Doing business under long shadows of the real-world ‘Mayberry’

August 15, 2000
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MT. AIRY, N.C. — There is something mystical about this small town in the extreme northern regions of North Carolina.

People from all over come to have a haircut at Floyd’s, a pork chop sandwich at the Snappy Lunch, or drive by the boyhood home of local hero Andy Griffith.

The mythical lure of “Mayberry” is stronger than ever, even though the popular TV program, The Andy Griffith Show, went off the air more than 30 years ago.

Perhaps it was the simple lifestyle depicted in the show, or the easy-to-like townsfolk that made many of us long for the days when we could call a town like Mayberry our home.

Today it’s still home to many people, albeit in the form of Mt. Airy. It looks considerably different from the fictitious Mayberry, but still conjures up days of small-town, carefree living.

It is a friendly place to visit. It also is a friendly place to do business if you are an hvac contractor. This community has graduated from the window fan days of Mayberry, to the central air units and commercial refrigeration systems of today.

And despite living in one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state, contractors look beyond the sea of tour busses and pay attention to the needs of their customers — you know, the local folks.

“Sometime the tourists are a distraction,” said Tina Mooney, owner of Friendly Heating & Cooling, Inc. “But mainly we have enjoyed meeting people from all over the world and making new friends.”

Mooney has a front-row seat to the tourism business, since her business is located in the old City Hall building, which also houses the replica “Mayberry Jail.”

Friendly Heating & Cooling Inc.

The popular tourist stop, the Mayberry Jail, is right in the middle of the Friendly offices. Tourists have to walk through the contractor’s offices to make it back to the jail cells.

“It can get pretty rowdy once in a while,” Mooney said. “People will wander in here, wondering what we’re doing. One person was surprised that we had computers.”

For the most part, the people at Friendly are receptive and cordial to visitors, but they tend to stay focused on the business at hand — residential service work.

The bulk of its business centers on residential service and replacement and some light commercial work. The company also does some new installation work.

Like Aunt Bea's pickles: passed by

With a busy crew of 12, Friendly remains small enough for personal service and yet, a little too small to catch the attention of any national consolidators.

“They [consolidators] are only going to get in with the big guys,” Mooney said. “We’re just too little.”

Besides the headline-grabbing consolidation issue, another important concern for contractors on a national level is utility competition. It seems that Mt. Airy contractors haven’t felt the effects of this issue either.

“Duke Power has some authorized dealers who install heat pumps,” Mooney said. “But we didn’t want to get involved in their program.”

As for future growth, Mooney isn’t certain she would be able to handle the change. She is comfortable with where her company is right now.

“We’ve got all the business we can handle,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t want to grow, but we want to be able to handle the business we have and take care of our customers.

“We have a good business and we are truly blessed. It has provided a good life and a good income for our people.”

McCraw-Everhart

There’s no quit in Delmar Everhart. One might compare him to Emmit, the fictional fix-it man from Mayberry.

The 59-year-old owner of McCraw-Everhart hasn’t taken a week’s vacation in 16 years and has no plans for one anytime soon. The recent sudden passing of his longtime partner, Charles McCraw, has created a void that Everhart is trying to fill through hard work.

Everhart spends much of his time working in the sheet metal shop in the back of his building. He does all of the fabricating work for his company — and then some.

“We fabricate a lot of systems for other companies who don’t have a shop,” he said. “I started doing it years ago to keep the overhead down and I haven’t stopped.

“The nice part about doing work for other contractors in the area is that it creates a friendly atmosphere among competitors, and something else that isn’t seen too often in larger metropolitan areas — shared help.

“A lot of my competition will call me and ask if I need any help,” Everhart said. “I know I can depend on them because of the outside work I do for them.”

That’s encouraging to Everhart, because he acknowledges the lack of skilled tradesmen in the Mt. Airy community.

“Good skilled labor is hard to come by,” he said. “There is talk of getting up a daytime hvac course in the area, but there is still no place for a person to learn about sheet metal work.”

There should be an increase in prospective employees, with Mt. Airy growing all the time. Although some of the main industry has moved out or cut back, such as the textile and tobacco businesses, people are still relocating to the region because of its mild temperatures, atmosphere, and possibly because of tourism.

“Some tourists may like what they see and come back here to live,” said Everhart.

Business as usual

The aura of living in a modern-day Mayberry doesn’t seem to have much affect on the business.

Lisa Porter, McCraw’s daughter, said that the business is unaffected by the tourist trade.

“We work our eight-to-five day and don’t see any of the tourists,” she said. “The only time we might see them is to swerve to avoid a tour bus downtown.”

Born and raised in Mt. Airy, Everhart said he would like to work a few more years. After that, he is uncertain about his future or the future of the company.

“It would be nice for the business to stay in the family,” he commented. “I’d stay on to help if someone bought the business. I think I should.”

Everhart doesn’t see consolidation coming into the area anytime soon. He said that his main product manufacturer has the first option to buy his company if and when he decides to sell.

As for the overall picture, Everhart sees a lot of things happening.

“The industry will change tremendously over the next couple of years,” he said. “Utilities are going to get involved in consolidation. We are going to see some big buyouts and then some bigger buyouts.”

Loftis hvac

One of Mt. Airy’s largest contractors is doing a lot of business in town. In fact, its plans are so ambitious that the owners are taking to the road to find new customers.

“There’s not enough work around here to keep us busy,” said Joe Shew, Loftis project manager. “We have to go out of town. We work in a 150-mile radius.

“We’d love to do all of our work in town. We have four or five projects, but there just isn’t enough of a base to keep us here.”

The residential-commercial contractor is finishing up a mobile home manufacturing facility in Henderson, N.C., involving more than 400 tons of cooling equipment, and also does installation work for churches and gymnasiums.

The company has separate service and installation departments.

Its markets are both residential and commercial, with many of its projects involving design-build work. Loftis employs 31 people and is one of the top-two hvac companies in the Mt. Airy region.

Shew, who has worked for the company for six years, became interested in the business because his father worked for Inman and Loftis for 23 years. “I started helping out during the summers.

“Richard was looking for someone to help on the installation side of the business, so he brought me in after I graduated from high school.”

What labor problem?

Unlike most hvac contractors in the region, the contractor does not seem to have a problem finding and keeping workers.

“We have a good core of mechanics, some have been here over 20 years,” Shew said. “We stay swamped with applications for helpers throughout the year. We pick the best ones, bring them in, and give them on-the-job training.

“We’ve never hired a mechanic off the street.” Being one of the biggest contractors in the area, it would be logical to assume that Loftis has been contacted by a national consolidator. Not so, said Shew.

“Consolidation is not a good fit for this town,” he added. “Our business is based on personalization and community contacts. I don’t think consolidators have that personal touch.”

Speaking of the personal touch, does Shew have any contact with the flood of tourists who enter the town? “We aren’t affected by the tourism except the ones that clog up Main Street,” he laughed.

“I’ve been here all of my life and being in a famous town doesn’t really click with me.” But he is a fan. “I never get tired of watching the show.”

Shew said he plans on staying in this tourist town for years to come. “Our outlook for the future is tremendous,” he said. “Richard keeps getting more jobs and we are looking to stay profitable, not necessarily to expand physically.

“I’m going for my commercial license [in addition to his residential], so this is the career I am set in.”

Sidebar: How they got started

Mooney and her partner, Mike Hensley, have worked in the hvac business since 1972.

Mooney worked for a gas company and became interested in the a/c business by learning to read blueprints from a contractor who shared the same building.

The two have owned and operated Friendly since 1986, when they both broke away from the contractor they were working for and decided to form their own company.

Starting out as sheet metal worker in 1959, Everhart eventually worked his way up to owning his company 28 years ago. Everhart and McCraw began the residential service-installation company with $300 in 1971.

“Charles and I worked for another company at the time and decided to start out on our own,” Everhart said. “We started out as Lennox dealers and we still are.”

And Loftis Hvac Company, once part of the Inman Electric Group, was purchased by Richard Loftis in 1989.

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