South-Southwest Winner: Northside Stresses Training, Nurturing Atmosphere
BENTON, AR — The atmosphere is pretty laid-back around Northside Heating and Cooling. The 22-year-old residential contracting firm, founded and run by Brian Nalley, is proud of its reputation for good, honest service and its reputation for being a “learning environment.”
Nalley’s concern for properly trained technicians provides the backdrop for his successful business. His technicians can take advantage of up to 160 hrs of college-level training each year. And that’s on top of the weekly training sessions they are asked to attend. (They are not mandatory, but everyone attends anyway.)
And not even a devastating December ice storm could keep Nalley and his well-trained crew from trying to keep customers serviced and happy. “The ice storm was the worst ever,” he said. “Electric power was out in almost every home for some period of time. There were long lines for portable generators to run gas-fired furnaces. Running modern digital electronic components with portable electric power caused a lot of failures on ignition modules, transformers, and control fuses.
“Business was just getting by. I had to run a generator at the office for telephones from Tuesday until Saturday night.”
But that glitch in the business activity has not slowed down Nalley or his staff. He has enough work to keep them busy, and enough training incentives to keep them busy during non-working hours.
This emphasis on training is just one of the reasons that North-side Heating and Cooling was voted one of the seven winners in The News’ 2000 “Best Contractor to Work For” contest.
Benefits of Working at Northside“Each employee has a $500 allowance per year for outside training of any kind,” said Nalley. “Each person gets full tuition and books paid for any tech course at Pulaski Technical College” (see related story, page 11). Each person also gets an automatic pay raise with the completion of each NATE module.
In addition to the outside training, Nalley conducts his own weekly in-house sessions. “Each week we have training meetings on tech topics, customer service, industry news, and marketing. Every employee attends. I buy breakfast, show videotapes, and distribute training material. Each class lasts about 11¼2 hours, which is around 75 hours a year, not counting special sessions.”
Nalley doesn’t require his techs to attend Pulaski, but he thinks it’s a good idea. He also thinks that local high school students need to be groomed for the hvacr field.
“I am working with a local high school counselor to set up a career day,” he said. “I believe there are students out there who have mechanical dexterity but who aren’t really college material. We want to be able to work with motivated young people who can get hands-on experience in the trade.”
Besides ongoing training, Nalley offers a good benefit package to his employees and good working conditions. “We have a profit-sharing plan each year with up to 15% of each person’s yearly wages put into a tax-sheltered retirement account with no cost to the employee,” he said. “We have full health, dental, and vision for each employee, and pay half the cost for the family. Each person with on-call rotation gets standby pay for the weekend on call, plus 25% of the gross profit of any of his call-out billing.
“Our company is a team. Each person has a share of input and direction for marketing ideas, customer service, and other operational discussions.”
A Company BriefNalley said he became interested in the hvacr trade after “working long hours turning a lathe during my high school days and hating it.” He wanted to go where he could find a “perfect blend” of physical labor, intellectual challenges, and a diversity of jobs: the hvacr trade.
Nalley is a perfect example of the saying, “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.” He was born and raised in Benton and lives within a few blocks of his business. His dedication to family and religion is interwoven with his business; and he openly brags about his staff.
“Our Peggy is the best,” he said, referring to customer service coordinator Peggy Sheeks. “She has been running the show for 15 years.” His wife Brenda also helps run errands for the business when necessary.
Nalley admits that it is tough to find qualified help despite the learning/family environment at Northside. But he’s not complaining too much. “We are very clientele-oriented. We design a lot of custom systems for homeowners. Selling volume is not our way, this is more of a niche market.”
With the population of nearby Little Rock expanding further out to the countryside, Northside is in a good position to design and install custom hvac systems for some pretty upscale neighborhoods.
“Custom designs in installation and replacement is important,” Nalley said. “We don’t just trade boxes, we solve problems. Custom design is the highlight of our replacement work — and our custom work is good.
“There’s an old saying that everyone can sing, but only a few can sing well. We do custom well.”
Nalley said that his secret to success is really no secret at all; it’s just a matter of doing things right and following up with customers. “Follow-up to initial calls is very important,” he said. “We also believe in professional looks — clean trucks, using booties.”
Above anything else, this winner from the South/Southwest region is humble and proud to have a great crew. “We are a big wheel and each one of us is a spoke.”
Sidebar: Pulaski Tech Complements Northside’s ProgramsWhen Brian Nalley wants his techs to get some good training, he turns to the expertise of instructors Bob Brinkley and Tom Hunt of Pulaski Technical College. Located 30 minutes away from Benton in Little Rock, AR, the school offers a curriculum for hvacr students. The curriculum continues to be tweaked.
“Our program is still undergoing changes,” said Brinkley. “We’ve been surveying Arkansas contractors to find out what competencies they wanted. But we still aren’t sure what national certification is needed for our techs,” such as NATE or RSES.
Brinkley added that the school is strong in the fundamentals of brazing and simple sheet metal layout. The school is also involved in an “Honor Intern Program,” which allows students to “get under the wings” of contractors at an early stage in their training. It’s a good thing too, said Brinkley, since high school counselors haven’t been real supportive of the hvacr trade.
The school currently has 55 students enrolled in night classes, some from Northside, and 16 to 18 in its day classes. First-semester students are taught courses including principles of refrigeration, basic electricity and schematics, tubing and pipe, and technical communications.
Later, students are taught duct and load calculations, basic heating, residential hvac, computer fundamentals, and sheet metal basics.
Associates of Applied Science Degree candidates learn English composition, codes and ordinances, commercial refrigeration, commercial hvac, advanced troubleshooting, and advanced controls.
“The [Northside] guys are never going to stop learning,” said Brinkley. “It has always been a team effort with Brian to get the guys to achieve. And I’ve always said this to Brian, ‘Be the man you want to hire, make sure your people tell the truth, and keep your trucks clean.’”
Sidebar: Just the Facts Northside Heating and Cooling
The News selected this contractor because: Northside is committed to ongoing training for its employees thanks to a good relationship with the local votech school. Owner Brian Nalley strongly believes in formal and informal training, and although he doesn’t make training mandatory, all of his technicians gladly volunteer to learn as much as they can. Nalley promotes a strong, family-oriented work environment and truly cares about the well-being of his staff.
Publication date: 02/26/2001
Web date: 06/18/2001