Maine Contractors Face Tough Atmosphere

August 14, 2006
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Participants at the dinner roundtable meeting in Portland, Maine include (from left) Robert O'Connor, Ed Combes, Paul DuPuis, Barry Austin, and David Foster, all representing the oil heat trade.
PORTLAND, Maine - In 2005 HVAC contractors who responded to a NEWS' survey about small business concerns said that profitability, insurance, and retaining good workers were their key problems. Now another reason can be added to the list; a state that is unfriendly toward small businesses.

At least that's the opinion of some HVAC contractors who recently gathered in downtown Portland, Maine for a seaside dinner roundtable discussion. Five contractors, representing 175 years of HVAC experience, spoke with The NEWS about the business climate and what they are doing to stay busy and profitable.

Paul Dupuis, a semi-retired contractor who used to run an eight-person shop, said that taxation and insurance costs make Maine a very unfriendly place to start a business. That's too bad, since he said that 85 percent of Maine's businesses have fewer than 15 employees. "A new businessperson may decide to leave Maine after only three to six weeks," said Dupuis. "Small businesses have a hard time succeeding. The cost of everything is so high."

The contractors noted that it is easier to start a business in neighboring New Hampshire because HVAC contractors do not need a license to open up shop. That topic led to another concern that made the survey's top three and that annually rises up and bites HVAC contractors - finding and keeping good employees.

WORKERS TOUGH TO FIND

"It's tough to find someone who is licensed and wants to grow with your company," said Barry Austin of F.W. Webb Co., Augusta.

Austin noted that some workers will only take the educational opportunities far enough to support their families. "I don't know why people don't want to further themselves," he said. "We've tried everything to get people interested and motivated.

"I recently had a guy come in for a job interview who said that he didn't want to work nights or weekends. I told him not to bother sitting down for the interview."

Ed Combes of Union Oil, Portland, said that when he was learning the business he would never turn down any training opportunity. Not so now, he noted. "Today these people don't want to learn on their own," Combes said.

It could be that workers aren't motivated to succeed because they aren't compensated enough for their efforts. Combes said that in areas like Portland, employers aren't offering much more than $12 an hour. "The problem is that good workers are being paid the same wages as bad workers," he said. "Realistically, the workers should be making half of what their company's charge-out rates are."

Robert O'Connor, operator of a one-man shop, Patriot Heating, Auburn, said that Maine has a lot of good workers, despite the negativity. "When Maine workers go out of state to work, they are complimented for their work efforts," he said.

But the geography of Maine can often be a deterrent for being a motivated and productive worker. The state has a lot of small communities with few large metropolitan areas. By square miles, it is about as big as all of the other five New England states combined. Portland is the largest community with over 64,000 residents.

"There are a lot of areas to cover and that makes for a long day," said Austin. "These guys can average about four stops a day, but they can probably make more stops in a different area and consequently earn more money."

GETTING HELP FROM VENDORS

Maine is no different from any other part of the United States. Contractors and their vendors enjoy a special relationship with a mutual goal - to improve each other's profit margins and keep each other in business.

All contractors at the roundtable meeting agreed that the distribution channel has changed dramatically. "Old school" employees, who spent a great deal of time learning the HVAC business and customer service, are being replaced by employees with less experience who quickly change jobs when an extra carrot is dangled in front of them.

"Trying to find a good vendor who knows their equipment is a big problem," said Dave Foster, of Auburn. "The Internet is a good place to order parts but there are some days when you want to pick up the phone and talk to a rep who knows your business.

"A lot of reps start out in this area, but then they get too good and are moved somewhere else."

Foster also noted that some of the good resources simply are not there anymore, having been bought up or consolidated into larger companies.

Combes said, "The electronics age has taken over and people don't have to think for themselves. Critical thinking skills are lacking."

MAKING THINGS WORK

A roundtable discussion is designed to not only identify problems but also to find solutions. The Maine contractors made a point to say that there are many positives in their community and ways to go out and improve their businesses.

"The majority of contractors here go the extra mile," said DuPuis. "There is a lot of pride in workmanship here."

Austin said that Maine contractors do a considerable amount of good work for the community that often goes unnoticed. "There are a lot of things that happen here that people don't know about," he said. "Contractors do charity work, such as Habitat for Humanity. We all understand that it is a necessity to have heat, not a privilege. We take that seriously."

O'Connor said, "It is all about basic ethics. Do what you say you are going to do and take care of your customers."

The contractors agreed that because of the distances they travel, it is not easy to get together for discussions like the roundtable meeting. But they are aware of the need for them. Foster acknowledged that there is not enough personal contact among contractors.

"There are not enough networking opportunities because we are so spread out," he said.

Being able to share HVAC knowledge with peers and generations of workers is key to maintaining a healthy business. O'Connor is concerned that there will be fewer people to pass the industry knowledge on to, that is why it is so important to find and retain good people who are willing to learn.

DuPuis said it is important for contractors to continue to add positive reinforcement because "a lot of techs have this fear of failure."

The HVAC trade may not be glamorous to young people looking for a career path, but Combes believes that young people need a challenge, a means for getting out of bed each morning and looking forward to the workday. He said he knows how to keep people interested. "Always send a young tech out with another young tech, never a young tech with an old tech," he said. "The young guys like to challenge each other to see who is the best.

"You also need to be as positive as you can be. If there is a negative worker in your company you need to get rid of that person right away."

Roger Mitchell, director of technical education at the MODA Technical Education Center, shows one of several controls trainers in the school's lab.

Sidebar: Chapter Meeting

BRUNSWICK, Maine - The Pinetree Chapter of the National Association of Oil Heat Service Managers (NAOHSM) held its July meeting at the Maine Oil Dealers Association (MODA) Technical Education Center in Brunswick.

The chapter, based in Portland, holds meetings at different locations each month. The guest speaker for the July meeting, with over 20 attendees, was John R. Hall, business editor for The NEWS. A barbeque and short business meeting preceded the presentation.

Roger Mitchell, director of technical education for the center, said that MODA holds regular training classes for oil heat technicians throughout the year and sponsors events like the Pinetree Chapter meeting. He said he has seen a growing trend among oil heat dealers to add propane service to their business mix.

"A lot of contractors are getting into the propane field," he said. "We have met the demand by offering a course in propane service."

Mitchell noted that the center also offers a course on oil truck driving. For more information on the Pinetree Chapter, visit the NAOHSM national Website at www.naohsm.org and click on Chapters - Maine. For more information on MODA, visit www.meoil.com.

Publication date: 08/14/2006

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