ACHRNEWS

New Owner Breathes Soul Into Well-Oiled Machine

January 21, 2008
Combined Air Mechanical Services’ Vicken Aharonian (left), P. Eng. and president, and Geoff LeGrand, field supervisor, take pride in the team they work with. (Feature photos by Chuck Kochman.)

BRAMPTON, Ontario - Contractors face new challenges daily. Successful contractors face these challenges with a new approach. Vicken Aharonian, P. Eng. and president of Combined Air Mechanical Services, Brampton, Ontario, understands this principle and has chosen the 25-year approach with his employees and his customers.

“It is with long-term thinking that Combined Air has established the most qualified staff in the industry along with lifelong customers,” said Aharonian, who purchased Combined Air in 2006. “It allows us to make decisions today that may not seem to make sense, but they do make sense over the long haul. We are a people company, and our strong belief in the inherent good in all people allows us to make decisions that show our people and customers that we care.”

Facing the challenges of an HVAC business head on with an open communication policy, a great care for people, and a 25-year approach is why Aharonian was selected as the winner of The NEWS’ 2007 Best Contractor to Work For contest in the Canada region.

REGIME CHANGE

Aharonian began his HVAC career in equipment sales as a manufacturer representative for companies such as McQuay and Mammoth. Through a series of events, he found that the service side of his business was a hassle. To fix the problem, he struck a deal with Combined Air agreeing to sell its products and services if the company would cover his business’ service needs.

As time progressed, Aharonian purchased Combined Air and began concentrating solely on the success of the HVACR business.

Once he had purchased Combined Air, Aharonian discovered a staff used to incredibly tight disciplines and intense structure. The previous owner was meticulous in the establishment of a successful standard operating platform. He not only established the systems and disciplines, but he also maintained them as well.

“Everything was on the computer,” noted Aharonian. “The previous owner built a great company, and I wanted to maintain those strong, disciplined foundations.”

What shocked Aharonian, however, was the lack of communication between management and employees. As he began to have open meetings and discuss matters with his technicians and staff, Aharonian found he would have to break the iron curtain that existed.

“The technicians were amazed that I was talking to them,” said Aharonian. “Not only did I talk, but I listened to them as well. I wanted to get rid of the previous culture of fear and whisper campaigns. Communication became the key.”

Allan Martin, general manager of Combined Air, helped Aharonian with his new open communication policy.

“We didn’t want to hear the whispers from the water cooler as staff hoped their ideas and grievances would eventually trickle through to management by osmosis,” said Martin. “We worked to bring a soul to this well-oiled machine. We told the staff, if you have a problem, call us up for coffee. You no longer have to scream and yell to be heard, we are all in this together.”

Allan Martin, general manager, helped Aharonian establish an open communication policy with the staff.

ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS

Aharonian knows it takes more than good systems and solid communication to keep his staff happy and a company thriving. With that in mind, he began addressing training, hiring, and other environmental factors that he knew would enhance the staff and business. Combined Air’s belief in continuous learning drives it to strongly promote formal and informal training provided by local colleges, trade schools, vendors, and manufacturers.

“We host all the mandatory safety training seminars as well,” said Martin. “We also rotate our junior mechanics and apprentices through our senior guys to give them exposure and knowledge they would not otherwise get without having to figure it out on their own.”

Gary McCreadie, a refrigeration mechanic and Gasfitters 1 (G1) technician, has been with the company for seven and a half years. Throughout his career at Combined Air, he has continued to expand his technical horizons.

“If you want to upgrade your skills, the company wants to help,” he said. “Combined Air paid all the upfront costs for my G1 certification. I am now paying it back, but I didn’t have to come up with the money all at once.”

In addition, Combined Air also increases the pay rate for technicians where certification is granted.

Certifications and classes, however, aren’t the only training that the company encourages.

Mariusz Babij is part of the co-op student program in place at Combined Air. This program helps ease the pressure of technician shortages.

“Experience has proven that technicians often feel they are good at fixing things and do not realize there are many other areas of the company that they can be helpful in,” observed Martin.

As a result of this open-minded philosophy, Combined Air has recently identified a technician who is interested and shows talent in the selling field. It also found two technicians who are looking to expand their knowledge into other trades.

“We have mentored the technician interested in selling,” said Martin, “and we registered the other two with the Training and Apprenticeship Board for the new trade. We strongly believe the best way to grow is through apprentices.”

Growing in the midst of a worker shortage is a challenge. Combined Air has implemented multiple strategies to successfully increase its staff with qualified technicians.

“In general, we hire from referrals and ensure the mechanic or apprentice has exposure to all facets of our company prior to their three-month review period,” said Aharonian. “At this point, we collect all the information and make an informed decision.”

Beyond the “standard” hiring procedures, Aharonian also considers hiring from “outside of the box.” As a result, Combined Air has partnered with the local school boards in a co-op program.

“These students keep the company fresh and give the techs a sense of mentoring as they are not required to bill the co-op students’ hours but rather educate them about our trade and the possibilities that lay ahead,” said Aharonian. “We immediately hire the right candidates out of high school.”

Deneise Martin, dispatcher for 14 years, and Iain Smith, a veteran refrigeration mechanic, are kept busy, both during the busy times and the slow times.

One of Combined Air’s employees has been with the company for 22 years and he is only 38. “He is a product of this co-op program.”

Another co-op student has recently joined the ranks. Mariusz Babij spends nine out of 10 working days in the field with a senior technician. “I like to work with my hands and was headed into landscaping,” he explained. “I would have never chosen HVAC without this co-op. This is one of the best things I have ever done in my life.”

This strategy is not only bringing new talent into the HVAC arena and addressing the technician shortage, but it is also allowing the company to save its customers money as co-op students’ hours are not billable, but their onsite assistance is helpful.

Beyond training and hiring, Combined Air works hard to keep its technicians and staff involved in the day-to-day business as well as promoting the environment as a place to stay and grow. The company provides uniforms and many of the more expensive tools.

“If you break one of your hand tools while on the job, the company will replace it,” said McCreadie. “But it is more than just money here. I work with knowledgeable guys who are easy to deal with.”

During busy times the company shares the workload evenly. During the slow times, much of the preventive maintenance is handled, and more of the vacations, training, and school courses are taken. “While it is difficult to guarantee steady work, we have been successful in getting our techs their 40-hour work weeks,” said Martin.

A yearly Christmas party, barbecues, breakfast meetings, lunches, yearly raises, and a retirement plan are just a few of the factors that round out Combined Air’s healthy working environment.

“My favorite thing about working at Combined Air is how we all pull together to get the job done and keep our customers happy,” said Deneise Martin, dispatcher for 14 years. “We have an amazing owner and a great boss to work for.”

Ogie Petrov, electrician at Combined Air, not only enjoys working at the company, but he also enjoys the yearly Christmas party, barbecues, breakfast meetings, lunches, yearly raises, and retirement plans offered at Combined Air.

AN EYE ON THE FUTURE

Taking care of today’s business mandates that Aharonian looks to tomorrow’s business as well. Developing trends in HVAC must be closely monitored and implemented in order to ensure contractor success. Technology is one of those trends. Combined Air is an essentially paperless company. Every truck has a laptop and a printer in it that accompanies its work order management system.

Approximately 50 percent of Combined Air’s business comes from data centers. Some customers have controls and loggers installed and monitored by the company. These systems communicate directly with a front-end computer system located in Combined Air’s office. To manage this system, the work order management system, and the computers within the office, Combined Air has hired a part time information technology (IT) technician. These steps toward technology adoption have helped the company continue to gain advantage in the market.

In spite of Aharonian’s open mind about new technology, however, he refuses to install global positioning systems in his trucks.

“We like to promote water cooler talk where mechanics congregate to discuss interesting jobs they have completed,” he explained. “Rather than chase the mechanic out of the shop, we engage them and encourage the sharing of knowledge. Besides, I trust them to be where they say they are.”

JUST THE FACTS:

CONTRACTOR: Combined Air Mechanical Services

PRESIDENT: Vicken Aharonian

LOCATION: Brampton, Ontario

YEARS IN BUSINESS: 25

BULK OF MARKET: Commercial, Industrial, Commercial Refrigeration

TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 21

TOTAL SERVICE TECHNICIANS: 15

AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: 20-40 hours per year

BENEFITS OFFERED BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: Paid skills training, tools, equipment, fully stocked and maintained trucks, uniforms, company-sponsored outings.

INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION AND CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERS: HRAI, ASHRAE

THE NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: Aharonian, P. Eng. and president of Combined Air Mechanical Services, Brampton, Ontario, understands the principles of facing the challenges of an HVAC business head on, an open communication policy, and a 25-year approach, which is why he was selected as a winner of The NEWS’ 2007 “Best Contractors to Work For” contest.

Publication date: 01/21/2008