Independent Contractor Thrives

ST. LOUIS, MO — Most of the industry probably knows Butch Welsch. The owner of Welsch Heating & Cooling has been highlighted in previous News articles and has served both SMACNA and ACCA in leadership roles. His $15 million, 115-member new construction and replacement business puts him in an enviable position — enviable to consolidators, that is.

Welsch, who has owned and operated his business for 38 years, is an outspoken critic of the consolidation movement and has watched, with great interest, the drama unfolding with Service Experts and Lennox.

“It’s been interesting [in St. Louis],” said Welsch. “The local Service Experts contractor, who was bought by Lennox, has been sold back to the former owners. There is no Service Experts presence in St. Louis now.

“We have had an excellent relationship with Lennox, but I have also expressed my concerns [about their alliance with Service Experts]. I think there is a conflict of interest there. I’ve taken steps to cement my relationship with Bryant and Rheem.”

Welsch added that he had opportunities to get in with ARS on the ground floor but said, “We have no intention of selling to anybody.”

He watched as consolidator Blue Dot moved into the St. Louis market by acquiring an area contractor, but he hasn’t noticed any change in the way the company is doing business. He thinks there aren’t too many hvacr contractors in his market that are attractive to consolidators, maybe because St. Louis is a union town, not typical of consolidator acquisitions, or for another reason.

“Consolidators have bought up all of the companies they wanted — the buyable ones,” he said. But he pointed out that buying contractors does not ensure overnight success.

“When consolidators have to start making a profit instead of buying one, there are going to be problems,” he said. “There seems to be a stronger drive to make quarterly earnings rather than positioning one’s business for two or three years from now.”

Owner Exodus

Welsch blames some of the early consolidator failures on the exodus of former owners. “They [consolidators] needed the former owners to run the companies but instead, the owners exited.”

Welsch said that as a result of the “ownership migration,” customer service has suffered. “People like calling you up and talking to a real person,” he said. “They don’t like this new way consolidators are running their businesses.”

He added that a recession or a downturn in the economy will hurt consolidators who have “got to work hard to keep the stock value up.”

Welsch thinks his successors will come from within his company and that the future owners will work hard to keep the company traditional and independent. He is very confident that Welsch Heating & Cooling will thrive, and welcomes the challenge from consolidators.

“Seven hundred more consolidators in town would be a good thing for us,” he quipped.

Publication date: 09/25/2000

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