ACHRNEWS

Karen York Conover's First Year at the Helm

December 13, 2010
When Karen York Conover became CEO of Aaron York’s Quality Air last year, Aaron moved ahead into retirement, but he provides consulting as needed.

INDIANAPOLIS - The economy has made a lot of business decisions more complicated. Some intrepid entrepreneurs moved ahead anyway. This was certainly the case when Karen York Conover became CEO of Aaron York’s Quality Air last year. Aaron himself moved ahead into retirement, though providing consulting as needed.

According to Conover, the changes were not part of a longstanding succession plan. “As with most family-owned companies with a technician-turned-entrepreneur at the helm, there really was no succession plan in place,” she said. Family, of course, had to be a first consideration.

The plan progressed rapidly. Karen and her husband, company president Kris Conover, spent a few months performing the due diligence in order to purchase the company. “Once the decision was made to proceed, we developed a 90-day transition plan.”

EASING THE TRANSITION

As part of the transition plan, both Karen and Kris felt that “the most important thing to do was to over communicate with our staff. We wanted to make sure they knew what our expectations, goals, and objectives were.

“We broke down our overall goals and objectives into action items which were assigned to a specific person with a completion date. These were reviewed weekly, and for some even daily, to make sure that we developed a disciplined execution.”

The biggest challenge of the transition has been faced by many companies recently, not just those going through a change of ownership. “We had to make some tough decisions such as consolidating positions to eliminate overhead,” Conover said. “Unfortunately, that resulted in the elimination of a family member’s position in the company.

“We addressed this up front prior to the purchase so that everyone understood the significance of some of the proposed changes,” she said. “We also transitioned the founder (Aaron, my father) from a day-to-day operations role into more of a consulting role, which was very difficult for him as he has spent his entire adult life in that type of a role.”

The company also changed some processes and procedures to better serve employees and customers. The economic climate might have caused some people to consider postponing the transition - but not the Conovers. “My husband and I did a lot of praying and seeking counsel as we did our due diligence,” she said. Their position was, ‘If this is not to be what God has for us, He will shut the doors and we will clearly know that this isn’t the path we should take.

“To the contrary, what we saw were the doors being opened along every front. We knew that we were to move forward.”

Karen with company president Kris Conover.

MOVING FORWARD

Many of Conover’s duties have not changed. “I have handled all of the financial functions for our company for the last 20 years,” she said. “My expanded roles now include human resources, as well as operation responsibilities.”

As a certified Women’s Business Enterprise, she said she is now more involved in functions outside of the office, “doing more networking and representing our company at social and industry events, when my schedule allows.”

In the future, she foresees her role shifting “from operations over the next couple of years, to allow me to focus more as our CEO and the associated responsibilities.”

Any transition is difficult, especially when family is involved. However, “I would have to say that my tenure and understanding of the workings of the company, as well as the industry, made the transition easier for me,” Conover said.

“My husband came from outside of the industry, so he has had a much more difficult time with the transition as his learning curve has been much greater,” she added. “However, his fresh perspective and focus, and being able to see why something can be done versus why it can’t be done, helps to move the ball along for us.”

There have been subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the way the contractor deals with its employees and suppliers. Kris Conover helped the company embrace a “servant leadership” management style. “This has caused our leaders to understand what their roles are really: to serve our staff,” said Karen Conover. “Likewise, our staff takes on a serving mentality with everyone they come into contact with.

“We promote the empowerment of everyone on our team,” she said. “This is all new and somewhat foreign to the organization, but we are starting to see the fruits of this labor as they start to embrace this new philosophy.”

Regarding vendors, they are now called partners. “We are aggressively looking to build these partnering relationships at every level of our supply chain,” Conover said. “We value these relationships and look to build longstanding, mutually beneficial relationships with them.

“We are continually evaluating the marketplace and trying to position ourselves where we can get the biggest bang,” she said. During last year’s economic challenges, “we obviously focused a great deal of time and effort supporting our residential market, taking advantage of the stimulus money. And we do more planning now, which has resulted in the development of more formal sales and marketing plans.”

Father and company founder Aaron York “has given his whole life to this industry and is a brilliant HVAC guy,” she said. “We knew that it would be very difficult for him to quit working cold turkey, as it were. His role shifted as we made the transition to more of a consultant to us, versus working in day-to-day operations.

“Now that we have our first year under our belts, his role has shifted now to a hands-off position in the business.” And although he does not have day-to-day responsibilities with the company, “he and a friend have started an HVAC technical training academy that they envision will serve our community by developing technicians to fill the pipeline.”

Publication date: 12/13/2010