ACHRNEWS

Albuquerque: A scenic backdrop for growing contractor businesses

May 3, 2000
ALBUQUERQUE, NM — When one thinks of Albuquerque, some thoughts that come to mind are the various Indian cultures, the Southwest cuisine, rugged mountains, hot air balloons, and its position as a stop along the famous Route 66 trail.

All of those characteristics are what makes Albuquerque a popular spot for tourists to the great American West. This author thought he was visiting the town for the first time recently, but a sibling reminded him of a visit during childhood and a night spent in an Albuquerque motel.

This return trip proved to be a lot more memorable and useful, particularly in light of the fact that the 2000 ACCA National Conference will be held in the friendly confines of this historic Southwest community.

Despite its rich traditions, the façade of Albuquerque has shifted away from the “Old West” to a more modern community that relies on high-tech businesses and research and development. During World War II, Kirtland Air Force base was founded nearby. Sandia National Labs was established in 1949.

Ed Condit stands alongside his "grandchildren bulletin board," an accumulation of photographs that he says "grows every time one of the grandkids gets a school picture taken."

Market refrigeration

Ninety percent of the Market Refrigeration’s business comes from grocery stores and service stations/convenience marts.

“We do complete store planning and furnish all of the equipment except the cash registers,” Condit said. “We just completed a 30,000-sq-ft store in an Indian village north of Santa Fe.”

In 1980, Condit signed on as a distributor for Hussmann Corp., manufacturer of supermarket refrigeration equipment. He believes Hussmann sells the best cases in the commercial refrigeration business.

Condit has been conducting business from his present location for the past 15 years. His 27,000-sq-ft building is located on 3 1/2 acres. He has had the opportunity to relocate or open a second location, but he prefers to oversee one business.

“I can’t see myself running businesses that are a couple of hundred miles apart,” he said.

When one looks at Condit’s building, it’s hard to imagine that he only has six employees (four mechanics and two helpers). He’d like to have a bigger staff but he faces a lot of stiff competition for mechanics.

“It’s hard to keep mechanics,” he said. “Some large companies are coming in and making it awful attractive for mechanics to leave where they’re at. One company has taken three mechanics from me.

“The other company is offering a little more pay and a commission on the parts they [mechanics] sell, which I think is the wrong way to do business.”

Old school work ethic

Then again, Condit is from the old school. He is a former Navy diesel mechanic who says that learning refrigeration is “like falling off a log.” He sees a big difference in what workers are looking for today.

“It’s a whole different class of people now,” he said. “They come in looking for benefits, paid holidays, and how long their lunch breaks are. Today you have to deal differently with people. It might take six months to a year to find someone.”

Condit said he would prefer to see companies like Con Ed continue to service the large chain stores. He prefers to work with the smaller independent storeowners, many of whom have been customers for 20 to 25 years.

“We find that by working with independents, we can make more profits and the job goes a lot smoother.”

Plenty of work, plenty of travel

There is never a real “slow” time for Market Refrigeration. Condit said that he stays busy all year around, planning, selling, and installing equipment.

“It seems we are just finishing up one store when it is time to start another,” he said.

On the day The News visited, Condit was planning to drive 130 miles to give a store owner estimates on remodeling. Putting a lot of miles on his truck is commonplace.

“I put 40,000 to 75,000 miles a year on my truck,” he said. Condit, who still takes a regular shift along with his other mechanics, shrugged off the high miles. “Driving 200 or 300 miles for a service call is no big deal.”

Putting in long hours on the job is nothing new to Condit, but it is becoming less of a common trait in an industry where consolidation and utility buyouts have diluted some of the talent pool. These buyouts are part of an overall trend that disturbs Condit.

“We face the problem of centralization of companies, where larger companies are buying out smaller companies. We’ve had several offers to buy us and offers from companies who wanted to show us how to run our business.

“We’ve seen this happening with some of the independent grocery stores we work for. The big companies like Wal-Mart are putting in many more stores than they used to. Walgreen’s is going to add seven new drugstores to the Albuquerque area in the next year.”

Will Condit eventually sell his business? “If the right offer came along we might sell,” he said. “But I enjoy what I’m doing, planning and installing equipment. I’m 72 and plan on doing this until I’m 92.

“I’ll keep going as long as I feel good.”

Condit still goes out on service calls two weeks out of each month. He’d like to be doing the exact same things five years from now.

“There’s still a lot of refrigeration work to be done. One of my customers said that when I quit the business, he’s is going to sell his chain of stores. Those kinds of relationships are hard to walk away from.”

Sidebar: It's been a long time

Ed Condit is entering his sixth decade at the helm of Market Refrigeration. He started the company in late 1959 after the distributorship he worked for went out of business. Condit was selling Friedrich equipment at the time and the company asked him to take over the line and sell it in the New Mexico region.

He and a former salesman from the distributorship formed a partnership and did service and installation work all over New Mexico. When he figured out that the time and travel were eroding his bottom line, Condit pulled back and concentrated on doing mostly service work in the Albuquerque area.

His customers eventually coaxed him back into selling and installing equipment, and that remains a hefty part of his business today. 

Sidebar: Training? 'You learn by doing it,' says Condit

Ed Condit knows the value of textbooks. They are good teaching tools but they only lay the foundation for what students need to know about the hvacr business. Today’s glut of career paths has diluted the talent pool in the industry and “assembly line” educational training may be one of the victims of this new trend.

“When I first started in the business, there were so many people looking for jobs that when you put a sign looking for a mechanic, you had six people applying for the job,” Condit said.

“Now we take kids right out of vo-tech schools and put them to work right away. School is great, but it only gives a scratch of what refrigeration is all about. Not all compressors are sitting up on a workbench, waiting for you to work on them.”

Condit admits that the only local school around Albuquerque that offers hvac training does an OK job of educating — but it doesn’t have a lot of qualified people to begin with.

The time spent on the job learning the trade is long enough, but compounded by someone who doesn’t have the adequate tools to begin with, according to Condit.

“It takes three or four years until you can get to the point where a person can be considered a full mechanic. I don’t have an official apprenticeship program and I’ll often pick and choose what jobs a new person can work on.

“The more they show me what they can do,” he continued, “the more jobs I’ll give to them. I believe that refrigeration is about 90% hands-on work. It’s pretty hard going to school and learning about all of the things you are going to run into.

“You learn by doing it.”