James River Heating & Air Conditioning: It's all in the 'culture'

May 2, 2000
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RICHMOND, VA — In the eyes of Hugh A. Joyce Jr., you have to begin with the basics: excellent pay and benefits. And this translates into guaranteeing 2,000 hours of pay to all technicians and installers in any given year. Provide ample and appropriate training, too.

However, the president of James River Heating and Air Conditioning firmly believes if a contractor wants to keep service technicians and employees over the long haul, s/he must have a great internal working environment — or “culture”, as he put it.

“As long as the pay is basically in line, and if the culture is great, they [employees] will stay,” said Joyce, without any hesitation. “However, if the culture is bad, they are going to leave. Even if the pay is incredible, but the culture is bad, they are going to leave.

“Employees will work for terrible companies, but only for a good manager. But they will leave a great company if there is a crappy manager or owner that directly impacts them.”

It’s why Joyce zeroes in on providing a nurturing “culture” — and his ways are many. He can certainly measure his success in the fact the average tech tenure at James River is better than six years. And, most of the folks that started with the firm 33 years ago are still reporting to work at 1905 Westmoreland Street, but in key management positions.

“To us, this indicates we are doing some things right,” said Joyce, who cannot hide his upbeat attitude. “We strive to offer a combination of base pay, incentive pay, benefits, retirement, training programs, and, most importantly, a culture that promotes advancement, creativity, freedom, and quality.”

Visit his firm. Talk to his techs. Listen to his employees. Then you’ll understand why James River was voted one of the winners in The News’ first-ever “Best Contractor to Work For” contest.

Endless testimonies

Greg Glessner realized he worked for a caring contractor when he injured his back some years ago. Because the accident was not work-related, the one-time service technician-turned-commercial sales consultant for James River was unsure what his boss would say.

“The supervisor I reported to told me to take care of myself,” said Glessner, who has been with the firm for more than 10 years now. “I couldn’t believe my ears. It’s then I realized that they take care of employees.”

As a result, Glessner is faithful to his employer, too. On this particular Friday, he had to get up at 4:30 a.m. in order to be in Leesburg for a work-related project. He was back at his office desk before 11 a.m. “Pay is only part of it,” said Glessner, before rushing off to another appointment. “But knowing you have a good, dependable job and good, dependable people, that’s important.

“Here, you’re not a number. The Joyces [founder Hugh E. Joyce is now ceo] can name every employee here. Not many contractors can do that when there’s growth at a company. That’s important.”

Because they work four 10-hour days, it’s rare to find a commercial tech installer on Fridays at James River. However, on this Friday, there was Dave King, building a ladder rack for his service truck in the company’s 42,000-sq-ft warehouse/sheet metal area. King, who thoroughly enjoys his flexible hours, has been with the company since graduating from nearby Lloyd Byrd High School in ’91.

“They’ve been good to me,” he said, pure and simple. “And I like what I’m doing. I haven’t had a reason to look elsewhere. I have no major complaints.”

There were no discouraging words from within the residential sales offices, either. Financial manager Chris Dimitris said the Joyces “lead by example.” Residential sales consultant Paul Harris said he thoroughly enjoys the training made available by the company. Even one-time local contractor competitor Joe Cafarella is now on the James River team as a residential sales rep.

“When I closed my doors, there’s only one place I looked to go to and that was James River,” he said, before scurrying off to a meeting. “These are the best guys I have ever worked for. We have a great outfit here.”

Tech approval

The techs couldn’t agree more. Residential tech Chris Lockhart said James River is totally different from his previous employer.

“I really enjoy working here,” he said, noting it was the benefit package that lured him in. “But it’s a much better environment here. They [previous employer] were more concerned with volume than quality. It was ugly.”

“Everyone’s willing to help each other out here,” noted Bryan Hayden, a four-year residential tech.

Jan de Cheubel’s lone complaint was that he hadn’t hooked up with James River earlier in his career. The 54-year-old, who has been a residential technician for 35 years, was with a previous contractor for 17 years before he had had enough.

“They just weren’t treating employees right,” said de Cheubel, who can still kick himself for not leaving earlier. But now that he’s with James River...

“It’s by far the best company I’ve ever worked for,” he said, smiling all the way. “No other company has given me this.”

This, he said, translates into financial security, benefits galore, training up the gazoo, a friendly atmosphere, a giving owner, and plenty of intangibles.

“...Like the quarterly breakfast,” was his first thought.

Keeping 'em happy

Four times a year, Joyce feeds his 130-plus employees breakfast at the nearby Comfort Inn. At the last breakfast, he left an envelope at each plate. Enclosed in each was a hundred dollar bill.

“I don’t know how many companies will do that!” exclaimed de Cheubel.

In the eyes of Joyce, it’s all a part of keeping that healthy culture. There also is the annual company-wide fishing trip, Christmas party, and fall picnic. For the former, Joyce rents a huge head boat. Employees can spend the day on Rudy Inlet. Afterwards is a dinner.

Techs get their own “Appreciation Night.” One summer evening they meet at the ballpark to root for the Richmond Braves, the local minor league baseball team.

“It’s another way of saying to the employee, ‘We’re thinking of you,’” said Glessner. “It’s a lot of fun.”

To avoid tech burnout, “We listen to our people and stage our work so that everyone gets a break,” said Joyce. “Additionally we allow one week of vacation in the summer for all staff [subject to prescheduling]. We provide water and drinks for them to stock up their trucks on really hot days. We also require overtime from everyone so one tech does not carry the entire load. We offer lots of flex time in the summer also. If a tech works late, he can start late.”

And where else can you get a free meal before going to training? James River offers various training every Tuesday night, which includes a BBQ from 4 to 5 p.m. and training from 5 to 7 p.m. Over the past 12 months, techs average 20 to 30 hours of training in a combination of paid (and some unpaid) training classes it conducts.

“We participate in various manufacturers’ training to which we send technicians and installers,” said Joyce. “All of our staff is RSES certified and we will soon replace this with the NATE/ACE certification. Our local ACCA chapter has also created an excellent ‘boot camp’ which we participate in.”

Joyce is not immune to bringing in outside trainers like Charles Grier and Earl King when they are in town.

“Charlie worked with all the techs this fall.”

To keep a healthy culture, listening is important, said Joyce. It’s why he holds a one-hour monthly roundtable, where he meets personally with the techs, installers, and all office and sales personnel to hear their ideas. Ideas are also exchanged at service meetings and during employee reviews.

“There’s daily feedback, too,” said Joyce. “All techs have cell phones through which we can communicate instantly.”

Of course, money can keep the folks at home happy. The company’s pay increase policy is based on productivity and customer satisfaction.

“We adjust pay generously when we see an increase in productivity, which we judge through our incentive and bonus programs,” said Joyce, referring to employee revenue; employee callbacks; sales of system and accessory products; quality control cards from customers; and overall skill level.

“We work hard to make sure that, based on productivity, tech profitability, tech sales, and overall attitude, we are paying at the top of the market plus benefits for that man based on his skill level.”

Still, it’s the culture that keeps the natives happy.

“It’s the little things,” noted David Boxley, a commercial sales rep who has been with the company for 12 years. “Heck, I’ll get a card on my [employment] anniversary and birthday. That’s kind of neat.”

Not to mention getting flowers on Easter and Valentines.

“And they [flowers] are for my wife,” he said.

Sidebar: J.R.'s top 10 list

Most of the folks that started with James River 32 years ago are still reporting to work, but in key management positions. The Top 10 are:

1. Hugh E. Joyce, ceo, 32 years;

2. Roger Bryan, sheet metal mechanic, 31 years;

3. Ruth East, vice president – purchasing, 29 years;

4. Taylor Clawson, sheet metal mechanic, 29 years;

5. Jack Thompson, commercial service manager, 29 years;

6. Vernon Taylor, commercial production manager, 28 years;

7. Bruce Allsop, service supervisor, 27 years;

8. David Norsworthy, vice president, 25 years;

9. Mary Allsop, accounting, 24 years; and

10. Joe Bradberry, shop manager, 23 years.

Sidebar: Just the facts - James River

Winning contractor: James River Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc.

Owners: Hugh E. Joyce, ceo; Hugh A. Joyce, president

Location: Richmond, VA

Years in business: 33

Bulk of market: Residential 50%, Commercial 50%

Total revenue for 1999: $13 million

Total employees: 130

Total service technicians and installers: 85

Average annual hours employees spend in training: 20 to 30

Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Life insurance, disability insurance, field performance incentives, profit sharing, 401K with match, company social functions, paid training, truck driven home at night, uniforms provided, ability to advance, paid holidays, paid time off based on tenure, recognition of anniversary of employment and birthday.

The News selected this contractor because: It’s obvious the owner cares about his technicians, installers, and employees. He goes that “extra mile” in every way, providing financial security and a healthy work environment.

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