Of the many excellent air conditioning contractors of America we have profiled in the pages of ContractingBusiness.com, Advent Air Conditioning’s story is one of a special kind of endurance and initiative. It’s about what comes from making difficult but necessary decisions, and doing what it takes to remain a leader in tough times. It’s about knowing what a business needs to grow, and investing in its success.
The Advent Air Conditioning story is about Mike Douglas, who moved to Texas in 1980, seeking to build a new career in a new place. Today, he and his family — wife Tammi, sons Jared and Adam, and daughter Brittany — and a mighty team of managers, are making quality service and installations by Advent Air Conditioning one of life’s few remaining guarantees.
Since 1981, Advent Air Conditioning has been making a big, Texas-size difference in the quality of HVAC systems installed in homes across the Dallas/Ft. Worth region. Its specialties are residential HVAC for new construction, residential HVAC replacement and service, and commercial new construction and replacement.
Advent experienced a severe decline in revenue following the economic crash of 2009, as sales fell from $14 million to $6.8 million. Now, however, business is on the rebound. Advent Air Conditioning hit the $10 million sales mark in 2013, a 24% increase over 2012. That same year, it enjoyed 10% growth in new customers.
What Determination Can Do
Mike Douglas seems to have always been focused on a goal. As a young man living in Angola, IN, he sought out a career after high school, and settled on HVAC. He entered an apprenticeship at Howard Dodge & Son Co., and attended night school at Ivy Technical College.
Then came the recession of 1980, and double-digit unemployment in 30 states. Douglas lost his job with Dodge & Son, and decided to strike out on his own, running an HVAC business out of his home.
“I just about starved to death,” he recalls. “The area was devastated, because everything had been geared to the auto industry, which had taken a severe hit. It was hard to get paid with factories closing all around.”
Time for a Change
Douglas had two stepbrothers who were living in Grapevine, TX. They told him that things were not only bigger, but also better economically in the Longhorn State. They mailed him Yellow Pages listings of HVAC companies, and Mike lined up a week of interviews. The effort paid off.
“I ended up getting a job with a builder who wanted to start an air conditioning division. I sold all I had and moved my family to Texas. But on the day I showed up, they told me they weren’t ready for me to start that job! I went back the next day, and worked for them in construction until they were ready to get the HVAC business going.”
Douglas knew something wasn’t right when he kept getting a runaround whenever he asked for a W2 form, and then, when he was given his first pay from a box of cash in the trunk of a car.
“I knew that wouldn’t last long, and we parted ways five months later,” he says.
Now two disappointments into his HVAC career, Douglas landed an interview with a group of Dallas investors who wanted to start an HVAC company, and needed a general manager. He ran a gauntlet of interviews with 14 people, among them investors, attorneys and accountants. The business was to be called Preston Road Air Conditioning & Engineering. As general manager, Douglas was in charge of HVAC installations for custom, luxury homes.
That lasted all of one year. “Then,” he says, “they decided it was something they didn’t want to do.” (Disappointment #3.) “They sold me the company, which wasn’t much.”
Advent Air Conditioning, Lewisville, TX
Owner/Founder: Mike Douglas
Douglas chose “Advent” as the company name, since it coincided with his recent decision to become a Christian. He rented a 1,400 sq.ft. office, and proceeded to “do it all” to get the business rolling. With some financial help from one of the original Preston investors, Douglas hit the ground at a trot, which soon became a gallup.
“I developed new accounts, made sales, and drew up installation designs,” he recalls. He also did things by the book, which was not always the standard practice of many of his competitors.
“I had been taught that room-by-room load calculations were essential and more accurate,” he says. “Nobody down here had ever heard of that before, but I didn’t want to cut any corners.”
That first year was tough. Douglas and an installer worked seven days a week. They survived, and made enough money in the first year to pay off 100% of all debts, including a $30,000 line of credit he had received from the Preston investor.
The following year, Douglas hit what he describes as ‘a wall of growth’. “There was an expansion of overhead, because I had to hire people, and buy trucks and supplies. I actually thought we might go under.” A major restructuring followed. Douglas drastically reduced his own salary, and hired people to help him grow the business. One year later — in 1983 — the business was moved to a facility in Carrollton, TX, consisting of an office warehouse and an outbuilding.
Big Move into Track Housing
Then, Douglas made the most significant move of his career, by expanding into track housing. A major home builder, General Homes, was making an entry into the Texas market, and Douglas had his eye on a development in Coppel, TX.
“When I asked the manager why they chose us, he said, ”You came out here everyday and bugged me! You answered our questions about design, load, products, and materials, but the other bidders just dropped bids into the mailbox. So, if your service and follow-through is anywhere near your determination to get this account, we’ll be fine.”
“I got the HVAC account after a few months of bidding it,” Douglas recalls. “When I asked the manager why they chose us, he said, ”You came out here everyday and bugged me! You answered our questions about design, load, products, and materials, but the other bidders just dropped bids into the mailbox. So, if your service and follow-through is anywhere near your determination to get this account, we’ll be fine.”
Douglas was committed that he would operate his business on principles of quality, honesty, and integrity, values which continue to guide the company. And though many of their new home installation labor is sub-contracted, those teams must go through a period of training, and follow Advent’s exacting procedures for installation processes, from hanging the equipment, to wrapping and sealing trunk lines. They call it “The Advent Way.”
It’s that way of doing things, and the company’s solid reputation, that was so attractive to sales manager Dan Leising. Thirteen years ago, Leising was looking to move out of the hospitality industry, and the indispensable nature of HVAC appealed to him. He also wanted to become affiliated with a company that shared his philosophy of customer service. He interviewed with seven companies.
“When I was talking to people at the other six companies, it turned out they all knew about Mike Douglas. Even though they were competitors, they all had positive things to say about Mike and about Advent Air Conditioning.”
Leising manages Advent’s sales initiatives, and is senior manager of residential construction. He helps identify market segments, targets demographics, monitors leads, and more.
“I want to shop in the same stores and send my children to the same schools as our customers, and not have to duck my head to avoid a complaint,” Leising says. “Ethics and quality have been keys to Mike’s success, and I’ve embraced being a part of that.”
By acquiring the General Homes business, Advent had committed itself to installing HVAC systems into hundreds of new custom/luxury homes. But by the mid-1980s, it had successfully added a high-volume business for existing homes as well. It continued to prosper from its dedication to high quality designs and customer satisfaction.
When the savings and loan crisis hit in the late 1980s, Advent was ready with a “rainy day” fund, thanks to Douglas’s frugal savings habits. Advent emerged from that crisis a stronger company, however several of its competitors closed.
Growth, 9/11 & Revival
Additional, significant growth followed — through an expansion of Advent’s service business, a move into commercial new construction, the move to the current Lewisville location in 1988, and the formation of a retro-fit department in the late ‘90s. Then came Disappointments #4 and #5: a painful divorce in 1998 (he later remarried, to wife Tammi), and something which rocked all businesses: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The economy faltered, and HVAC service and commercial work came to a virtual halt. Douglas shelved his plans to build a new facility. Over the next several years, Advent bobbed along in the same boat of uncertainty as did thousands of other HVAC businesses.
But even though business was poor, Advent survived, buoyed by its great reputation, a willingness to adapt and innovate, and by applying sound business practices Douglas had been acquiring through Business Development Resources (BDR), SeaTac, WA, a no-nonsense provider of business training and coaching services.
Each year, Mike and service manager Jason Chapman, installation manager Matt Wikel, and Dan Leising participate in BDR’s Profit Launch Conference. There, they review, refine, and recommit to short- and long-term business goals and objectives.
“Mike Douglas has consistently been a great leader for his company,” says BDR co-founder, Barry Burnett (who was also a ContractingBusiness.com Contractor of the Year, in 1989). “He has developed a shared vision throughout Advent Air that carries through from management to installers, service technicians, and the entire team. Mike has an extreme dedication to the highest level of installation quality and customer service, and a passion for furthering his education and professional growth."
Burnett continues: "Whenever there is a BDR class like Labor Management: Retail-focus in his area, he is always there along with his key team members to make sure they are continuing their education and furthering their knowledge. He has been a featured dealer speaker at BDR’s Profit Launch business planning workshop and has attended every year since 2008 to build his company’s business plan."
Douglas admits that the money he spends for travel, lodging, and training associated with the BDR conference would not be considered normal by other business owners, but his membership in BDR has strengthened his business, with clear direction and great ideas.
“A lot of people would add up the cost and say, ‘no, I’m not doing that.’ So they wing it, without a business plan. To me, that’s insanity,” he says.
Striving to be THE BEST
Advent Air Conditioning continues to reap the benefits of Mike Douglas’s frugal habits and his belief in keeping a nest egg for rainy days such as the savings and loan crisis. With plenty in the bank, he doesn’t worry about another downturn, or where his next payroll will come from. This gives him the freedom to have fun while he plans ahead.
“I get excited about this stuff,” he says. “I like business because it’s always moving forward. It’s not a destination, it’s an evolution. I like what I do and I enjoy the challenge, even though the cycle, in long term business, is that sometime you’re at risk of going under. You put everything you have personally into it to keep going.”
He’s still fixed on a goal, this time perhaps his biggest: “I’ve stated in company meetings that my goal is not to be as good as any other company. It’s to be better than any other company. If the goal is just to be as good as anybody else, let’s close it down. We want to be leaders in our market, and recognized as such, as far as our design, our quality, our philosophy, and our service. I would like to build Advent into a company with $30 million per year in sales, with a continued focus on residential and commercial service and replacement.”
Guiding Hand & ‘Hands Off’
Douglas views his role at Advent Air as essentially a guiding hand that keeps everyone moving in the same direction.
“I no longer have to be here every day. I could not come in tomorrow and it would run flawlessly,” he says. “If I were to sell the business, it would continue to be a self-sustaining management structure that’s not dependent on me. That’s what gives a business value.”
Douglas stays in the loop through monthly meetings. They review budgets, address challenges, and celebrate success. With a plan, he says, it’s all pretty simple. He shuns micro-management; if that’s ever needed, something’s not right.
“I want to have the right people in the position to do their jobs, and I want to have something that can be tracked as far as results,” he says. “I want us all to be on the same page, going in the same direction. I want the managers to create it and implement it, and a reporting system that shows they can talk to me if something’s not going right. Let’s go over it and reach a consensus.”
Marketing Ideas Based on ‘Contacts’
As director of marketing for Advent Air Conditioning, Mike’s wife Tammi recently managed a major rebranding that included truck wraps, door hangers, brochures, messaging on the Advent website, and various other forms of customer communication.
“It really started with the website,” she says. “The public has been becoming more aware of the importance of HVAC, and are going to the Internet for information. We want them to visit our website, and view Advent as the experts with ‘The Comfortable Solution.’ “We spread the word on search engines, and created promotional pieces for the website, with coupons and news about promotions,” she explains. “Just reminding consumers of how important it is to replace filters became a way of connecting with them.”
Tammi’s campaign to attract new customers is based on multiple “contacts.” The first contact might be on the website. The second, from door hangers in neighborhoods they currently serve. Third, they send a follow-up letter from Mike, with the always-handy refrigerator magnet. Fourth, all communications include a description of the company’s “Energy Savings Agreement” program. Tammi says the response to these various contact builders has been “phenomenal.”
The Learning Never Stops
Continuous training is a hallmark of Advent Air Conditioning’s corporate philosophy. All of its technicians are certified by North American Technician Excellence (NATE), a leading HVAC technician certification program.
After 33 years in business, Mike Douglas reflects back with a keen understanding of what the company has meant to him and his family.
“Starting and building an HVAC contracting company becomes all consuming. It ends up being who you are and what you do, with most of your focus on building and protecting the company,”
“It has allowed me a good standard of living for myself and my family. Even with all of the challenges, I can’t picture myself doing anything else. It has been very rewarding. It’s not a destination, but a journey. I love working to continually evolve and improve.”
Mike Douglas is a tall, transplanted Texan with a vision as big as the state. His assessment of his life in HVAC, surviving in the face of many disappointments, and his commitment and hunger for new ideas and growth are a model for many. He sums up his life with the gravity and sense of responsibility that only a weathered business owner can express.
“Starting and building an HVAC contracting company becomes all consuming. It ends up being who you are and what you do, with most of your focus on building and protecting the company,” he says. “You feel a responsibility to your employees and to your family to make sound, professional decisions that not only effect their financial livelihood, but the reputation of the company, which reflects on all of us.”