wrestled with the many challenges of running a business, and have come out of it stronger and more united in the pursuit of common goals.

Continuity and longevity are key elements in the story of 5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning, whose primary management team had worked together for other businesses long before the 5-Star company was born.

Down in sunny Florida, the company’s core group — founder/owner Joe Matthews; Gwen Lahera, operations manager; Mike Aussendorf, special projects/energy management systems manager; Ed Kelly, installation manager — and newer employees Chuck Allen and Hal McKoon —are putting more than 150 years of combined
experience to work each day to serve refrigeration customers across the Sunshine State, along with the invaluable help of more than 100 other team members.

5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning’s vast Florida territory includes the regions around Tallahassee, Jacksonville, the entire southern portion of the state and northeast through the corner of Georgia up to Savannah.

The 5-Star Refrigeration Management Team. Seated, from left are Gwen Lahera and Lynda Matthews, Joe Matthews' wife, who has been with him all the way. Back row, from left: Chuck Allen, Mike Aussendorf, Ed Kelly, Hal McKoon, and Joe Matthews. Photos by Terry McIver

Based in Brooksville, FL — about 50 miles east of Tampa — 5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning has earned a shining reputation as one of Florida’s leading providers of low- and medium-temperature refrigeration service and installation.

5-Star serves a “Who’s Who” of leading supermarkets, convenience stores, fast food chains and restaurants, including Publix, Whole Foods, WinnDixie, Target, The Fresh Market, Walmart, WaWa, Gate, Save-a-Lot, IGA, Costco, Family Dollar, McDonald’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Trader Joe’s, to name a dozen.

Major brands installed, sold and serviced by 5-Star include Hussmann — they’re an exclusive Hussmann channel partner covering the entire state — Master-Bilt, True, Trane, Carrier, Heatcraft, 3M and ISE Manufacturers.

Bolstered by a solid background and reputation for excellence, the team at 5-Star Refrigeration believes themselves to be, “The Only Complete 1-Stop Solution Commercial Refrigeration Contractor in the State of Florida.”

This proven, solid reputation, and success at such a wide variety of refrigeration applications have earned 5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning, Inc. the “Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year" Award.

Meet Joe Matthews

Joe Matthews: bringing a lifetime of experience to work at 5-Star.

Owner Joseph E. “Joe” Matthews, III, 58, is the man in charge at 5-Star Refrigeration. After a series of successful prior business ventures, he started the company in 2007, in a 10 x10 office in his home. His goal was to provide quality refrigeration, air conditioning and water filtration service and equipment for supermarkets, convenience stores and others with refrigeration needs. Gwen Lahera, one of his core team members, worked out of her home as operations manager.

Not long after the business was up and running, it was clear that its fast growth was going to require additional space. That’s when, on one sunny Florida afternoon, Matthews drove past a building that was going up for auction the very next day. He thought it had possibilities, so that night he spoke to some key people, crunched the numbers, and the next day, squeaked out the purchase, beating the next highest bidder by $5,000. That building served as its base of operations until late last year.

As a high school athlete, Joe Matthews was anticipating a possible career in pro baseball. He was an All-Star in high school, but when his father’s health declined, Matthews had to become the family’s immediate wage earner. He entered the pipefitters’ union, advanced to the top of his class, and began working in 1976 as an apprentice in the refrigeration field, performing new store and remodel projects.

The 5-Star team will soon grow yet again, as new offices are being prepared for more than 30 new employees. Photo by Jonathan Herrington.

Within eight years, Matthews became vice president/owner of Sun Belt Refrigeration. It was there that he first met Lahera, his 5-Star installation manager Ed Kelly, and Mike Aussendorf, his lead engineer.

After 14 years, Matthews and his partner sold Sun Belt Refrigeration to Ingersoll Rand Hussmann, and he agreed to stay on as Florida territory general manager, and later as operations sales manager. He left Sun Belt/Ingersoll Rand in 2007.

A sampling of 5-Star Refrigeration's workmanship, as seen at a local Whole Foods Market. Thanks to Whole Foods. Photo collage by Ashley M. Doles.

Today, eight years into the 5-Star venture, Matthews and his well-experienced team have moved to a new, 24,000 sq. ft. location, from which they provide commercial customers with organizational and operational services that go beyond far their expectations.

5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning grew by 500% from 2007 to 2014, through diversification, and serving a variety of customer types with installation and ever-important refrigeration service.

Their success was so dramatic, that in 2013, 5-Star was recognized by the Tampa Journal as one of the Top 50 companies in the Tampa Bay area. That same year, it was named to the Florida Business Journal’s “Fast 100” of growing Florida businesses.

In 2014, after outgrowing its first Brooksville location, Matthews moved the team moved to its current 24,000 sq. ft.headquarters, on busy Cortez Blvd.

In 2014, after outgrowing its first Brooksville location, Matthews moved the team moved to its current 24,000 sq. ft. headquarters, on busy Cortez Blvd. The new, much larger space is helping the busy team better serve its customers, since it will be better equipped to receive, stage and ship clients’ store equipment in coordination with each project.

Just Starting to Grow
Although 5-Star enjoyed revenues of more than $14 million in 2014 — and 99% customer retention — the company has much more to accomplish. The new facility, which stood vacant for three years, offers much room to expand, and is an ideal location for 5-Star as it looks toward the company’s promising future.

“We’re just starting to hit our stride,” Matthews says. He had to hire more than 60 employees in 2014 to manage the newly-acquired Publix account, and they completed 150 projects for Family Dollar in 2014. All together, 5-Star completed 330 installations in 2014, for a variety of smaller enterprises that crave excellent refrigeration service as a key to their survival as well as the larger, wider ranging chain stores and restaurants.

To make the most of the new, larger site, builders have recently partitioned out some interior office space, and Matthews’s plans include even more expansion, including a training center for employees.

To make the most of the new, larger site, builders have recently partitioned out some interior office space, and Matthews’s plans include even more expansion, including a training center for employees.

Taking on the Market

Joe Matthews has crafted 5-Star’s growth and marketing plan very carefully and for maximum effectiveness.  His age makes him a “boomer,” but he isn’t afraid
to try “millennial”-age ideas to grow the business and better serve customers. That courage is evident in the company’s newly-designed website, and mission statement.
Joe Matthews is on the go every minute of every day.

5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning grew by 500% from 2007 to 2014, through diversification, and serving a variety of customer types with installation and ever-important refrigeration service.

I like to think of the star as the heart that beats for our customers. There’s nobody I know of in the commercial refrigeration business that can do everything we can do. — Joe Matthews

“The website required many months of time in 2014, and it’s key message comes from a survey we conducted of our customers,” Matthews explains.

“We called 20 customers, and asked them to give us their opinion of 5-Star as a company and refrigeration service provider,” he says. “Nineteen out of 20 customers were very positive. They all used similar key words to describe us, and we crafted that to be used as the introduction to our website:

‘The Most Knowledgeable, Innovative, Responsive, Proactive & Dedicated Organization in the Florida Commercial Refrigeration Marketplace.’

“Those five attributes make up the five points to the star — or a kind of “beating heart” as Matthews calls it —that is at the center of the 5-Star logo.

Local newspapers like to feature successful businesses. That has included 5-Star.

“I like to think of it as the heart that beats for our customers. There’s nobody I know of in the commercial refrigeration business that can do everything we can do,” Matthews claims.

Elite Customers Know the Mission
To stress its commitment, 5-Star gives a special ‘Elite Member’ card to each of its refrigeration customers, imprinted with the company mission statement: “To be the highest quality full service equipment company servicing the food industry in the Southeast United States.”

The card also states that 5-Star will strive accomplish that goal by:
• focusing on value-added services
• eliminating waste
• establishing long term customer and supplier partnerships
• being devoted to education and training
• protecting the environment
• being committed to the well-being, advancement, safety and security of its associates.

Turnkey Experts, Energy Advocates
Major state-of-the-art initiatives at 5-Star include an Energy Management Group, guided by Mike Aussendorf.

“Mike is our most technically astute employee,” Matthews shares. “He was our service manager for many years during the Sun Belt days. The energy management group explores ways to better use state-of-the art motors, LEDs, and energy management controllers.”

Civil War memorial in the Brooksville city center.

Aussendorf’s work brings him into a direct, consultative turnkey role with customers of all sizes.

“Our largest customers, such as a Publix or Whole Foods, will come to us with engineering drawings, and explain how they want the store to be built or remodeled. We then go about fulfilling those plans, including quoting, ordering and fulfilling,” he explains.

“But the smaller, independent stores don’t have an engineering firm, and they ask us to fill that role. I’ve had 40 years of experience doing this, so I can figure out the engineering, which includes discussions with our sales and installation teams. For example, I’ll determine the coil size, type of condensing pipe, and pipe sizes we need for a 15,000 BTU walk-in cooler.

“We’ll then draw up a legend for all the systems in the store, including BTU and amp usage, everything the building team needs to obtain a permit and quote the job.” 

It Was Meant to Be

Operations Manager Gwen Lahera thinks the eventual reunion of Matthews, herself, Kelly, and Aussendorf, from the old Sun Belt days, was a great twist of fates. 

“Even before Joe started 5-Star, our various managers had all been involved in moves that brought us closer to Tampa, so it all worked out,” she says. “It was a great opportunity. There aren’t many businesses in Hernando County of our size and expertise. We’ve always worked well together, because we all have great respect for one another,” she says.

5-Star's stock room is ready to go, with equipment for a variety of project needs.

Installation manager Ed Kelly returned to the area after doing some contracting work in Iraq. Mike Aussendorf sold a business, did some sailing, went back to school for refrigeration, and eventually met Joe Matthews.

Two newer, but just as valued employees soon joined the team: Service Manager Chuck Allen had owned his own business, sold it, and worked for a handful of other refrigeration companies for about seven years before finding the right fit with 5-Star. Hal McKoon was a career project manager who found he could bring large scale experience to a smaller business like 5-Star.

We win together or lose together. I tell our employees that we’re a team on the same field. We have different positions, but I want all to be leaders, not bosses. We have to fill the gaps with the players we need to be successful, and most of all, have fun doing it. — Joe Matthews

The common threads that weave their way through the entire team are respect, expertise, and professionalism.

One section of 5-Star's clean and orderly parts department.

One Example of Special Service
So many varied types of refrigeration customers necessarily require different billing methods. Lahera and her office team are experts at customizing invoicing and other administrative duties to meet the demands of all 5-Star’s customers.

“Every customer wants things done in a certain way, from invoicing to communications, and we work very hard to make them happy by providing what they want from us,” she says.

“I have an awesome staff. We’ve developed a process that keeps it all organized. Each customer has a file with billing instructions, and each biller has assigned accounts that they’re familiar with and are the experts for. Each biller has a different set of customers they do invoicing for. When we sell a new customer we do what we have to do to make sure we’re doing things the way they’d like us to.”

Employees First
Joe Matthews cares about his employees.

“The employees come first,” he says. “I came from ‘the bottom,’ in this business, and I know what it takes to do this work. I’ve always looked out for the best interests of the people who work here. I have to also make practical and tough business decisions. My management style is always to look at improving processes, not blaming people, and to get everyone to work as one team.”

Watch Joe Matthews' welcome to 5-Star website visitors:

“We always try to remember that people have families that come first,” adds Ed Kelly. “You have to be aware of the needs of all of the families that are connected to 5-Star. Something will come along that needs an employees attention, and we’re flexible about that.”

Matthews puts a high degree of trust in his employees, and relies on them for advice each and every day.

“To me, the person who is closest to the job is the expert,” he says.

“I believe that no one person, not even the president of the United Sates, can possibly make the right decisions on everything, and companies have to look at it that way too. Hopefully, you can be smart enough to get all the facts and try to make the best decisions. But if you have people who fear you and only tell you what you want to hear, you’re probably going to make the wrong decisions. So you have to look closely at your team, and ensure that they’re honest, and have integrity.”

On top of daily communications, the management team meets officially every quarter. Interaction around the company is improving, but Matthews says there needs to be better communication between the service and installation teams.

Recently, 5-Star’s busy installation department — which completed more than 300 projects in 2014— began a ‘start-up’ division for new projects, to help deal with communications problems related to new installations. Three men now work on start-up installations, and the service department helps out with installations whenever possible.

They’ve also started a newsletter — STAR Tracks, to keep all employees apprised of special company news, including the always important birthdays and anniversaries that help everyone stay in touch.

Other improvements overseen by General Manager Hal McKoon include a new, 80-page employee handbook, an improved compensation structure for technicians, a tool purchase program, and standardized vehicle purchase and maintenance programs.

A Bright, Shining Future
Joe Matthews envisions much more on the horizon for 5-Star Refrigeration.

“I see us growing by 20% each year,” he says. “The plan is to hit $18 million in 2015, and $20 million in 2016. We’ve planned for the future by adding new office space, and we will have 32 additional work stations operating by July, including seven offices for the installation department. And what’s important is the growth is not just organic, but is coming by adding new customers.”

Among Matthew’s plans is further expansion of the service department across the Florida panhandle and additional coverage in southern Georgia. Another goal is to open a non-profit, certified refrigeration school — called S.T.A.R.S. — at an off-site location, to help grow the state’s dwindling ranks of qualified refrigeration technicians. He hopes to someday accomplish that with the help of funding from industry manufacturers.

All in all: 5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning is a model of excellence in providing a very diverse range of services. Their unity, teamwork, and total commitment to customer needs has helped them become regional leaders in a relatively short amount of time. Their combined experience, learning from mistakes, and dedication to improving in every area makes them a company to emulate and watch.

Congratulations to Joe Matthews and the team at 5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning, the 2015 Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year!

The 5-Star Management Team

Joe Matthews III, President/CEO Prior to establishing 5-Star, Joe began working in 1976 as an apprentice in the refrigeration field performing new store and remodel projects. Within eight years, he became vice president/owner of Sun Belt Refrigeration. After 14 years, he and his partner sold Sun Belt Refrigeration to Ingersoll Rand Hussmann where Joe agreed to stay on as Florida territory general manager and later as operations sales manager. Joe founded 5-Star to partner with a few, select customers to assist them with Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Water Filtration Service and Equipment needs.Hal McKoon, General Manager
Hal McKoon has 29 years of managerial experience, and has been with 5-Star for one year. He started his career with McDuff Appliance in Jacksonville in 1985, after nine years in the U.S. Navy. McKoon was a service manager with Tandy, a general manager for Circuit City, an outsourcing director for Siemens Business Services, and most recently was a plant manager at Nestlé Professional Beverages. McKoon believes a good reputation is the best advertisement, and looks upon his contributions to 5-Star and the success of our business partners as a commitment to be “Best in Class” in the commercial refrigeration and air conditioning industry.Gwen Lahera, Operations Manager
Gwen Lahera started her career in 1984 working for a grocery supply wholesaler. In 1994, she started as office manager with Sun Belt Equipment Sales/NRS. In April of 2002, Ingersoll Rand purchased Sun Belt/NRS and merged with Hussmann Tampa, where she held the position of senior installation and payroll coordinator.Ed Kelly, Installation Manager
A friend and business associate of Joe Matthews almost his entire working life, Kelly is responsible for bidding, layout and management of both new and remodel refrigeration and equipment installation projects. From 1984 through 2002, Ed served as Construction Manager for Sun Belt Equipment Sales/NRS. Ed’s vast experience includes working on projects for multiple supermarket chains and many independently-owned supermarkets and convenience stores.Mike Aussendorf, Special Projects & Energy Management Systems Manager
Mike has 27 years of technical expertise in commercial refrigeration. At 5-Star, he’s responsible for all service operations from Ocala to Naples, he engineers quotes and he supervises installation projects. Mike has also served as project manager, account manager and service manager with Ingersoll Rand/Hussmann Florida. He engineered, planned projects and supervised maintenance for several supermarket chains.Chuck Allen, Service Manager
Chuck Allen has 39 years of experience in commercial and industrial refrigeration and HVAC. He’s well versed in training service technicians, providing technical support and problem solving for both service and installations. Chuck has held positions as general manager, service manager, operations manager, construction manager as well as owning his own commercial refrigeration company in the Tampa Bay area.

5- Star Refrigeration Team Commandments

  • Help each other be right, not wrong.
  • Look to make new ideas work, not why they won’t.
  • If in doubt, check it out! Don’t make negative assumptions about each other.
  • Help each other win, and take pride in each other’s victories.
  • Speak positively about your coworkers and company at every opportunity.
  • Maintain a positive mental attitude in all situations.
  • Act with initiative and courage, as if it all depends on you!
  • Do everything with enthusiasm – it’s contagious!
  • Whatever you want…give it away.

What Customers Say About 5-Star

Andy Homka, construction manager, WaWa Stores: “5-Star is great at looking ahead of the game, being proactive vs reactive in getting the job done. 5-Star is always asking me what else they can do to improve our partnership & WaWa’s business. They are willing to go through hoops for us.”

Charlie Martin, B&B Holdings: “After working with 5-star for six years, it is clear to me they are a cut about the others. They have superior technical expertise, to not just solve problems, but they offer innovative, money-saving solutions. Coupled with their superb communication inside and out, makes them hard to beat.”

Mike Jutz, vice president, Jerry’s Enterprises (5-Star’s first customer): “5-Star treats our stores like their own. They know the quirks in each and every store system. So, they anticipate problems before they occur and make recommendations, which I almost always implement given their track record.”

Mike Junk, construction manager, Gate Petroleum:“They’re the most innovative and engaged contractor on our refrigeration business. 5-Star only handles a portion of our stores, but they operate like a true full-partner, always thinking about ways to improve our business.”

5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning, Inc.
HQ: Brooksville, FL
Territory: Majority of the state of Florida, portions of Georgia
Owner/founder: Joseph E. Matthews, III
Year founded: 2007
Employees: 118 
Vehicles: 90
2014 Revenue: $14.6 million
Partial customer list: Publix, Whole Foods, WinnDixie,  The Fresh Market, Target, Walmart, WaWa, Gate, Sav-a-Lot, Costco, Family Dollar, McDonald’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Trader Joe’s.
Expertise: Supermarket, restaurant, convenience store refrigeration systems; water purification by 3M; some commercial HVAC.
Hal McKoon, general manager
Gwen Lahera, operations manager
Mike Aussendorf, special projects/energy management systems management
Ed Kelly: installation manager
Chuck Allen: service manager

About The Contractor of the Year Award
The Refrigeration Contractor of the Year Award is given to a commercial refrigeration company that has attained a high level of success in commercial refrigeration. We select a company with a proven track record of customer service excellence, as well as business management acumen, training, and of course, steady growth over the course of many years. Candidates must have a formal business plan they are willing to share, a working philosophy upon which the company is built, a marketing strategy, and innovative, business-building ideas.

We accept nominations at any time, from the contractor, manufacturers, distributors or customers. Send nominations to [email protected]

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.