Persistence is key to success

July 13, 2000
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The J.R. Henderson Co. is now being run by a second-generation owner. Founded by J.R. Henderson in 1943 as a sheet metal and roofing company, it eventually changed shape into what is now a commercial and residential hvac contracting-service business.

“My dad separated from his original partner and went his own way, starting up a heating business to go along with the sheet metal and roofing work,” said president Dave Henderson. “There wasn’t a lot of air conditioning back then.

“John Norris Sr., president and owner of Lennox Industries, used to call on my dad and was one of the first people to sell us air conditioning equipment.”

Henderson began working for his father in 1958 and went full-time during and after graduating from college in 1962. His older brother Ray spent time working for the company, and Henderson’s son, Danny, is currently involved in the business, despite Hender-son’s attempts to steer his son in another direction. “I tried to direct him somewhere else because there are so many ups and downs in this business. The oil bust caused people to hang on by their toenails around here.”

With a major portion of his business in commercial construction and service, Henderson has plenty of work lined up for his 15-person staff. The commercial market in Oklahoma City is strong and growing.

“It is as hot as it can be right now,” he added. “A lot of call centers came to town and we’ve completed three or four of them, such as Williams-Sonoma. We’ve also worked with Walgreens, Eckerd, Dollar General, Ross Stores, and some church work.

“We keep thinking the market will slow down but a few things have kept us busy. First, the bombing has created a lot of rebuilding opportunities, the re-emergence of Bricktown, and good sports arenas have come into the area.”

Another disaster struck the region when a tornado ripped through nearby Moore, about 10 miles south of Oklahoma City. Henderson is working on a new church building which was totally wiped out by the tornado.

Henderson would like to keep staffed up to work on new projects but he, like everyone else in the area, is concerned about the worker shortage.

“It is terrible,” he said. “We are a union sheet metal shop and luckily, the local has provided us with good workers, many who have grown up with us and stayed with us.

“Our company has grown to where I want to be. Business is good but we’ve maxed out with our current staff. We don’t have any room to grow right now. But my son Danny may eventually have to decide which direction to take the company.”

Henderson thinks the lack of qualified help has kept the utilities at bay, too. He doesn’t feel too threatened by the local utility getting into service because there just aren’t enough people who can handle the work.

“There aren’t enough service people who are trained well enough to jump into the business,” he said. “Besides, we’re not competing with them because they are into residential service, which we don’t do much of.”

One trend Henderson doesn’t like is the emergence of Sears into the hvacr market via The Trane Company. He is a Trane dealer and he sees the potential for Sears to expand past the residential market.

“I don’t like the alliance,” he said. “The next thing I see them doing is selling light commercial equipment.”

Henderson is taking a look at himself and his business and seems to be at a crossroads right now. He has been tempted to sell to consolidators and may do so, if the price is right. He also believes that a person has to have his heart in the business to continue.

“You’ve got to want to succeed,” he added. “And my ‘want to’ is not as strong as it used to be.

“The jobs are there and we have enough work, but everybody wants their work done tomorrow. There is no lead time like it used to be. We are an instant society.”

For now, Henderson will keep doing what he does best — sticking it out through the good and bad. That persistence is a key to his success.

“We have sucked it up in the hard times and not overgrown in the good times,” he added. “You have to be good managers. I give my dad all the credit for teaching me the business. I learned a lot from him.”

Next week: In Part Two of our Oklahoma City series, see why 17 is the magic number for two area contractors.

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