News / Service Market

Following Older Brother Leads to Honors

January 31, 2011
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Donald and Roger Costner are pictured with new fleet of sales vehicles chosen for high gas mileage. (Feature photos by Tyrus Ortega Gaines.)

ROCK HILL, S.C. - Donald “Duck” Costner was six years younger than his brother Roger and had just been out of a technical school program for a short time when big brother decided to start an HVAC service company. Costner, who had always followed in his brother’s footsteps, agreed to go in as co-owner right away. The brave plunge ended up well for both of them, as well as for their employees.

The company was founded as a two-person business in 1985, but today Brothers Air, Heat & Plumbing Inc. has nearly 100 employees, including 57 technicians and installers.

Its generous vacation policy, profit sharing, an open-book approach to how the company is doing, and a goal to be a place “where people like to work,” has earned Brothers recognition as the Best Contractor to Work For in the South, in the annual competition from The NEWS.

Roger Costner, president and co-owner (he and brother Donald, the vice president, each have 50 percent ownership), said it was his father who encouraged them to look for a career “where you would always have a job.”

Roger’s mechanical aptitude led him to take HVACR courses at a high school where those skills could be developed for a half day each day, much longer than typical high school vocational programs. From there, he moved on to York Technical College in Rock Hill, where he had extensive HVAC training. Then he went into the service and installation field for some six years, with younger brother Donald often coming along on service calls.

“Given the amount of schooling we had, especially with the emphasis in high school, and my work experience, including as a service manager, I felt we knew how to operate a contracting company,” said Roger.

Donald (who said the nickname “Duck” goes back to elementary school) admitted he was always “following my big brother.” Even today he said he primarily makes sure policies and procedures set by his older brother are implemented in the company.

Brothers Air, Heat & Plumbing Training Manager Bobby Nasekos is shown working on a tankless water heater trainer.

BACKBONE

The backbone of the company - and what helps make it a stable place to work - is the close to 4,100 maintenance agreements it has in place in the metro Charlotte, N.C., market. They are nearly all within 50 miles of the company’s headquarters in Rock Hill, a Charlotte suburb.

According to sales manager Stan McKee, the customer retention program revolves around the maintenance agreement program. This helps provide year-round work for the technicians and balances the workload, he said.

Building a maintenance agreement base comes with a company that is strictly residential and only does service and retrofit work, no new home installs. McKee said that means picking up business through referrals and aggressive marketing, as well as from customers who may have become dissatisfied with an original installing contractor. As a result, technicians need to be trained to handle a wide variety of manufacturers’ equipment.

When it comes time to recommend a retrofit, the company offers one of several of its private label brands, as well as American Standard equipment.

Training manager Bobby Nasekos, right, works with maintenance technician Jimmy Williams on one of the company’s training units.

TRAINING

Donald Costner said training for technicians begins with attendance at a four-day seminar in preparation for achieving Nexstar certification in the areas of business and customer service. Then there are North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certifications in air conditioning, heating, and heat pumps. The company covers the costs of both programs.

Ongoing onsite training is conducted by Bobby Nasekos, training manager and a former HVAC service technician. The training usually takes place about once a week for up to an hour each time. Nasekos, who has conducted training since 2006, said training will often involve supervisors bringing in firsthand experiences from the field for review.

Said McKee, “Our onsite training spends a good deal of time working with every classification of employee in order to bring them to the next level.”

Customer service representative Jill Hershberger monitors the many maintenance agreements that form the backbone of the company’s stability.

Donald Costner also said technicians are sent to various wholesaler and trade association events on a rotating basis.

“All employees are on the clock while training is taking place, either onsite or at any of the numerous offsite seminars that the company encourages us to take advantage of. The company pays for lodging, meals, and learning materials,” McKee said.

He added, “All pay increases are tied to certifications that are obtained in accordance with our training schedule.”

New technicians are paired with more experienced ones in a mentoring program. Promotions are also offered. “By my count,” said McKee, “we have a total of seven managers that were once field technicians. These positions are service manager, sales manager, installation manager, training manager, plumbing manager, and two newly promoted HVAC field managers.”

For service technician Jody Brown, working for Brothers means working for a company that has a personal touch and a strong and positive reputation in the region. “I personally know the brothers. They are really good people. They believe the customer is No. 1. We take care of the customers and are fair with them. That’s what it is all about.”

Roger Costner, with dispatcher Madison Trull, take time to review the deployment of service vehicles.

CLOSE TIES

McKee said Brothers maintains close ties with York Technical College, Roger and Donald Costner’s alma mater. Company representatives serve on an advisory board and Nasekos teaches classes at the school. The school is a two-year, associate degree-granting institution. It was originally established in 1964 as York County Technical Education Centre and is a unit of the South Carolina Technical and Comprehensive Education System.

To deal with possible burnout in a part of the country with long periods of hot, humid weather, McKee said Brothers uses rotating schedules, quarterly company breakfasts, rewards programs, four weeks paid vacation, and the buying of dinners for techs and significant others to show its appreciation.

Another aspect of the company is quarterly bonuses paid on posted and measured job performance, said McKee. Roger Costner noted that the company’s bonus bank is open information for employees.

There are yearly team-building events, such as ones over the past two years at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte; and yearly family trips, such as one in 2009 to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and one in 2010 to Lake Wylie, S.C.

Ryan Costner (one of Roger’s sons) does all the company’s IT work.

IN THE FAMILY

Both the Costners and McKee noted that Brothers has been a family-owned business for close to 30 years, and it plans to remain so.

There was a period of time in the 1990s when it was part of the consolidation rage, but Roger and Donald moved to reestablish its total independent route in 2002 when the company changed its name from Costner Brothers to Brothers Air, then becoming Brothers Air, Heat & Plumbing with the development of the plumbing component in 2008.

Rick Kissel, plumbing manager, said this was a growth opportunity for the company, which had established a respected HVAC reputation in the Charlotte market.

Rick Kissel, center, plumbing manager, works with two technicians. In 2008, the company added plumbing to its HVAC services.

The company also focuses on charitable giving, as with its efforts for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). Employees seek donations from customers that the company matches at 50 percent. Employees can also give weekly donations through payroll deduction. In 2010, the efforts produced over $30,000 for JDRF.

Roger Costner described Brothers as “a family-run business, always open to listening to our employees.”

McKee said it this way: “All you have to do to be considered family is to do your job to the best of your ability. The company takes great care of its employees. I have been employed with them since 1991, and have held positions from service technician to my present position of sales manager.

“I have no doubt that were I to need assistance on nearly any level, my company would be there for me.”

Just the Facts: Best Contractor To Work For

CONTRACTOR: Brothers Air, Heat & Plumbing

OWNERS: Roger and Donald Costner

LOCATION: Rock Hill, S.C.

YEARS IN BUSINESS: 26

BULK OF MARKET: Residential

TOTAL SALES FOR 2009: $10.6 million

TOTAL SALES FOR 2010: $14.7 million

TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 99

TOTAL SERVICE TECHNICIANS AND INSTALLERS: 57

AVERAGE HOURS PER YEAR EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: 130+

BENEFITS BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: Optical, 401(k), four-week paid vacations, incentive programs, rotating schedules, company paid training/certifications, team building events offsite, family outings offsite.

INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION & CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERS: ACCA, ASHRAE, NATE Quality Circle Member, Nexstar Select Service Member, NCI, NC Mechanical Contractors Association, Plumbing Heating And Cooling Contractors Association.

THE NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: Its generous vacation policy, profit sharing, an open-book approach to how the company is doing, and a goal to be a place “where people like to work.”

Publication date: 01/31/2011

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