Growing Pains Don't Slow Down Contractor

January 23, 2006
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The entire team at A. Leechman Heating & Cooling pose outside the company’s cube van, a familiar sight around Des Moines. (Feature photography by www.worksbyclaudia.com)
DES MOINES, Iowa - It has been a whirlwind year for Brain Leech, owner of A. Leechman Heating & Cooling. He has seen his business grow almost from scratch to $1.9 million in a period of time much shorter than the norm. But despite the meteoric rise in 2005, he has been able to keep up with the demand for good quality service while maintaining a balanced and well-trained staff. His dedication to his staff is the reason why Leech was chosen as winner of The NEWS' 2005 "Best Contractor to Work For" contest for the North Central region.

"I learned HVAC literally over the phone," said Leech, the 29-year-old owner. "I was calling everyone and asking about the business. I have found out that there are always things to learn about the HVAC business."

One thing that Leech has learned from the beginning of his company, which was started in 1997 and incorporated in 2002, is that employees need to learn and need to be paid competitively. "In my past HVAC experiences, I had received no structured pay raises or incentives for continued learning," he said.

Things are a lot different with his company. Along with his lead service tech, Brent Wheeler, Leech has developed a learning philosophy that makes his staff of 13 feel good about coming to work.

Brian Leech, owner of A. Leechman Heating & Cooling, and his sister Tammy, new installation lead installer, make an effective brother-sister team.
One of those employees is Leech's sister Tammy, a lead installer with the company. "I take a lot of pride doing what I do," she said. "I love the loyalty of the company, too. We are all loyal to Brian and he is loyal to us."

The 25-year-old installer started with the company by performing odd jobs. "At first I thought it was hard, but things have worked out well," she said. "Any time we have the opportunity to take more training, Brian will pay for it."

Lead service tech Wheeler could have pursued a business management career with his college training, but he chose to stay with Leech after Leech landed a big job and asked for his help. "I kinda threw Brent to the wolves, but he stuck with it and has been a big help to me," said Leech.

"Brian is very hands-off," said Wheeler. "He likes to set you up and let you go. He is not a micromanager. If you make a mistake the world will not come down on you."

Nicole McWilliams, CSR, sorts through the latest paperwork.

TRAINING BEYOND ROUTINES

Leech is a big supporter of training, all types of training. And it isn't important to have a wealth of HVAC knowledge when applying for work at A. Leechman.

When hiring a future technician, Leech said he looks for honesty, enthusiasm, integrity, and technical aptitude. He does not require knowledge in the industry because he trains heavily from within.

"We will have over $40,000 invested in a tech before he is allowed to solo any call," said Leech.

"We will hire new techs up to 12 months prior to needing them. This allows ample time for training, and keeps us from having to force a tech into the field too early. It is sad to say but we have found that many techs in our industry have picked up many bad habits due to poor training. This is why we train so intensely from scratch."

Each morning, Tuesday through Friday, 1½ hours are spent on training and role-playing for the techs. On top of that, the company invested in more than 800 hours of outside training in 2005. This consists of Success Academy training from AirTime 500, the contractor group Leech said he owes his success to, North American Technician Excellence (NATE) classes, technical training supplied from vendors, association-based technical training, and more.

"Available training is faxed to us many times a week and we take advantage of as much as possible," said Leech. He also pays techs' wages during training. "My employees know that this is not the case everywhere, and are very appreciative of it," he said.

Leech said he would like all of his techs to be NATE certified. He knows the importance of the training required to pass NATE exams. "Brian will pay for the NATE testing, even if the employee fails the exam," Wheeler said.

Wheeler added that the company stresses a lot of on-the-job training. He recently worked with a new hire who rode along with him to learn about servicing HVAC equipment. "We have actually turned down calls so Brent had enough time to work with our new tech," said Leech.

Lindsey Reed, office manager, and Brent Wheeler, lead tech, discuss a service call.

KEEPING EMPLOYEES FRESH

Leech knows that the heavy workload can bring long, exhaustive hours to his techs. He tries to keep them fresh by giving them their needed time off.

"We are not opposed to turning work down," said Leech. "We try to keep techs to four calls per day in order to ensure they do the job right and spend an ample amount of time with the homeowner. During our busy season, we may run up to five calls in a day.

"We also have a revolving on-call setup so that techs are guaranteed certain evenings off. And lastly, the service manager has full service capabilities so when we get overbooked, he can step out into the field. It is costly, but we always have one extra stocked service van ready to go."

The field staff at A. Leechman is ensured a steady schedule because of the company's emphasis on selling service contracts, something Leech has learned from his membership with AirTime 500.

The AirTime 500 Club Membership program (service agreements) is what Leech describes as his company's "lifeblood for maintaining a workload year-round. We give our clients extreme discounts in scheduled service by getting on our club membership maintenance program. The club membership was designed to create steady work during the off season. In an industry that is so up and down and seasonal, we have found that if we can keep our techs busy year-round, we can afford to pay them much higher.

"I believe many HVAC business owners keep employees' pay down out of fear of the slow season. We advertise heavier during our slow season to keep the phone ringing. In the last five years we have never laid anyone off due to lack of workload. Our slowest week still gave everyone over 30 hours a week."

Zach Rule, installation lead installer (left), and Kyle Frith, new installation installer, inventory the piping needed for their job.

MOTIVATED WORKERS

When workers know their boss has their back, they usually work better and keep customer satisfaction at a higher level. Wheeler said it is common sense to do the little things to make customers happy - things he has learned from the training that is stressed by Leech.

"For example," Wheeler said, "I was on a call the other day, and I noticed that the customer's storm door was squeaking. I sprayed a little WD-40 on it and stopped the squeak. The customer wouldn't stop talking about it, and I know she'll never call anyone else for service."

For actions like that, Leech recognizes his employees with extra incentives. "We have a quarterly pay review where each employee has a meeting with his or her department head," said Leech. "Raises are then given out based on job performance. We are a merit-based shop and delegate raises for many different certifications.

"We also encourage promotion from within. If a new position opens, we encourage that position to be filled from within. Each pay review has future positions and goals of each employee for their next pay review."

Tim Walton, new installation leadinstaller, gathers up the necessary supplies he will need for the job he is working on.
Leech strongly believes that if a worker is compensated well and likes where he or she works, the entire HVAC community will benefit. "If an employee is treated right, they won't have to take on any side jobs," he said. "And the fewer the side jobs, the fewer the chances that supply houses will sell to them. By doing this, moonlighters can get lower prices and destroy their market, price-wise."

The success of A. Leechman is not only a byproduct of happy employees; it is a byproduct of doing the little things that other companies don't, such as wearing booties and putting down mats in customers' homes, driving clean trucks, and being neatly attired in company clothing. Leech said that his competitors simply have not been doing that and customers are pleasantly surprised by the "new kid on the block."

But it is his dedication to his employees that earned him the "Best Contractor" award - an award that he'll add to his marketing mix. "First and foremost we ensure that the customer wins, then the employee wins, and if both of these happen then the company automatically wins," said Leech. "This award validates what we have done."

Sidebar: Just The Facts

CONTRACTOR: A. Leechman Heating & Cooling

PRESIDENT: Brian Leech

LOCATION: Des Moines, Iowa

YEARS IN BUSINESS: 8

BULK OF MARKET: Residential

TOTAL SALES FOR 2005: $1.9 million

TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 14

TOTAL SERVICE TECHNICIANS AND INSTALLERS: 11

AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: 150 per year

BENEFITS OFFERED BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: Simple IRA with 3 percent company match, profit sharing, maintenance agreement spiffs revolving year to year, replacement lead spiffs, paid vacation, P/T days paid, seven paid holidays, paid training and wages paid during training, partially paid phone, company uniforms with cleaning, merit shop pay increases.

INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION & CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERS: AirTime 500, National Association of Home Builders, North American Technician Excellence, Coleman Gold Liberties Dealer, Greater Des Moines Heating and Cooling Association, Technician Seal of Safety Certified Members, UWIN LLC.

THE NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: Brian Leech has shown a youthful enthusiasm towards the HVAC industry, bringing a fresh approach to customer service and employee training that can be very challenging for a company that is growing so rapidly. Leech knows from experience that a well-trained, happy employee who is fairly compensated, can mean the difference between a successful business and one that struggles. Leech will even turn down work or reschedule appointments to avoid employee burnout.

Publication date: 01/23/2006

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