Putting Its Stock In People

January 11, 2002
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Bill Murdy (far right) credits the company's people for Comfort Systems USA's improved earnings.
HOUSTON, TX — While the ceo’s of many publicly traded companies are reeling from dismal economic news over the past year, the leader of one of the hvacr industry’s largest companies continues to report improved earnings and positive cash flow.

Bill Murdy has been breaking the mold and exceeding expectations since assuming the top job at Comfort Systems USA just over a year ago. So it came as little surprise when he recently announced a litany of positive financial news for the five-year-old company, as well as the introduction of a new Hvac Access and Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Initiative.

The official announcements, which came within two days of each other, were aimed at two distinctly different audiences. The earnings release, targeted to the financial community, focused on how Comfort Systems USA had, over the past year, achieved higher profits and better margins on every line of its income statement. It also showed reduced selling, general, and administrative expenses and a sixth consecutive quarter of positive free cash flow.

The release on Hvac Access and IAQ was designed to help large commercial and government office buildings, entertainment venues, and health care facilities deal with the potential threat of bio- or chemical agent terrorism through hvac systems. Both announcements were similar in that they showed how Murdy, a graduate of the West Point Military Academy and a Vietnam War veteran who got an MBA between his two tours, is steering the company toward business success in an otherwise troubled time.

LEADING THE TROOPS

“Bill Murdy is the kind of ceo you want leading your troops, especially in a tough economic climate,” said senior vice president Bob Boscamp. “He came here when we were still a relatively fragmented organization, and is helping transform our approximately 125 operating locations and 11,000 employees into a unified, high-performing and operationally focused team.”

Boscamp recalled how, during one of his initial meetings with Murdy, the new ceo relayed some of his experiences in the military and in prior challenging business situations.

“I knew then he was the kind of leader we needed,” said Boscamp. “Besides having a good sense of vision and strategy, he also is willing to get into the trenches with his people and do what needs to be done.”

MAKING CHANGES

When joining Comfort Systems USA, Murdy took on the potentially wrenching task of divesting the company of under-performing companies or those not directly aligned with core competencies. He also began several cost-cutting initiatives, a move that often pits new leaders against an organization’s old guard. But instead of finding roadblocks or battling dissension, Murdy found most employees receptive to change.

“I spent most of my first six months on the road, and learned that we had a fixable business model and the right people at the operating level. The company’s founding leadership had pulled together some of the best-managed and most experienced contractors in the business to build Comfort Systems USA,” said Murdy. “We needed to bring those entities together as a smoothly functioning operating company with a common vision.”

Murdy is the first to say he’s not responsible for the company’s improving results — Comfort Systems USA’s people are. And behind them, he notes, is a strong vision based on firm values, including integrity, honesty, respect, and teamwork. Murdy’s role is to model those values and articulate the company’s vision.

“People are what makes it happen,” he said. “We want to develop them, reward them, and celebrate their accomplishments. And in addition to people, you have to value teamwork. Because that’s what this business is all about — collaboration, cooperation and communication — all the things that come from quality people building solutions.”

TEAMWORK TO THE RESCUE

It didn’t take Murdy long to discover that teamwork was the magic, albeit sometimes missing, ingredient that could rescue the company from the malaise it was beginning to feel in the summer of 2000. At the time, stock prices had plummeted not just at Comfort Systems USA, but among virtually all consolidators in a variety of industries.

Margins had declined as a result of continued labor cost and availability difficulties, as well as pricing pressure in certain markets. Some were beginning to question whether the consolidation model made sense, and whether Comfort Systems USA could survive the transition from building the company to operating it.

Murdy, whose more than 25 years of business experience includes holding top leadership posts at several companies, was confident from the start that, with effort and focus, Comfort Systems USA would succeed. He says his confidence hasn’t been misplaced.

“It’s all about people and helping them realize their potential,” he said. “That’s my job and the job of every leader. We have to coach, challenge, and champion our people. When we do that, we find that people are even better than what they thought was their best. And the company becomes better as a result.”

Publication date: 01/14/2002

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