How to Have Fun Being a Contractor

January 25, 2001
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NAPLES, FL — Want to open a can of worms? Ask Rick Sims, president/manager of Johnson’s Air Conditioning Inc. here, his opinion of this industry’s contractor consolidators.

“We employ and train techs who would be embarrassed to work for the consolidators,” he wrote to The News last year. “What they are calling training is what we call sales hype.”

A former vocational instructor for 12 years, an estimator, and a technician himself, Sims’ opinion is not to be lightly dismissed. “It’s not just about money,” he said about the attitude of top hvacr techs; “it’s about the pride you get from doing things right.

“Our techs are proud to tell our customers that they are not getting commissions for the products that they recommend,” he states.

Among the consolidators, Sims says there is “a huge push to get techs to sell. It’s hard for techs to find a place where they don’t have to sell.” Many non-consolidated contractors also have their technicians sell. And, to be fair, not all techs dislike selling — especially if they’re good at it. But it doesn’t seem to sit well with many.

The contractor has 10 employees total, eight of whom are service techs and installers. The extremely upscale Naples/Ft. Myers market has provided comfortable profits for the company and its employees. The contractor’s 75% residential focus pulls $800,000 in sales annually, and the 25% commercial side takes in $400,000 to $500,000.

Griping aside, Sims really seems to have a lot of fun being an hvac contractor. One of this industry’s opportunists, he enjoys getting the techs who don’t want to work for his competitors. “All things are a little more equal than we thought,” he says.

In general, he likes to create a fun atmosphere — whether more for himself or his coworkers, he alone can tell. And he gets a real kick out of doing challenging hvac work.



The Fun of Wealth

There’s no need to push comfort conditioning in this Florida market, says Sims. There’s almost no need to advertise. “People want these products and services.”

And no matter what the economy is doing, these financially savvy consumers know how to keep their money working: construction and real estate. “They do building and renovation when stocks go up. When they go down, money is pulled out of stocks and reinvested in real estate.” Some of that money inevitably goes into hvacr work.

The clientele is also “fun.” On the morning The News called, installers had put a circuit board into a customer’s wine cooler, in a marble penthouse in a waterfront high-rise apartment building. The guys came away with a $100 tip.

Not a lot of customers have wine cellars, Sims says. However, the upscale clients are deeply into other types of gadgetry, like home theaters. These now include a handheld remote to control a/c, lights, security, etc., on the TV screen.

“The clientele supports a very nice lifestyle,” Sims says. “The largest home we work on has 17 air conditioners. No one is home much, but the house is always kept at 70°F because of the artwork.” Locals include the Bush family, Dan Quayle, and Tom Cruise.

Cutting-edge projects bring their own type of fun. The contractor is now putting in new-model, larger-horsepower scrolls for Copeland Corp., a test installation. “We do good documentation in the field,” Sims says. Another field test involved putting R-410A in 200-ft vertical lift with the condensing unit on the roof. “I must be doing some of the funnest stuff in the air conditioning field.”



Family Life at Work

Johnson’s employees are close-knit and stick together in bad times, Sims says. But the answers aren’t always easy. For example, “What do you do when a child dies?” That did happen to a tech, who received one month off, paid, to regroup.

Family life and work frequently mingle at Johnson’s. The company sponsors kids by putting ads in school activity programs, etc.

And at last year’s company Christmas party, to which families were invited, Sims introduced a party activity for the kids. Each received a gingerbread house to decorate during the party. “Next year,” vows Sims, “we’ll put a drop cloth on the floor first.”

There is also a weekly football pool during the season, but not in the traditional sense; Sims says he doesn’t want any employees to feel that they are losing money at work. In this weekly pool, an employee has to correctly call more weekend games than Sims, who sticks a $20 bill on an NFL team board. If Sims calls more of the games, he keeps the $20. If an employee calls more, he gets the $20.

“Employees can’t lose,” Sims says. “I’m the only one who can lose.”

Johnson’s even has a pet: Lucky, a Great Dane. Sims had rescued him from an owner who no longer had room to keep him. “Now everybody looks for him,” Sims says. Reps and delivery people bring him treats. Lucky is a part of the family, and daily companion to the office staff.



Half of the Equation

Sims’ wife Rickie handles the office and accounting. This is good, says Sims, because “I don’t enjoy the office side.”

They met when the company was under another owner. “She was the dispatcher, I was the estimator, and she couldn’t stand me.” He kept bringing her nice carryout lunches until he won her over. “I wore her down with food.”

Before buying the company, Sims also worked as an hvac instructor and as a Trane technical rep. When he decided to buy the company, “I had to finance the purchase and give up a tenured teaching position in the vocational school system.”

It was somewhat daunting, but it was what he and his new wife wanted to do. “I would never do this without her. I would work for somebody else.”

In bookkeeping/financial specifics, the contractor uses T.E.A.M.S. software. The company also uses flat-rate pricing, which the techs prefer; “it gives techs the power to quote a price,” he says. “Customers can look right at it.” It isn’t any particular flat-rate book, but one created from Johnson’s own price spread sheets.

Letting Go

In all families, people sometimes need to move on. Sims doesn’t worry about whether or not his techs may one day want to branch out on their own.

In fact, he claims that “There is no ceiling at Johnson’s. If you have aspirations beyond the opportunities here, we will help prepare you. If you want to go into business and compete, we will throw you a great party when you leave and wish you luck.”

It may seem a bit farfetched, but it’s true. Sims will sign for employees’ contracting licenses. “I’ve signed for more licenses,” he exclaims. However, “If you sign for somebody and it’s questioned, you have to explain to the board why you’ve signed for them. When you explain that to the person who wants you to sign, it gives you a good reason to turn people down.”

When he hears that an employee may be interested in striking out on his own, Sims says that he lets that employee see how hard contracting is to do; performing the estimate, getting the job, assembling the materials list, keeping it on schedule, maintaining the profit margin, doing the paperwork, etc.

For inexperienced techs, the company’s apprenticeship program makes apprentices ride with a master tech every day (the same tech and truck). Both have specific functions and goals for personal growth, Sims says. There is a minimum 150 hrs in training over a 12-month period.

To avoid burnout in busy seasons, there are “no installations on Mondays. We start with a safety meeting and prepare the crew for each week. Monday is used to start off a good week for everyone.”

Sims sums it up: “Profits are not made at the expense or endangerment of techs. All decisions must work for the consumer, staff, and company before we proceed.”

publication date 01/29/2001

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