Service Market

Contractor Retains Lifetime Employees

January 31, 2011
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Owner Steve Allen founded Cool Check Air Conditioning Ltd. in Toronto in 1991. (Feature photos by Chuck Kochman, System 4 productions Inc.)

ETOBICOKE, Ont. - At Cool Check Air Conditioning Ltd., there’s a definite feeling of family. With a total of 15 employees, this Toronto-area commercial contractor is able to nurture both its employees and its customers. The close-knit crew enjoys getting together at traditional annual events, and each member of the team is grateful for the company camaraderie, which it also extends to its customers.

The contractor behind this personalized approach to business is owner Steve Allen, who says he learned how to treat people from his father, Thomas “Bud” Allen. Steve started Cool Check in 1991 when his father retired. “We brought over the tradition of Select Air [his father’s firm for 25 years], and turned it into Cool Check.”

Following his father’s example, Allen’s goal is to always treat employees and customers as he wants to be treated: with respect. The longevity of his employees and customers attests to the fact that this approach is working. “We have technicians for life, and all of our accounts we keep for life,” Allen said. “We try to always think of the long term, and we treat people in an old-fashioned way - very politely.”

NONEXISTENT TURNOVER

According to Karen Allen, Steve’s wife and director of operations at Cool Check, “There is a strong family theme here. It’s a really great feeling to come to work and have that closeness with all the employees.”

She added that turnover is practically nonexistent. The best example of this is Don Higgins, a 77-year-old technician who previously worked for Allen’s father for over 20 years and has worked at Cool Check since it was founded in 1991. Higgins said that both Steve and his father have emphasized quality and honest work.

“This is good for the employees because everything isn’t rush-rush and do it as cheap as you can. You can take pride in the work you do,” Higgens said, “and by doing this as a worker, you get satisfaction out of what you do.” He added, “One of the reasons I’m still working is the sense of satisfaction I get from fixing something.”

Last year Cool Check named its faithful service award the Don Higgins Award in his honor. The company recognizes each employee’s five- and 10-year milestones, but the crowning achievement is the Don Higgins Award of Merit for 20 years of company service. It includes a cruise for the employee and spouse.

Along with service awards, the contractor rewards employees with pay raises according to their union advancement. This past December, the company opened Retirement Savings Plans (RSPs) for qualifying employees. The company plans to contribute every year to each employee’s RSP, which is tax free until the money is withdrawn.

Technician Phil Spence recently finished his apprenticeship and received the union’s Rising Star Award.

WELL-TRAINED TECHS

This is a unionized company. According to Steve Allen, employing union technicians has been a great investment. “The majority of our technicians come to us raw,” he explained. “We ask the union for any upcoming, A-type young people [who are graduating from local schools] that want to be connected with a good, long-term company.”

After an extensive interview process, Allen hires apprentices through the union. The apprenticeship lasts for five years; apprentices must spend part of each year in class and part in the field. At the end of the five years, they must pass an exam to become licensed technicians.

Cool Check named its service award the Don Higgins Award of Merit in honor of technician Don Higgins, who is still working at age 77.

One requirement of a union shop, Allen noted, is, “You guarantee that you have four technicians for each apprentice.” Currently, Cool Check’s crew includes seven technicians and two apprentices. “This does ensure to the customer that he’s getting excellent, qualified people working on his equipment,” he said. “They have not only been trained properly by the employer, but also by the training and rigorous education that is put forth by the union.”

The company holds spring and fall training for its technicians. Allen said the union also provides training and upgraded technical education for technicians throughout their careers.

Cool Check employs technicians from the Local 787 union. Pictured from left to right are Phil Spence, Steve Allen, Bill Cable, Dan Jurenas, and Don Higgins.

One of the company’s up-and-coming technicians is Phil Spence, who completed his apprenticeship in January 2010 and received the union’s Rising Star Award for being the highest in his class.

Spence said that working at Cool Check has been a good experience. “It’s a great company that rewards loyalty, and consistently tries to keep you busy and trained.” When it comes to working with the older technicians, Spence said, “As long as you show that you’re interested and want to learn and have the willingness to go the extra step, they’ll give you the tools you need to succeed.”

Allen said he is proud of his technicians, and he relies on them because “they’re our link to the customer.”

Service manager Cremilde Mathews is famous for greeting each call with a cheery voice.

GETTING TOGETHER, HELPING OUT

Cool Check hosts a number of annual events to recognize and reward employees. Every summer the Allens host a pool party and barbecue at their home, inviting all of the employees and their families. The company also sponsors a golf tournament, but the most highly anticipated event is the annual Christmas breakfast.

According to Karen Allen, the crew always goes to a restaurant with “lumberjack-style” breakfasts, and “the men pig out.” At the breakfast, the company gives a turkey to each employee.

Cremilde Mathews, service manager, said that shortly after she started at Cool Check four years ago, her first Christmas breakfast was a special experience. “It’s not something we had done in my previous business, and it was the first time we were in an out-of-office atmosphere,” she explained. “It was nice to see the camaraderie and rapport among the guys. One of the fondest memories I have was seeing that for the first time.”

As director of operations, Karen Allen ensures the office runs smoothly.

She has continued to see evidence of the team’s solid relationships. “My team is great because they’re always willing to help one another out,” Mathews said. “If there’s an issue they’re not 100 percent sure of, they don’t struggle on their own. They don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call one another.”

In addition to the annual events, the company plans other fun outings. For instance, Steve Allen recently took the office staff out for dinner and an off-Broadway show to recognize them for putting in long hours during a busy season. Now the company is planning a chicken-wing night, as well as an outing to a new customer’s shooting range.

The company also focuses on giving back to the community, and is closely connected with the Salvation Army. The company has donated funds and equipment to local causes, including Salvation Army shelters, churches, and kids’ camps.

In the office, bookkeeper Wei Lui keeps track of all accounts at Cool Check Air Conditioning.

CUSTOMER RAPPORT

The concern and care for people also extends to customers. “It’s not only with technicians and employees,” Allen said. “We’re virtually on a first-name basis whenever anyone phones in.”

Cool Check has a customer base of about 500 clients, and the staff quickly recognizes their voices and names when they call in. “It’s rare in today’s times of coldness of just e-mails and computers. It’s a really nice atmosphere,” Allen said. “The only time we usually lose customers is when the business is sold or it’s been bought out.”

He further explained that the company specializes in maintenance-oriented accounts. “We maintain equipment on a day-to-day basis.” And since his team has built trusting relationships with customers, Allen said, “We’re the odds-on favorite to replace the equipment.”

Dan Jurenas serves as Cool Check’s foreman and enjoys working for the company.

In addition, the technicians and office staff are able keep a pulse on clients’ problems and concerns. “We have a heartbeat of their equipment that we’ve worked on for many years,” Allen explained. “Whenever they have a problem or complaint, we almost know ahead of time what the problem will be.” He said that this familiarity has created “an atmosphere of trust,” since customers know Cool Check will look after them. In addition, the contractor offers a two-year warranty for all parts and labor.

“We’re a personalized company,” he summarized. “We’re large enough to handle all the needs of our customers, but still personalized enough to have a hands-on approach and know each customer by name.”

And with the longevity of his employees and customers, his approach is certainly working. “I feel comfortable that at the end of the day, I can feel very good that I’ve treated people in a kind, fair manner. It’s all about family with our company,” Allen said.

Just the Facts: Best Contractor To Work For

CONTRACTOR: Cool Check Air Conditioning Ltd.

OWNER: Steve Allen

LOCATION: Etobicoke, Ontario

YEARS IN BUSINESS: 20

BULK OF MARKET: Commercial

TOTAL SALES FOR 2009: $3 million

TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 15

TOTAL SERVICE TECHNICIANS AND APPRENTICES: 9

AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: Technicians belong to United Association Local 787 and begin their careers with a five-year apprenticeship that requires them to alternate between the field and the classroom. They continue training after being licensed through the union. Cool Check also holds spring and fall training.

BENEFITS BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: The unionized employees receive their benefits through the union. Cool Check pays 100 percent of prescriptions and dental for office staff. The government covers doctor and hospital care. The company also opens and contributes to Retirement Savings Plans (RSPs) for employees.

INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION & CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERS: Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI), Ontario Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Contractors Association (ORAC), Local 787.

THE NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: Cool Check is a small business that strives to build a family-style environment for both its employees and its customers. According to Karen Allen, director of operations, turnover is virtually nonexistent and most technicians remain there throughout their careers. According to owner Steve Allen, the same is true for customers. The company has built a strong business around commercial maintenance agreements.

Publication date: 01/31/2011

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