Technician Gerald Miranda repairs an air conditioning unit after storms hit south Texas.
Champion AC hasn’t been around for generations like some HVACR contracting companies, but that may be in the company’s favor because it is bringing some fresh thinking to the industry. The owners have embraced new ways while establishing a corporate culture of community service.
Tony Martinez and Ben Hubbert founded Champion AC about three and a half years ago, in April 2007. Martinez had been in the industry prior to that, while Hubbert was a newcomer. Between their industry knowledge, education, and willingness to trailblaze ways of doing things, they’ve quickly carved out a place for their start-up in their regional south Texas market.
One of Champion AC’s less conventional aspects is its belief in the benefits that variable refrigerant flow zoning (VRFZ) systems offer, not only in commercial, but in residential applications as well. A benefit of the VRF system is the ability to zone every room in a house, Martinez said.
“What we found out was if we can implement the actual VRFZ technology into the home, we could give a homeowner full control over every room in their house and not with just two systems - upstairs and downstairs.
“Being that the VRF technology is a ductless system, that’s basically a two-piping system that’s very conventional to what is currently done today. What it does is allow you to take an indoor unit from a single outdoor unit source, and it allows you to take those runs into a single bedroom, and control the exact amount of heating or cooling that you need in that bedroom to the specific setting on the thermostat. So, if you ask for 76°, you’ll get 76°. If you have a separate bedroom, and you ask for 73°, you’ll get 73°. If you have another bedroom and you ask for 78°, you’ll get 78°.”
According to Martinez, the key to the system is “the inverter technology [which] allows you to do that because it understands exactly how much flow of refrigerant on the variable phase that it needs at any given time when the indoor unit is calling for cooling or heating.”
The staff of Champion AC and Heating.
Champion AC installs City Multi VRFZ units by Mitsubishi Electric Cooling and Heating Solutions, which feature a Hyper-Heating inverter. Martinez explained that the inverter is one thing that helps make a home more energy efficient: “That inverter advantage is just unbelievable because with the VRF technology with the Hyper-Heating inverter, you basically are able to heat a home all the way down to –13°, which we never obtain here in south Texas, without it even needing any kind of auxiliary backup in heating.” Martinez added, “When you get into auxiliary backup for heating, that’s when your electric bills go sky high.” And without using extra electricity or any kind of natural gas, he noted, the homeowner is being very green.
According to Martinez, only 2 percent of Americans have VRF systems in their homes, but interest in and installation of green technologies is growing. So Champion AC’s adoption of VRF technology puts the company “at the forefront of the green revolution,” which is right where it wants to be.
He also said that the reason that VRF technology isn’t used widely in residential applications is that it just has not been promoted that way and Champion AC is working to change that.
Ben Hubbert (left) and Tony Martinez promote their company and products at a home and garden show in September.
“What we understand at Champion AC is the item that you’re trying to actually push out into the market has to be promoted. As we get onto local talk shows and get an opportunity to put it in home shows and actually have our technicians get the opportunity to even offer the technology, we’ll be way ahead of the industry as a whole.”
On the drawing board for the company is offering VRFZ systems for new construction homes and those that are being retrofitted and to be used as retirement homes, said Martinez.
The company also installs conventional residential HVAC systems, which is 95-96 percent of its business, remarked Martinez. And with these systems, too, Champion AC strives to be green by being involved in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Home Performance with Energy Star and offering services to its customers such as energy audits, insulation, and energy-efficient traditional HVAC units.
The company is also National Comfort Institute (NCI) certified, which “shows that we can create a conventional system with no more than 8 percent duct loss, or air loss,” Martinez said. “By doing a proper duct seal and a proper balance, and by being NCI-certified, that’s another step we have taken to get to the forefront of being what’s considered a very, very efficient company, as far as product is concerned.”
Martinez tests a City-Multi VRFZ system.
MARKETING 21ST-CENTURY STYLE
Another forward-thinking emphasis of the company is how it reaches out to gain new customers, which it does through its online presence. Martinez said basically all of its customers have found them via the Internet. The company incorporates social media and organic placement into its marketing strategy, including tweets and a Facebook page; its tweets and Facebook page can be accessed on the company’s website (www.championac.com).
“We have an understanding of exactly what the masses are looking for, how they are looking for it, and what means they are using to look for it. We positioned ourselves to do that,” Martinez said. This has helped the company go from one vehicle in its first year to 11 vehicles just two and a half years later.
Some of the tweets that Champion AC sends out include messages such as “This is what the EPA is doing, this is what the latest and greatest is,” said Martinez. Another example of tweets the company sends out are concerning actions the homeowner can do concerning their HVAC system.
“We may tell them, ‘Hey, it’s time to make sure you’re checking your filter statuses because your systems are working twice as hard because of the weather.’ We’ll get them updated on the fall tuneup. We’ll let them know this is a great time to get in line and start getting your fall tuneups before it gets too late.”
Martinez works on an installation of a Mitsubishi Electric Cooling and Heating Solutions City-Multi VRFZ unit.
HELPING OUT AND GIVING BACK
Nobody knows better than an HVAC contractor how much a piece of HVAC equipment costs a customer. Because it is a big expense for a lot of people, Champion AC offers financing. “Not everybody can write a check just right there out of their account. … So offering forms of financing at the best possible rates is advantageous for clients to come with us.
“I’ve got buddies in the business who don’t have the ability to offer financing and that left customers with no other choice but to find a company that can actually help them financially get into a system,” Martinez said.
And for those who can afford to pay for the equipment on the spot, the company offers financing for them as well. “We make it advantageous for clients who have the ability to stroke a pen [to buy HVAC equipment]. Sometimes they say, ‘Hey, give me an interest-free loan. I want to keep the money in my account as long as possible for 12 months. Can you do that for me?’ We can definitely do that for our clients, and that’s one of the things that is helping us become a prominent company here in San Antonio, and south Texas - because we have an abundant source of financing, we have an abundant source of options.”
Though the company is not a large mechanical contractor, they do have some engineers on staff. In addition, some of the employees are military veterans. (Hubbert’s both an Air Force veteran and combat controller in the Air National Guard.) “The work ethic [of the veterans] is a little different, and you can see it,” Martinez said. He noted that what people learn while in the military helps them succeed because they’re “working machines” and are “willing to work even the oddest days and oddest hours and put in the time to have a very, very good impact on production.”
And with all the military bases in south Texas, the company gives back to those currently serving in the military by offering “them a discount, doing something a little bit extra for them.” Martinez said that other companies have started to do that, too, as well as using other marketing strategies that Champion AC has implemented.
Champion AC also helps those in need in the local community. Martinez stated, “If there’s a needy situation, we’re more than happy to take it out of our own pocket to accommodate, especially where children are involved. We’ve donated systems to the St. Jude shelter for women, we donated to the St. Jude shelter for children, we’ve done fan drives for needy elderly who can’t afford something like this, but is something we can do on a mass scale.”
The company also supports children’s organized sports, helping to give children who may not otherwise have a chance to participate in an extracurricular activity. “What better way to divert a kid’s attention away from bad habits than to have him busy and involved with football or basketball or baseball,” commented Martinez.
He continued, “Champion AC likes to donate to those causes because they’re worthy. It’s not just all about making money, it’s about giving back to society as well, and we consider that our duty.”
Sidebar: Company in ReviewCOMPANY NAME:
Tony Martinez and Ben HubbertLOCATION:
San AntonioTYPE OF WORK IT PERFORMS:
Residential and commercial installation, service, and maintenance; energy audits, and insulationFOUNDED:
April 17, 2007REVENUE:
$2 million (in 2009)ADDITIONAL COMPANY INFORMATION:
With one-half of the staff speaking Spanish and English, including most of the technicians, the company staff is able to communicate with customers in either language. Publication date: