Promoting Careers, Not Just Jobs

January 26, 2009
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Brian Otte, general manager of Neal Harris Service Experts, keeps a watchful eye over his company’s business practice. (Feature photos by Matt Frye.)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Employees of Neal Harris Service Experts of Kansas City know before they walk in the door on their first day that they have a career in HVAC already mapped out and waiting for them if they choose to go for it.

“I believe our employees enjoy the opportunities granted to them as an employee at Neal Harris,” said Brian Otte, general manager. “These opportunities are in both professional growth and financial growth. We spend a great deal of time working on the technical abilities of all of our field employees, and reward our employees based on their productivity. This has resulted in minimal turnover and career paths for our employees not often seen in our industry.”

Recently Jared Sowers, an installer with only a year or so of experience, has gone from helper to just having won the Regional Installer SAM competition hosted by Service Experts, and is now on his way to the national SAM Award playoffs in February. Sowers has only a few years in the trade and yet his development has led him to a national championship. “If anything points to our employee’s opportunity for growth, it is the example of Jared Sowers,” said Otte.

Success stories like this contribute to a mutual respect between employees and management and have created a nurturing as well as family-like atmosphere. “My co-workers are like family to me,” said Tina Hamilton, customer service manager. “We all work hard to a common goal; namely being able to say at the end of the day that ‘we helped someone.’ I get to talk with customers that have used us for 10, 15 or 20 years. That speaks for itself.”

Neal Harris employees have a chance to grow and develop their professional skills. The company prefers to hire people new to the trade and train them in their own way of doing business. “That way of doing the business is a customer-focused, problem solving approach where a quality experience for the customer is not only going to generate revenue now, but also in the future as the customer will be glad to have us back,” said David Hinkley, human resources manager. “More repeat business is job security.

“Our commitment to quality is demonstrated with our commitment to NATE certification for all eligible employees. Neal Harris was the first to take on NATE certification in Kansas City.”

(From left) Lori Myers, accounting manager and Jessica Brown, HR/payroll administrator keep the bookwork flowing smoothly at Neal Harris Service Experts.

THE BENEFITS OF HARD WORK

Goal setting is very important for monetary and professional advancement. Hard work to achieve these goals can lead to a very rewarding career at Neal Harris Service Experts. Hinkley explained that most goals are personal development goals along with some performance-setting objectives. The goals are reviewed mid-year and again at year-end. New employees are also reviewed at 90 days, six months, one year, 18 months, and annually thereafter.

“But these reviews alone don’t drive wages,” said Hinkley. “We encourage our employees to grow with a wage system that is not built on an arbitrary system and review, but rather in evaluating each person’s individual performance and development. Each field employee is measured by how much revenue they generate against the number of hours they work to produce it. This ‘dollar per hour’ ratio tells us how much we can pay a tech based on what portion of our revenue dollars can be made up of labor and remain profitable.

“The company likes giving out raises because they know it is the result of generation of revenue not obscure wage ranges or fixed rates. We also reward employees with numerous commission and bonus opportunities, contests, and profit sharing. The employee shares in the company’s success always.”

Success means doing things the right way and that philosophy transcends to employees like service technician Sean Schaefer. “My teacher in school told me this was a great place to train, and I wanted a place that would help me learn to do things the right way,” he said.

Doing things the right way does not happen overnight. Otte knows that experience sets his management team apart from other companies. “Employees enjoy coming to work each day because of the management staff we have assembled,” he said. “Most of our management team has worked their way into management while at Neal Harris. They treat all of the employees with respect, relate to their day-to-day issues, and are a great resource for the employees. The support staff at Neal Harris is second to none, and truly sets us apart from our competitors.”

(From left) Terry Pellant, commercial sales, Owen Faulkner, sales manager, and Brian Otte, general manager, discuss the day’s business at Neal Harris Service Experts.

IT STARTS AT THE TOP

Whether Neal Harris Service Experts would have won the Best Contractor award without Otte’s leadership is open to debate. But his presence and guidance have made his company a leader in the HVAC service and replacement market in the Kansas City area. Otte’s background had him well prepared for this leadership role.

“The single biggest change that has taken our company forward in the last few years was a change in management,” said Hinkley. “In 2006, Brian was brought into our center as the new general manager. Coming in with substantial experience in turning companies around, he took what we were and made us better. Much better. His magic? Leadership. He is a dynamic leader poised with a team of core people who already believed in quality. This was a recipe for success.”

Otte said it wasn’t easy at first. He said when he took over his position, it was obvious to him the company had some serious morale issues. “Turnover was high, productivity was down, and employees simply were not happy when coming to work,” he said. “My number one task was to gain the trust and respect of the employees. To do this, I had to spend my quality time with the management staff, and the field employees. In 2006 we turned the corner, and 2007 and 2008 have been the best ever years in terms of financial performance in our 60-year history.”

Otte’s own soft-skill training has given him the confidence to communicate freely with his employees and encourage their professional growth.

“When Brian first came to the company he wanted a Neal Harris system installed in his own home and asked me and my helper to put it in,” said Mike McEntire, a home comfort advisor and former installer.

“I was shocked that out of all our techs he would ask me. Brian told me, ‘I heard you were the best.’ The day of the install he came to his home in the evening and joined up with us downstairs. He sat down and talked to us like one of the guys and at that point my helper and I both knew he was a great guy and he would do great things for our company.”

Mark Hayward, warehouse manager for Neal Harris Service Experts, loads equipment for a job into one of the company’s service vans. The contractor keeps an ample supply of Lennox equipment, its primary product line, on hand.

NO SEASONALITY CONCERNS

Since the HVAC service and replacement business is heavily dependent on temperature extremes, it is tough for some contractors to keep their employees busy year round. Not so at Neal Harris Service Experts.

The company guarantees a steady workload by maintaining a substantial maintenance agreement base. It has more than 10,000 residences in the greater Kansas City area on service agreements. Some are multi-system homes, creating about 28,000 tune-ups a year to do in moderate weather. “We also have several marketing plans on the shelf to market tune-ups as soon as work slackens,” said Hinkley.

But steady employment does not include burnout schedules either. The company is large enough to facilitate on-call rotation, which never leaves a tech on for more than a day or two at a time. Neal Harris Service Experts has opened up on weekends and has late day (10 a.m. to 7 p.m.) normal schedules, minimizing the amount of time during the evening the company needs to cover on call.

“I love the challenges this industry brings us and how our company works to take the ‘seasonal’ out of a seasonal business,” said Lori Myers, accounting manager. “Although you would think my job was constant, I always feel challenged and don’t have periods where I feel stagnant or bored because of how we work to constantly improve processes and technology.”

That is music to the ears of Brian Otte, who depends on his employees for their contributions to the company’s success. “My job is to ensure we make the most of every opportunity, and to create a work environment where all employees are heard,” he said. “I learned a long time ago that the best ideas are those of my employees, so I spend most of my day listening to them, and implementing plans based on their ideas.”

Just the Facts: Best Contractor To Work For

CONTRACTOR: Neal Harris Service Experts

GENERAL MANAGER: Brian Otte

LOCATION: Kansas City, MO

YEARS IN BUSINESS: 58

BULK OF MARKET: Residential service and replacement

TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 85

TOTAL SERVICE TECHNICIANS AND INSTALLERS: 65

AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: 41 plus

BENEFITS BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: Provide NATE study materials, NATE classes, and pay for the NATE exams; a full-line cafeteria program for employee benefits including a tax savings plan through the 125c for Child and Elder Care expenses; Spectera Vision Care, $10,000 base life insurance and supplemental life insurance of one through five times annual salary, choice of two levels of dependent life coverage, short- and long-term disability, employee assistance plan, tool purchase account, uniform service, Fidelity 401(k) Retirement Plan, employee discounts on goods and services, employee logo wear at a substantial discount.

INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION AND CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERS: Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA); Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC); and National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI).

THE NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: General Manager Brian Otte believes that by giving his employees the best tools to succeed, he has created an atmosphere of learning, personal growth, and strong bonds. This atmosphere has led to a renewed and invigorated professional attitude that has carried Neal Harris Service Experts to the top of its class in the Kansas City market and has resulted in strong revenue growth.

Publication date: 01/26/2009

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