ACHRNEWS

Young Contractors Take Aim at HVAC Future

June 18, 2007


In the folklore of the old West, there are stories of cattle ranchers who, when facing the threat of cattle thievery, hired skilled, brash sharpshooters to protect their ranches and preserve their way of life. These bold people were often referred to as ‘young guns’ - people who were feared and respected for keeping the cattle ranch tradition alive in the Wild West.

It is now 2007 and another way of life is being threatened: the HVAC contracting business. While the rest of young America is pursuing new business opportunities brought about by the age of the Internet and peer pressures to succeed in high-paying, high-tech markets, the traditional service trades like HVAC are being left in the dust and the tumbleweeds, where businesses are owned and managed by a graying class of hard working people.

There are many more competitors out there for career-minded young people and the HVAC trade needs to replenish and refresh with a youthful face - or face some serious challenges. The future of the HVAC trade is going to be in the hands of today’s 25-35 year olds, and the future needs to be addressed now.

With that in mind, The NEWS set out to find some of the bright young guns of HVAC and ask what makes the trade so special to them. And just as important, to find out what the trade can do to attract similar individuals in the future. This series will break down the subject into the following segments:

• What makes a young person want to enter the HVAC trade?

• What makes a young person want to stay in the HVAC trade and make it a career?

• What can the HVAC trade do to make it more appealing as a career choice?

To be fair, there are a variety of reasons why young people enter the trade. For example, Malachi Salcido of The Salcido Connection Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., gave two good reasons for his choice.

“First, the industry is relatively stable in that the consumer does not view heating, air conditioning, or refrigeration as a luxury, but as a necessity,” he said. “Even in a down economy, consumers and businesses will forego other expenditures in favor of repairing or replacing a failed HVAC system.

“Second, the industry is growing rapidly. Every year I get more bullish on HVAC because the statistical data supports a greater need for the industry. There is more complexity, tighter ranges of comfort demanded by the consumer, tighter regulations on efficiencies from government, and a greater public interest in new technologies and how to utilize HVAC to become more efficient.”

WHY DO THESE YOUNG GUNS ENTER THE TRADE?

For many young guns, the decision to enter HVAC was an obvious one: they would be joining the family business.

“I entered the HVAC trade because my father owns and operates an HVAC company,” said Josh Poole of J.W. Poole Inc., Highstown, N.J.

“I literally grew up in the industry. I am a third generation HVAC contractor. Shortly after graduating from Rutgers University in 2004 with a B.A. in economics, I began working with my family’s company. I did this not only to carry on a family tradition, but because it would have been foolish not to take advantage of an opportunity of this magnitude - taking over an established, profitable small business.

“It is truly a family business, as my father, mother, brother, brother-in-law, aunt, and a group of employees I consider to be family, all work together, and I list that as a big reason for working here. It is also challenging to schedule and manage a project to be profitable. This challenge is very rewarding when the hard work and due diligence pays off in the end with profit for our family business.”

Several of the young guns who responded to this story attended college, searching for their own identity and career away from the family HVAC business. But they discovered that the grass was not always greener on the academic side. Case in point: Alana Ward of Baggett Heating & Cooling, Clarksville, Tenn. She just wanted to stay away from the family business, a small residential service and replacement company, but circumstances at the time led her into the company she would eventually own. The 28-year-old has no regrets.

Alana Ward, 28, owner of Baggett Heating & Cooling, is one of the many young guns of the HVAC trade who grew up in a family business. (Photo by Yvonne Chamberlain Photography.)

“After graduating from college with a B.A. in political science, I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up,” she said. “My father had recently terminated his bookkeeper and needed one, so I volunteered for the position until I could find something else to do. Six years has come and gone. The only thing I found is that I really enjoy and have a respect for this industry - and now I own the company.”

Like Ward, Jamie Gersden of Apollo Heating and Cooling, Cincinnati, Ohio, felt the need to test his wings somewhere else. He grew up in and around the family HVAC business but chose college first.

“When I graduated from college I worked in the corporate environment,” Gersden said. “I found that after eight years of traveling 30-plus weeks a year and selling products that were technology based (which I am not sure really helped anyone) I decided I wanted to move back to my hometown of Cincinnati to raise my family. I started to interview and prospect for opportunities. My father and I have always had a strong relationship, but I never really gave much thought to entering the business until we began to talk about it.

“I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. I was amazed to listen to how my father talked about the business, talking about how he had truly enjoyed helping people over the years and about the failures and successes he had. Most importantly, though, he talked about the industry and how much opportunity there was to be successful.

“Bottom line is I got into the HVAC trade because of the amazing opportunities that it provides. Prior to joining my father, I had worked for a technology business that went public. It sounds sexy, but in the end it was not sustainable. It became a nonentrepreneurial environment. HVAC is what you make it; it is a fountain of opportunity.”

For many young guns, the decision to enter HVAC had nothing to do with family obligations or pressure. They simply chose the trade for the opportunities and the challenges, and because it seemed to be the best decision at the time. For Jeffrey Lane of JTL Air Conditioning & Refrigeration, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., college was just not what he thought it would be.

Jason Putnam, 31, Vice President Operations & Business Development for Pro-Air Services, Inc., is a young gun who grew up learning the business from his father. (Photo by Mark Davis Photography.)

“I got into the trade really as a means to an end,” he said. “I was getting out of high school and needed money for bills and to save for college. I started with a friend’s company doing installs. As I went to college, I continued to do installs and worked my way up into service. At that point, I realized I could make a better living in the trade than I could with a college degree. In between my second and third year in college I got married and decided to make HVAC my new focus.”

The lure of a professional sports career turned the head of another young gun, Jeffrey Ford of Columbus/Worthington Air & Columbus Mechanical, Hilliard, Ohio. But he gave in to HVAC, too. “Coming out of high school my only thoughts were on playing professional baseball for a living,” he said. “My father, a two sport All-American athlete in college, was forced by his parents to get his education and think bigger picture. He was doing nothing more for me than what was done for him. He was able to convey to my twin brother and I the importance of getting an education and being prepared for life.

“A father of one of my close friends throughout high school had a local HVAC business. Because of our baseball careers, we traveled all over the United States and our parents would go with us. I became very interested in his stories about the trade and when I graduated from college, I made contact with him and sought a career in the HVAC industry. His passion for business and his desire to make people comfortable was the clincher for me. My passion for this industry has never been stronger than it is today.”

Many young people see the world through rose-colored glasses, provided by high school teachers or counselors who paint colorful pictures of high-paying careers in nontechnical fields. One man didn’t want to follow the crowd down the primrose path. He spent a lot of time observing.

“For whatever reason, my friends and I bucked the system as long as we could until one day we saw our friends leaving for college to become future millionaires as we were pumping gas, flipping burgers, or bagging groceries,” said Paul Lockhardt of Champaign Heating & Air, Champaign, Ill.

“I worked on cars all day and waited tables all night. I had to take responsibility for my own future so I started to pay more attention to what kind of car someone drove and how nice their house was. I then compared it to what they did for a living. I noticed most of the wait staff rented apartments and/or lived off student loans or mom and dad. Most automotive mechanics drove the biggest heaps of junk and lived in a shack or in a van down by the river.

“One day the steakhouse was having a new walk-in cooler installed and so I began drilling the HVAC technician. As they would come in to make repairs to other pieces of equipment we would talk about what they did and what they got paid to do it.

“Eventually I was offered the opportunity to sweep floors and help out around their shop; in exchange they would teach me the trade. I saw the advancement opportunities and the high demand for skilled workers. I always liked figuring out how something worked and loved the prospect of being the hero when someone had an emergency and needed help.”

Even though the HVAC trade gets painted with a wide stroke - being depicted as a trade that is best suitable for people who can’t cut it in college or the Fortune 500 world - that portrayal can sometimes be an advantage. Take Rich Morgan of Magic Touch Mechanical Inc., Gilbert, Ariz. Morgan parlayed his “troubled youth” roots into a successful HVAC career.

“I first became involved in the HVAC trade in 1988, at the age of 17,” he said. “At the time, I was on the verge of becoming a troubled youth. Fellow members of a church my family attended owned a large service company that offered HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and appliance services.

My parents made arrangements for me to get a job with the company as a laborer in an effort to keep me occupied and out of trouble. I had the opportunity to work with journeyman-level technicians in all of the four trades the company offered. I became extremely interested in pursuing the HVAC trade as I saw it as the most challenging of the four and greatly admired the knowledge of the journeymen technicians.

“As this was what is still today considered a very large service company, coupled with the fact that we serviced the New York City area and surrounding suburbs, I had the opportunity to work on a wide array of projects.

“From small residential service and installation, to 100-year-old cathedrals, to skyscrapers, I had the pleasure of learning the trade at a rapid pace from true craftsmen. I ultimately decided this was the right career path for me because it allowed me to work with both my hands and brains. There is a sense of accomplishment when you design, create, and implement a complete comfort system.”

One young gun had no connection to the HVAC trade before deciding to enter with both feet. He only knew about the trade via his grandfather. The real opportunity to enter the field came when he read an advertisement about an existing business for sale.

“I originally entered the HVAC trade because an opportunity presented itself with a small HVAC business for sale,” said Brent Marler of J&W Heating & Air, Jacksonville, Fla. “I remembered my grandfather who was an oil burner technician up north. He was a master of HVAC. With this legacy and the right business opportunity, I made the decision and bought J&W Heating and Air.

“My background was in the aviation engineering field; HVAC, customer service, and running a business were all new to me. I immediately welcomed the challenge to learn the trade quickly and keep the business running. There was no room for error. I had no choice but to get licensed and provide for my employees and client base. There was a lot of responsibility solely on my shoulders. All decisions were mine, right or wrong.”

The fabrication shop at The Salcido Connection, Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., run by young gun Malachi Salcido.

SO, WHY SHOULD ANYONE ENTER THE TRADE?

If the perception of the HVAC trade is one of hot attics and dirty crawlspaces, how is it that anyone would want to enter the trade, other than the young guns who work in the family business, stumble upon the HVAC trade, or discover its importance by working in it as youths? That is the $64,000 question (which to some young people would be an expected starting annual salary).

Jeffrey Ford said, “There is nothing ‘wow’ about the HVAC industry for young adults. Most young people have dreams of becoming a computer programmer/designer, or a doctor, or even perhaps an actor. There is nothing sexy about the HVAC industry in young people’s eyes. It is our job to make sure that these young people understand what our industry can offer them.

“We go to the trade schools, we communicate with the teachers of these young men and women, and we find out the skill sets of each and every student. This is the only way to groom someone from the very beginning.”

Eric Detmer of Detmer and Sons Inc., Fairborn, Ohio, said it is all about appealing to what young people like - technology. “I think the introduction of new technologies into the industry will help attract more young people,” he said.

“I have really pushed our company to modernize many facets of our company to keep up with the competition. I believe young people will be able to relate better to the technology aspects of our industry.”

Jeff Ford (right) and his brother Joe are young gun twins at the top of Columbus/Worthington Air, Hilliard, Ohio.

Jason Putnam of Pro-Air Services Inc., Decatur, Ala., an industrial-commercial contractor, likened his role in the business to Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds for young people who aren’t sure which profession to choose. But he knows there is a lot of competition.

“I have participated in our local community college job fair for three consecutive years,” he said. “It is hosted for the area’s local high school students. Initially, my company was the only contracting company participating. I was surrounded by mostly large industrial corporations, hospitals, Armed Forces, and research companies.

“The HVAC trade is a tough sell to high school kids. Everyone wants to be an engineer, lawyer, doctor, nurse or astronaut at that age. But I do know that someone standing in a suit sharing facts of labor shortages, technical challenges, and the ever-increasing demand for HVAC and refrigeration has caused some youngsters to join the field.

“I always say I am planting seeds. I have spoken at a local elementary school to also plant seeds at a young age. The school called and requested I come talk to the 6th graders. Funny, there were four of us who came back: a weatherman, lawyer, doctor, and me.”

Young guns acting as spokespeople for the trade could be the key to getting people to enter HVAC in the first place. It may be just a matter of dusting off the cowboy boots, cleaning up the 10-gallon hat, and shining up the holster. It’s all about grooming a changing HVAC image.

See the feature article “What Makes Young Guns Stay Loyal?” in this issue for more of the Young Guns series.

Sidebar: The Young Guns of HVAC

Some Young Guns are brought into the business by their families, even if it is the last place they thought they would end up. Alana Ward, Baggett Heating & Cooling, Clarksville, Tenn., at first wanted to stay away from her family’s small residential service and replacement company. But after graduating from college with a B.A. in political science, she volunteered for the bookkeeper position that was vacant at the time. Six years have come and gone and she now owns the company. Jason Putnam of Pro-Air Services Inc., Decatur, Ala., began as an apprentice with his father’s HVAC company. He had no intention of making HVAC his career but he began to see the real opportunities in HVAC and decided this was the place to be. In his own words, he has “worn many hats on the route to vice president of operations and business development.”

Carmine Giammarino, lead warehouse person, stops to chat with Amanda Jensen.

Sidebar: What Almost Wasn't

Amanda Jensen did not want to go into HVAC. The 24-year-old office manager and bookkeeper of her family business, Air Control Air Conditioning of Lake Havasu, Ariz., said she was prepared to become an insurance auditor after her graduation from college. But a long talk with her dad, the owner of the business, finally turned her head. She’s glad it happened.

“I would not have been interested in the HVAC trade had it not been for the family business,” she said. “That is really hard for me to say because I truly do enjoy this field so much, but I honestly don’t think that I would have been involved in the trade otherwise. I grew up around this trade and, as strange as it sounds, I didn’t want to work in this field until I actually did work in it. Even as the daughter of a business owner I had misconceptions about it.

“Before I actually committed to my post-college job I had a long conversation with my dad. By the end of my conversation, I had decided that I was going to turn down my job and move home for a couple of months. I made my dad promise me that I was only going to work for him for a couple of months. Two years later, I’m still working for him in the family business and couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.”

Jensen said that her initial misconception about the HVAC field was a reason for wanting to stay out of the family business. It’s a misconception shared by many others outside of the trade. “I didn’t realize how sophisticated this trade really can be. Sure, there are still the lower-end spectrum companies but all-in-all the movement of the trade is in the right direction.

“It’s such an exciting field. However, I really don’t think that the trade portrays that image.”

Speaking of portraying an exciting image, Jensen believes the HVAC trade needs to twist this image into one which will be exciting for young women, too.

“I think that the industry needs to do more self-promotion to attract women to the HVAC industry,” she said. “Unfortunately, I think more women aren’t in this industry because of the misconceptions that this trade still carries. I grew up around the HVAC trade but it took actually working in the trade to realize that it isn’t all about “turning the wrenches” as my father would say.

“I also believe that the industry needs to continue to improve its image in order to attract more young people and more women. The women in this trade should become spokeswomen for the trade. They should join clubs, organizations, etc. to promote the trade and its benefits. I truly believe that the opportunities that the HVAC field can offer to women are in the hands of the women themselves.

Jensen said she is extremely happy with her career. From something she described as a “pit stop” to work for her parents, she soon realized how much opportunity there is in the field. “Not only could I apply all the different things I had learned from my college business classes but I was really given the opportunity to use my accounting degree as well,” she said. “If you’re running your business right, this field is such a highly sophisticated industry, it really is amazing.

“I truly believe that the opportunities for my personal growth in this industry are limitless. I also really, really want to become a spokesperson for this industry and the benefits it can offer.”

With her attitude, Jensen should be fielding speaking offers soon.

Publication date: 06/18/2007