HVAC Residential Market

Seattle Contractor Satisfies Customers

May 21, 2012
Trans

The staff at MM Comfort Systems has been providing heating and cooling solutions in the greater Seattle area for more than 35 years. The company, which currently employs 67 individuals, answers over 1,000 calls each month, has approximately 5,000 service agreements, and is well recognized in the Puget Sound region for its customer-first approach.

“Customer satisfaction is key to our survival,” said Craig Williamson, owner. “Investing in a culture which pivots around customer satisfaction attracts and retains better employees and customers.”

The Beginning

Barry Burnett opened the doors to B&B Heating in 1977. Through quality workmanship and a strong engineering orientation, the Seattle firm built a solid reputation and surging client base. To encompass the overwhelming growth, the company relocated to a larger facility in Redmond, Wash., in 1986. The company still calls that facility home today.

B&B Heating merged with MacDonald-Miller in 1993. MacDonald-Miller, a mechanical engineering and construction-design firm, dates back to 1965.

In 2001, the residential portion of B&B Heating was purchased by key employees and was renamed MM Comfort Systems. In addition to its HVAC residential expansion, replacement, and installation work, the company expanded its services to include light commercial work upon its rebranding.

New Ownership

In early 2007, entrepreneur Craig Williamson acquired the company. Williamson, 52, earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Michigan State University in 1981 and obtained his master’s of business administration from the University of Houston in 1984. Fresh out of college, he gained employment with Johnson Controls in 1981, and eventually became president and CEO of Abacus Engineered Systems.

While at Johnson Controls, Williamson held many executive positions. On his track toward the general manager for Northwest North America, which was the final position he occupied with the company, he said he met with an appointed company psychologist for mandatory intelligence and management counseling.

“The psychologist explained that a person could be very decisive, but could also be too judgmental. He also explained that while everyone may love your personality, maybe you lack in strength or presence,” he said. “This really helped me realize that each strength has a trade-off. It further taught me that success is defined by the ability to bring a number of unique strengths together in one team environment.”

Through this ideology, MM Comfort Systems representatives believe they boast one of the most successful teams in the industry.

“My coworkers are some of the best in the industry as we continuously recruit and hire based on attitude and train for skills,” said operations manager Bill Nicoletta, an employee of the company since 1991. “It’s exciting to watch people learn and grow their career in a constantly changing and technical industry while building a strong team.”

Emphasizing customer service, the company strives to be as transparent as possible, and offers a guarantee on all work.

“Customer satisfaction and comfort are our primary concern. If for any reason a customer is not completely satisfied with our service, we will make it right,” said Williamson. “We offer a one-page survey, complete with a self-addressed stamped envelope, following each job. We then post the testimonials on our website and also use the surveys as wallpaper — from floor to ceiling — in the hallway between our office and shop.”

Williamson further broadened the company’s scope through the acquisition of Merit Mechanical’s residential customer base in 2008 and Heritage Enterprises (Tacoma, Wash.) and Rite Way Gas (Sumner, Wash.) in 2009.

The company, a Carrier factory authorized dealer, also credits membership with the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), Home Performance Washington, various chambers of commerce, and the Washington Policy Center as keys to its success.

“Our affiliations have allowed us to keep abreast of industry trends, give back to the industry and community, and stay informed about changing regulations,” said Williamson.”This allows us to provide a voice to represent the interests of the industry — particularly as it relates to regulations.”

The Great Recession

Like many other HVAC contractors, MM Comfort Systems was significantly challenged by the economic downturn in late 2008.

Boasting as many as 78 employees in 2008, the company slashed its staff to 53 in 2009.

“The new construction market absolutely fell off, and construction was very slow,” said Williamson. “People were not getting the hours they needed and there was a lack of clarity on what was going to happen next. We were all left with a nauseous feeling that we were falling — constantly in search of the bottom.”

Despite the hard times, Will-iamson said there was never a thought of shutting the company’s doors. “You protect your core, your key employees, customers, and values. You retreat as far as you have to, dig in, and try to recapture ground,” he said. “For us, that translated into seeking ways for higher efficiency and additional revenues. When things turn around, you switch to offense and continue gaining market share.”

Aside from the slumping economy, Williamson said the climate poses a challenge to HVAC contractors in the Pacific Northwest.

“The climate here is very moderate. It is not unusual to have a winter where it doesn’t freeze. And, the last two summers, we didn’t even need to turn our air conditioners on,” he said. “That presents a challenge to us as a heating and cooling contractor, because we don’t have the guaranteed use demand that exists in other climates.”

The Future

In 2011, the business was made up of 49 percent residential add-on/replacement work, 32 percent service, 12 percent commercial duty, and 8 percent residential new construction.

MM Comfort Systems pioneered an HVAC kiosk program with Costco. The agreement allowed the company to place a kiosk inside the worldwide wholesaler’s local stores, allowing them to market products manufactured by Lennox.

Following a successful trial run, the program has been expanded nationwide. “Costco has become a significant player in the residential retrofit market, and we are proud to be involved,” he said. “This agreement with Lennox and Costco has been a great way for us to gain revenue in an unconventional way.”

The company also has its sights set on the total home performance market. “I believe the future is bright. As people begin to think about their homes more holistically, we feel we are in a leadership position to expand our products and services in the direction of total home performance,” he said. “We want to help customers understand how their entire structure works, and provide a whole-home solution.

“Our approach to the business is a bit different. A lot of contractors talk about moving boxes, but we’re more about the long-term relationship involved in maintaining a customer’s home. We’re more like consultants and want people to know if we can’t find a way to serve you now, we’ll be happy to serve you later.”

Publication date: 05/21/2012 

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